1. Mercury12000
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    Mercury12000 Member

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    Poor writing advice from famous authors

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by Mercury12000, Jan 6, 2012.

    Ever notice how the advice from accomplished writers seems to be of little or no help when it comes to actually writing?

    They say things like:

    -Get a routine. Consistancy is key. Write every day. Don't give up.
    -Avoid cliche's. Don't be boring. Be unique.
    -Read a lot. Know your subjects.


    Why don't they ever talk about plot points or the use of dialogue or just starting the first paragraph for goodness sake?

    Sometimes I think they're out of touch with us.
     
  2. Tesoro
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    Tesoro Contributing Member Contributor

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    Hahaha, you're right. I guess they don't want to reveal their most secret secrets on becoming a successful writer with us :( those greedy bastards. ;)
     
  3. prettyprettyprettygood
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    prettyprettyprettygood Active Member

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    It won't be to everyone's taste, but as a complete newbie to creative writing I found Stephen King's On Writing really interesting and helpful- he does talk about dialogue and use of language etc, and made me think about writing in a way I hadn't before.
     
  4. CH878
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    CH878 Active Member

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    Personally, I find the three examples you've given to be very useful, it's all good stuff really.

    You develop your style of plotting and use of dialogue on your own, I find, that's what makes each author's work different and interesting. The author Robert Muchamore has some pretty useful tips on his website and some good links to videos and stuff that have really helped me.
     
  5. Tesoro
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    Tesoro Contributing Member Contributor

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    Am I the only one to think stephen kings 'on writing' was a delusion? The on writing-part was too small and most of the book was about his life. Don't get me wrong, I think it was interesting, but if it's called 'on writing' you expect more writing-related stuff, like advices and why not a couple of secret from the pros? ;) After all we payed to learn more on writing, not about his life and personal problems...
     
  6. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Not every writer is the same. Different writers approach their craft in different ways. So advice that is good for one novice writer might be terrible for another. The problem with famous writers is that their fame lends their advice more credibility than it really should. When a famous writer says "Just write all the way through your first draft - don't go back to edit anything until you're finished!", I groan. Because I've the opposite from equally famous writers. One of my favorites, Anthony Burgess, would revise each page as he went, time and time again, until he was happy with that page, before he'd move on to the next page. When he was done, his novel didn't need any more revision, in his mind. And I'll take Burgess over Stephen King any day of the week.

    When Kurt Vonnegut says not to use semicolons, I just say "Blow it out your ass, Vonnegut. I like semicolons. And I don't write like you."

    Just because somebody is famous and successful doesn't mean he is the ultimate oracle of absolute truth. The advice he gives is what works for him, that's all. Novice writers should learn to write their own way, not to slavishly imitate the habits and techniques of others.

    I've read a ton of interviews with famous and accomplished writers (Paris Review, etc.), and everybody works differently. I gravitate towards the ones who seem to work the way I do - THEIR advice, their concerns, their problems and solutions, are the most help to me.
     
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  7. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    I agree 100%! I was interested in the autobiography part. But the actual advice about writing was thin. Not that I'd take much advice from King - he's not a favorite of mine - but if he wanted to write a book on writing, he should have done so, and left his autobiography for another book.
     
  8. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    King wanted to write a largely autobiographical work that also had some of his thoughts and insights on writing, and on being a writer engaged in craft (rather than on all of the technical aspects of creating a novel).
     
  9. Show
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    Show Contributing Member Contributor

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    Any general advice is just advice, IMO. While it shouldn't be carelessly ignored, it also shouldn't be unquestionably embraced all the time. Each of us requires different things to produce the best quality work and we have to learn to sort through which advice helps us and which just doesn't go with our writing personality.
     
  10. Tesoro
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    Tesoro Contributing Member Contributor

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    Absolutely. Plus, that way he would have sold two books instead of one ;)
     
  11. Mercury12000
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    Mercury12000 Member

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    I would very much like to see an actual Stephen King first draft. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that his editors have been doing most of the work, and for a very long time. Just a thought.
     
  12. joanna
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    joanna Active Member

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    I actually think all three of those things listed are pieces of good advice.

    And I loved Stephen King's On Writing. Found it to contain a wealth of useful information. My one criticism of it would be, of course, that it was also an excuse to write his autobiography. Not altogether boring, but also not why I bought the book. When I refer back to it I have to sift through the stuff about his life to get to what I need. The book still helps me immensely, though.

