5 Misconceptions About Writing That I Used to Believe

5 Misconceptions About Writing That I Used to Believe

5 Misconceptions About Writing That I Used to BelieveAre we modern-day writers lucky or what? We enjoy unprecedented access to the wisdom of all the writers who have gone before us. I’m not kidding. the wealth of excellent information at our fingertips is insane. But you don’t get nothing for nothing, and the something we’re exchanging for all this great advice is a pretty hefty load of misconceptions about writing.

Just about every writer I know, myself included, has gone through an early period of hair-yanking frustration, in which we were trying to kneel and learn at the feet of the masters, but they kept giving us advice that:

a) we hated.

b) we didn’t understand.

c) we just plain couldn’t make work.

Hence, the almost universal phase called Writers Against the Stupid Rules Because They Obviously Don’t Work.

But the problem isn’t with “the rules.” Like I said, there’s so much great writing advice out there, you could fill your pool and swim in it (after you become rich and famous and have a pool, of course). The problem is two-fold.

1. On the one hand, there is certainly some very bad advice floating around out there—some of it from very excellent and respected writers.

2. And then, on the other hand, there’s perfectly good advice that doesn’t always mean what it seems to mean, and which new writers notoriously misunderstand and religiously apply in all the wrong ways.

Both are equally dangerous.

5 of the Sneakiest Misconceptions About Writing

Today, I want to look back at some of the most insidious misconceptions about writing that I have fallen prey to during my career, so you, in turn, can avoid getting sucked into their undertow.

1. Write What You Know (aka, Have an Adventurous, Amazing Life—or Else)

“Write what you know” has almost become the poster child for abused and misused writing advice.

On the surface, it’s solid. After all, how can you write what you don’t know? And yet, when writers first hear this simple little line, you can usually see them deflate. “You mean I have to throw all the dragons and dukes and debutantes out of my story?”

A few of us may well lead extraordinary lives. A few of us may want to relive those extraordinary lives on the page (perhaps even in memoir). But most of us are admittedly prosaic. We make eggs for breakfast, do the laundry, mow the lawn, take the dog out, watch Netflix serials, and go to bed. Every so often, maybe we’re lucky enough to journey far away and have adventures on a tour bus or get sunburned hiking a national monument. But even that isn’t exactly dragons and dukes and debutantes, is it?

Honestly, “write what you know” has got to be one of the dumbest bits of advice ever conceived. No doubt it was intended as a well-meaning prodding toward proper research. But that’s not what it sounds like. What it sounds like is: stop with all the imaginary flights of fancy, grow up, and do write about serious and important things.

Thanks very much, but no thanks.

Believe This Instead:

The irony here is that the reason any of us becomes a writer is thanks to an incredibly rich inner life that grants us an incredibly rich perception of the outer world. Our commitment shouldn’t be writing what we know, but rather to knowing as much as possible.

In her “5 Bits of Writing Advice,” P.D. James gave writers a much better idea to live up to:

Open your mind to new experiences, particularly to the study of other people. Nothing that happens to a writer—however happy, however tragic—is ever wasted.

2. Never Consciously Apply Theme

The idea here is that theme is supposed to find you, rather than the other way around. If you’re really a writer of any worth, you’ll prove it by being able to airily and effortlessly float to through the metaphysical land of Deep, Meaningful, and (Always, Always, Always) Abstract Philosophies. You must be so deep in this place of spiritual genius that your theme wells up from your narrative like oil from Texas. And when it does, you’re more shocked than anyone: “My, who could ever have guessed that’s what this story was really about?”

Honestly, in the beginning, when I was first informed that the only way to approach theme was not to approach it, I about had a panic attack. The only way to be brilliant was not only to not try to be brilliant but to not know anything about being brilliant? Okay, sure, anything you say, Mr. Writing Expert, sir.

Now, I say: BUH-lo-nee.

Granted, theme is one of the highest of high concepts in writing. It’s hard to do right, and very easy to do wrong in a way that comes across as on the nose and preachy. It’s no wonder some writers—even masterful writers—are scared of it. They let their subconscious do all the heavy lifting, never looking straight at the subject, and just hoping and praying it’s all going to turn out.

Maybe it’ll turn out, maybe not.

Believe This Instead:

The idea that you can’t consciously and logically approach and create your theme is not only wrong, it’s crippling. Theme joins with plot and character to create the trifecta foundation of all stories. You deliberately work on your plot and character, don’t you? So why would you leave that third leg of your foundation out in the cold?

The reason this bit of advice gets perpetuated is because when you create plot and character, you’re also creating theme, whether you realize it or not. This is why writers discover themes “effortlessly” arising from their stories. They were working on it all the time; they just didn’t realize it.

