Recently, while offering advice to a young friend, I blathered to a halt and recalled advice offered to me when I was growing up. I didn’t ask for most of it, but that never stopped adults from handing it out. It seemed almost as if spouting words of wisdom and/or warning was a requirement for being a parent or grandparent, aunt, uncle, or friend of the family.
Some advice made sense. (Take along an umbrella if it looks like rain. Don’t dive into a stream until you know where the rocks are. Don’t play with snakes with triangular heads. Don’t pet skunks.)
Some I didn’t see the logic for until I was older. (Always keep a fund of walking-away money. Learn to drive a stick shift. Be careful who you step on as you go up the ladder, because you might meet them when you come down.)
And some seemed suspicious and unreliable—then and now. (Never go out in old or torn underwear because you might be in a car accident. Clean your plate because people in India or China or Africa are starving. Always respect your elders.) I regularly pondered questions like: Would doctors and nurses pause in their efforts to save me in order to comment on the sad state of my undies? If I ate more, how would that help a hungry person in another country? Did I have to respect criminals and disgraced politicians simply because they were older?
When I started taking writing classes in the early 90s, I got an avalanche of fresh advice. My mentors explained the logic for bits of wisdom they dished out, but I soon discovered that every writer walks a different path. What works for one, might not work for another. So, while I took advice about the importance of characterization, plot, and trimming dead language, I ignored several other snippets.
Here are some suggestions I considered and discarded.
Set a daily word-count goal and stick to it. No excuses. I like goals and I love meeting them, but I knew there would be days when I couldn’t crank out enough words to hit the mark. I also knew I’d try to make up for that “failure” and put too much pressure on myself. I decided I would write at least five days a week, but write only what I could, not what I “had to.” Sometimes that’s 3,000 words. Sometimes it’s 300.
Don’t start writing until you have a complete outline. If I adhered to this piece of advice I’d have exactly NO novels in print. Having been chastised in elementary school for getting my Roman numerals and capital letters in all the wrong places, the thought of outlining makes my stomach clench and my creativity go AWOL. Give me a pack of file cards and I recover and start plotting.
Know everything about your characters before you begin. My characters have a way of growing and changing as they come into contact with others. Emotion, conflict, and a need to take action have an impact. Characters may be altered in ways I couldn’t foresee in the plotting stage. So, I establish basic physical characteristics, a bit of back story, and a few notes about their unique outlooks and voices. Then I go for it and see what they’ll say and do.
Over-the-top characters won’t sell. Hmmm. Tell that to Carl Hiaasen or Tim Dorsey. As a reader, I don’t much care for mundane characters with blah lives, so I no longer hold my characters back—except to keep them from tossing the F-bomb.
Write what you know. What I know is that I don’t know much. Writing only what I know would be a limiting experience. So I altered that advice to: “Write what you can imagine. But do research.”
How about you?
What advice have you taken or rejected, cherished or laughed at, passed on or passed over?
Carolyn J. Rose is the author of the popular Subbing isn’t for Sissies series (No Substitute for Murder, No Substitute for Money, No Substitute for Maturity, and No Substitute for Myth), as well as the Catskill Mountains mysteries (Hemlock Lake, Through a Yellow Wood, and The Devil’s Tombstone). Other works include An Uncertain Refuge, Sea of Regret, A Place of Forgetting, and projects written with her husband, Mike Nettleton (The Hard Karma Shuffle, The Crushed Velvet Miasma, Drum Warrior, Death at Devil’s Harbor, Deception at Devil’s Harbor, and the short story collection Sucker Punches).
She grew up in New York’s Catskill Mountains, graduated from the University of Arizona, logged two years in Arkansas with Volunteers in Service to America, and spent 25 years as a television news researcher, writer, producer, and assignment editor in Arkansas, New Mexico, Oregon, and Washington. She’s now a substitute teacher in Vancouver, Washington, and her interests are reading, swimming, walking, gardening, and NOT cooking. http://www.deadlyduomysteries.com