Bad Advice For Good Writers



Today, believe it or not, I'm sponsored by an online grammar checker that I tried out and was very impressed with ... after all, one good writing rule is that you have to know the rules before you break them. So I use Grammarly for proofreading because somebody has to know what they're doing -- and judging from the mistakes they turned up, it's sure as heck not me.



SLIGHTLY OFF THE MARK


            I’ve been invited to be the guest of honor at a writer’s group. In their defense, they don’t know me all that well.

            On October 16th, at 6:30 p.m. in the Peabody Public Library in Columbia City, I have to pretend that (from a writing career standpoint) I know what I’m doing. It’s daunting, to be asked to lie that much.

            Oh, I know what I’m doing from the standpoint of actually writing … forty years of experience will do that. It’s the career part. Have you ever seen one of those movies were some idiot bumbles his way through a series of misadventures, and in the end beats the bad guys and wins the girl by complete accident? That’s how my career developed.

            I’m the Larry The Cable Guy of writing.

            Still, there should be some advice I can give. You know, like “wear clean underwear”, except for writers. How about, “Wear padded underwear: You’ll be sitting a lot.”

Okay, let’s see what I can come up with.

            First and easiest, let me steal a clich├ęd but all-too-true truism. A true truism is like a false truism, only it’s not from Congress:

            There are three rules that, if followed, will guarantee your success as a writer.

            Unfortunately, no one knows what those rules are.

            The problem is that different paths work for different people. Some writers sprint to success, going straight to the finish line without detour. Well, a few writers. Very few.

            Some writers plod along in a marathon, steadily writing their way forward until they finally make enough money to quit their day jobs, usually a year or two after they retire from their day jobs.

            Some writers go the slalom route. That’s a race in which you head toward the finish line but never quite go straight at it: Instead you weave back and forth, going off on tangents and around completely different places before you finally reach the finish line almost by accident.

            Outside of sports, we call that flailing.

            I flailed. To give you an idea of how much I flailed, I started off as a science fiction short story writer, and headed straight forward until I got my first paid writing job—as a non-fiction humor columnist. Then I published a romantic comedy. Then I finally sold a book of short stories, but none were science fiction. Then I released a history book.

            To this day I still haven’t sold a science fiction short story.

            Might I suggest you, as a writer, skip the slaloms? Shoot for a long distance race, and consider yourself lucky if you get a writing contract before you reenter the stadium. I have no idea where all these sports analogies come from … I haven’t watched a sporting event since the 1992 Olympics.

            As a humor writer, people often ask me what the trick is to writing stuff that makes people laugh. I have a simple answer:

            I don’t know.

            Humor is so subjective … well, let me give you an example. Put a bunch of people in a room and have them watch three movies: The Three Stooges, How Harry Met Sally, and A Christmas Story. Then tell them to get together and agree on which is funny, and why.

            Within half an hour you’ll have a riot.

            Humor is like pornography: You know it when you see it, even if no one else agrees on what it is. Heaven knows I’ve studied it in detail. Humor, I mean.

            When it comes to writing, deadlines are good. A lot of writers love to have written, but they don’t like to write. They’ll do anything to avoid writing: clean the toilet, the grout, the oven. Then, at the end of the day, the pages won’t magically appear and they’ll kick themselves for having a dust-free home right out of a 50’s sitcom. A clean house is a wasted life, people.

            The best thing that ever happened to me was getting a weekly humor column, because it put me on a deadline. I write the equivalent of a novel every year. And if I can write one novel in a year, I can write two.

            Did I mention not giving up your day job? Don’t do that. If the time comes when you make enough money writing to think about it, think about this: You have to make enough to live on, and replace any benefits your old job might have given you—like insurance. Vacation days? You don’t have those anymore. Sick days? You’ve got a deadline, fella. Retirement plan? Writing is my retirement plan.

            Many writers stress out over how many words they turn out in a day. For most, a thousand words is a good day. In my younger days I’ve done ten thousand in a day once or twice, although I had to have therapy afterward. But last week I turned out 2,500 words in three hours to finish a novella, and it took me two days to recover.

            That’s not the hard part of writing. If you’re any good at all, for every hour you spend writing, you’ll spend three times or more editing and polishing. Someday you’ll hear a successful writer say they never edit. They’re lying.

            Then, just as you conclude editing is the hardest part of writing, you’ll produce a beautiful finished product … and you’ll have to sell it. There, especially for those writers who are introverts (like me and most of the rest), you’ll finally learn the hardest part of writing.

            And my final piece of advice to the writer: Wear black. Why? Because it marks our dark, creative personalities? Nah.

            Because it’s slimming.

            Listen, when you work eight hours in some office cubicle, then go home and pound away at a 
keyboard for five more hours, all while sipping power drinks and reaching into the drawer where you keep the snack of your choice, you’re going to need slimming.

            That might be the best advice of all.

8 comments:

  1. Thanks Mark. I think you're funny and fortunately my suicidal tendencies are under control.

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    1. Well, I think the second part of your statement is the most important part!

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  2. We all know When Harry Met Sally wins that hands down. The Stooges just aren't funny, and anytime the picture of that kid from A Christmas Story (now an adult) turns up in an ad for an airing at that time of year... I find myself wishing someone would toss him off a cliff.

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    1. I watched a Stooges movie a few months ago, the first in about twenty years, and lo and behold -- they weren't as funny as I remembered. No great shock.

      However, I greatly disagree about A Christmas Story. It was an instant classic to me, and that's not a term I use lightly. However, that can be partially explained when you know I grew up just a couple of hours from where that movie is set ... and even though my childhood was 20 years later, the similarities are amazing. I was nodding my head all the way through it.

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  3. Great advice for all writers. I believe in just writing whichever way suits you best. Sadly, it's the editing that brings me down.

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    1. It's the editing that brings everyone down!

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  4. Marketing is my bane. Living in a small town area without real bookstores is another. I don't think the Stooges funny either, but my daughter always has. Different types of humor appeal to different people. Unfortunately, my humor is usually really different.

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    1. I kind of like all those movies, but while one is funny and another makes me feel nostalgic, The Three Stooges didn't age well at all.

      I think it's safe to say that many, if not most, writers hate marketing. I wish I'd pushed myself harder back in the 80's, when publishers tended to handle most of that chore!

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