But how much better to bring poor Brother Theme in out of the dark and give him a place at the table? When you’re able to create plot, character, and theme in concert, all three elements are all the stronger and more cohesive. You lose nothing by approaching theme deliberately. You only enhance your ability to portray it adroitly.

3. You Can’t Be Logical About Writing

Lie That Tells a Truth John DufresneYou hear this one all the time. It comes in a variety of forms, everything from “rules can’t govern art” to “outlining will kill your creativity” to “your inner editor is plotting to assassinate you in your sleep.” We hear it all the way from on high, from some of the greatest writers of our time, so of course we have to believe it, right? In his nearly classic writing book The Lie That Tells a Truth, John Dufresne has this to say:

If you’re having trouble, that means you’re thinking. You’re being logical, critical.

Sounds totally reasonable, right? Except, according to this, we’re not supposed to be reasonable. It sounds like we’re supposed to throw our logical, analytical left brains out the window. After all, those infernal internal editors of ours just cause so many problems. They make us miserable.

That’s why (as I sometimes tease) we tie them up and lock them in the closet while we write. Everything just becomes so much easier and more intuitive when we run on instinct instead of logic.

Believe This Instead:

That’s true enough as far as it goes. Writers must rely on intuition, creativity, the subconscious, and what I call the writer’s greatest weapon: gut instinct.

But that’s only half the arsenal necessary to write good stories. If you chuck the other half of your brain, the best case scenario is that you have to work twice as hard to achieve your full potential.

Barring logic from the writing process is not the answer. Rather, you must learn to harmonize creativity and logic into a perfectly synchronized piston, pushing and pulling, giving and taking, at every moment of the process, to give you both the power of creativity and the precision of logic.

What Dufresne is really recommending is to avoid overthinking. Don’t use your brain to the exclusion of your imagination. But don’t go so far in the other direction that you become incapable of looking at the (very logical) equation of story and using your analytical conscious brain to recognize and correct problems.

4. You Have to Be Either a Plotter or a Pantser

I gravitated to outlining almost from the beginning (although I didn’t develop the full-blown outlining process I now use until I started my sixth novel, Behold the Dawn). Like many writers, I just intuitively knew which camp my brain fit into: the logical and patient plotters versus the spontaneous and innovative pantsers (aka writers who “write by the seat of their pants,” or without an outline).

But, oh boy, I had no idea the firestorm I was walking into. I soon discovered both these camps were adamant their way was the only right way to create art. I fired my own round of bullets in this war, before nobly taking the high moral ground of pacifistic tolerance: “Everybody’s got to do it their own way. No one way is better than the other. There is no one road to proper storytelling.”

Believe This Instead:

I still believe that. What I don’t believe anymore is that there is actually such a thing as a “plotter” or a “pantser.” Even though writers certainly fall into general categories of right- or left-brain approaches to the writing process, we’re only distracting ourselves from true productivity with this idea that every writer must be either a plotter or a pantser. Or, you know, a plantser—just to make sure we include all of you lonelies who don’t get to play with the rest of us in one of our exclusive clubs.

Except… are you the lonelies? Or are you the ones who really understand how things work?

I have come to believe we’re all plantsers. We all plot; we all pants. We all use our logical brains; we all use our spontaneous imaginations. Yep, even me—and you don’t get much more outline-y than my fat, in-depth outlines.

Plotting and pantsing are not exclusionary approaches. Rather, they are both necessary tools for bringing our fictional visions to life. By trying to box our processes into comforting camps of camaraderie, we may actually be stunting our ability to use the full range of available techniques.

5. You Must Write Fast

I still remember reading the following bit of advice from no less than Stephen King:

The first draft of a book—even a long one—should take no more than three months, the length of a season.

I probably turned a little pale, maybe even felt a little sick to my stomach. I know I definitely squirmed. I’ve never written a book in three months in my life. I wrote my 1920s aviation-adventure novel Storming in something like five months, but that was just the first draft; that didn’t count the other five months of outlining.

Still, this speedy approach to writing has obviously served King and other bestselling writers well.

Indeed, if you start investigating the habits of those authors lucky enough to be part of the “boom” of legitimately successful indie novelists, the one thing you almost invariably find is an incredible output of work—at least a book a year, perhaps even a book a month.

Believe This Instead:

I’ve been a hustler all my life. I run 110 mph all day, every day, the speedometer needle always in the red, churning out checkmarks for my to-do list at a crazy rate. But interestingly enough, not with my fiction. My fiction I write slow and steady. The very thought of having to speed it up slays me (and not in the good way).

This year, I’ve been learning some hard lessons about the destructiveness of “hustle” in general, learning how to take better care of myself, to slow down and enjoy the journey of life. But the thing I find particularly interesting is that the only area of my life in which I didn’t have to learn this lesson also just happened to be the most important area of my life: my writing.

Instinctively, I somehow realized from the beginning that forcing myself to up productivity on my fiction would destroy my enjoyment and fulfillment in the process. It’s perhaps the only area of my life in which I (mercifully) intuited that productivity is not the point.

So what is the point? Well, honestly, that depends on the writer. For me, I’d say the point is undeniably the journey itself—the exploration, the evolution, the experience. This isn’t to say there’s anything wrong with writing fast. If that’s the speed you run at, slowing yourself down may prove just as destructive for you as undue speed would for me.

What’s important to realize is that what works for Stephen King won’t necessarily work for me and what works for me won’t necessarily work for you. You must be honest and brave enough to find your own path to fulfillment and success in your writing.

***

Writing misconceptions are just part of the game. We can’t avoid them. We can’t blame other well-meaning (and sometimes just misunderstood) authors for trying to share what’s worked for them. But we must be aware of the truth behind every statement.

Get into the habit of doing a gut-check on everything you’re told about the writing process. Be warned that just because you don’t like a bit of advice doesn’t mean it’s not true. But if something someone says (even if she’s your favorite author ever) has you squirming and turning a little green, take note of the cognitive dissonance you’re experiencing.

Don’t try to assimilate advice just because someone says it with conviction. Use your own experiences and understanding to collect the bits that work for you and to incorporate them into your own process in the most meaningful way.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What are some of the misconceptions about writing you’ve struggled with and overcome? Tell me in the comments!

Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in iTunes).

Sign Up Today

hwba sidebar pic

Sign up to receive K.M. Weiland’s monthly e-letter and receive her free e-book Crafting Unforgettable Characters: A Hands-On Introduction to Bringing Your Characters to Life.

About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. ShennonDoah says:

    The more I write and the more I research how to write, I better understand my style and how to improve it. K.M., your advice and books have been of utmost assistance to me. I can’t wait to complete my WIP and to share how much I’ve learned. Thanks for all your help!

  2. Loved this article. I enjoy reading about other authors’ motivations and methods just because I can glean insights from each of them, often when facing various challenges of time and family life. As well as checking in on here regularly (I love your love of writing) I look forward to the Saturday write up in The Guardian
    ‘My Writing Day’. They have a great variety of different authors and their approaches are so different – always something to make you feel better about your own habits!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Glad you’re enjoying the posts! And, yes, I find it endlessly valuable to read other writers’ thoughts on the process. Even if I don’t find all of them useful, there’s always *something* to be gleaned.

  3. I think “write what you know” doesn’t reflect your physical experiences, but your mental ones. It’s good advice for someone who’s a little lost. Write what you know about despair, joy, how it feels to be waiting for a bit of important news… For some, first writing what they HAVE experienced might give them the confidence to go out and imagine internal situations they have never been in.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      True, but “write what you know” goes beyond even this. For example, not all of us have yet experienced the death of a parent or close loved one–but that doesn’t mean we can’t *imagine* how it would feel well enough to write about it authentically.

  4. I just found your books on Amazon and ordered 4. I wrote and published my first fantasy fiction book a few weeks back (without an outline, oops!) It’s called Darkwater and it’s on Amazon, Booknook and Kobo http://www.amazon.com/dp/B071RJ73K2.
    Unfortunately, my first book has suffered from little sales.
    I want to thank you for helping us, beginners. If you ever have time to take a look at my book I would LOVE feedback. Anyway, thank you again for your blog and books.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Thanks for stopping by! I’m so glad you’re enjoying the site. And I wish you all the best with your book!

  5. I love this post. I agree with everything you wrote.

  6. “Four wheels marked each corner of the base. ”

    That’s sixteen wheels!

    Also, where you used dashes, I would have used commas. Dashes make the sleep-mode seem to be an important qualifier to the existence of the screen.

    And I would have used “a pedestal” rather than “the pedestal” because “the” is used for something that has already been introduced to the reader (unless it’s used with “of” or. Something similar). Exercise: Find the biggest dictionary you can, and look up the word “the.” I am not kidding. There are some subtleties in the specific ways it is used.

  7. Thank you so much! #5 – what a relief! Slow and steady does it. I SO agree that the process has to be enjoyable! Rushing through the book just doesn’t cut it for me. Admittedly, I finished my first novel – from outline to trad publication – in three months just by writing 1,000 words a day. I made a rule for myself to write “a scene a day” (my scenes are generally around 900-1200 words) and it worked just fine. It’s such a relief to hear from you that writing fast isn’t set in stone! Thank you!

  8. theotherpacman says:

    Heya! I’d like to add something about the “write what you know” thing. I say that what that means is really to write what you feel. Write what you have emotionally experienced and wondered about and the thoughts you’ve had that don’t come from somebody else. One way I’ve heard it said is to “write your truth”.

Trackbacks

  1. […] 5 Misconceptions About Writing That I Used to Believe […]

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.