    I read somewhere that a famous author went to a writer's workshop and asked, "How many of you want to be writers?" everyone in the class raised their hands and he said, "Then go home and write," and then he left the room.

    To waste less time on simply thinking about or talking about writing in order to get to it is fine advice, but what if you want to be good at writing? Instead of teaching them one lesson and wasting their time, I think he should have spent some of his time to teach them two or three or several lessons.
     
  13. Mercury12000
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    Mercury12000 Member

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    It is good advice, but not about writing because it has nothing to do with the act of writing. It's just some work-ethic rhetoric that can be applied to almost anything. I believe that when amateur writers ask for advice they are asking about writing in an academic sense, not totally in a motivational sense.
     
  14. JackElliott
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    JackElliott Senior Member

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    This kind of advice is probably given out because the situation in which the question was asked only allows for a brief, generalized answer.

    I also take issue with the title of this thread. Simply because an author is famous does not mean he is obligated to give advice, and especially not the kind of specifics the OP is hoping for.
     
  15. psychotick
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    psychotick Contributing Member Contributor

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    I suspect that famous authors are just like the rest of us not so famous authors, different. What works for one of them will not work for another of them. So my advice as a not so famous author, would be to listen to what they tell you, then use the part that seems to work for you and forget the rest.

    Cheers, Greg.
     
  16. Rumwriter
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    Rumwriter Active Member

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    Just turn to "Elements of Style". There is a reason people always recommend it -- because it is actually full of useful help
     
  17. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    It's a thin little book with some grammar and usage rules, and virtually nothing to say about the art and craft of writing fiction. And it's WAAAY overrated. It's just a book for non-writers who find themselves having to write something, like an essay for school. If you're trying to write good prose fiction, you might as well leave "Elements of Style" on the shelf.
     
  18. ClusterChuck
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    ClusterChuck Senior Member

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    'Strunk and White' is great about the technicalities on writing a readable sentence. Next to it on my bookshelve above my desk is 'Spunk and Bite' Which covers, in a much less dry tone, how to give your language the punch and umami it deserves.

    There's also of course 'On Writing' which has been mentioned. Which really just helped me come to terms with my own short stack of rejection letters.

    Here's my advice from an unfamous writer. Me.

    At first you will suck.

    Write when you feel like writing. The better you get the more you'll like it. Do other things when you feel like doing other things.

    Listen to people talk and come to understand what motivates us. Knowing people helps you breath life into imaginary ones.

    Learning about everything else in world will give you a wider perspective on, lets say.... a war vet coming home from iraq and
    adjusting to civilian life. Or, what it's like to do soft core porn.

    Watch old movies to pin down dialouge flow.

    Travel as much as possible.

    Never miss a chance to argue about something you care about.

    Stay hydrated.

    Never run from pain, sorrow, anger, joy, or anything other emotion that might enrich the texture of your conditioning.

    Learn the meaning of poetic acceptance.

    Start with what you know, research what you don't.

    Oh and the first paragraph should be the anchor of a piece. It should tell the reader everything he needs to know about the tone of the story. Don't be afraid to start with dialouge, or right in the middle of your MC being beaten to a pulp. Setting can be added as needed.

    Caffine is your friend.

    Don't over describe a character. Leave out the color of his shoes unless they are important to the story.

    And never start a sentence with 'and' unless it serves some sort of pacing function.
     
  19. Birmingham
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    Birmingham Active Member

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    Hehe, thanks Cluster! I especially liked the caffeine advice! I'll embrace that one in many fields. But you forgot about the sunscreen!

    The late Christopher Hitchens talked about smoking and drinking once, and said something like "I love writing, so why would I stop doing things that help me write?"

    Anyway, I think that two of the three advices there in the beginning (maybe all three) are pretty good.

    Let's analyze them one by one:

    -Get a routine. Consistancy is key. Write every day. Don't give up.

    Okay, we all right, and sometimes we procrastinate or we're jaded, etc. We need to work on ourselves. That advice works, I think, if you actually work on implementing it. I should read that line every single day, probably, to become a better writer.

    -Avoid cliche's. Don't be boring. Be unique.

    Not sure about that one. Maybe it is a good example of a really bad advice. But I guess you could take it to mean that you should not be afraid to write something that is your own style, your own signature. A writer can flinch from something if it seems like it's not the way the craft is being done. I once criticized a friend for the way he writes, and offered him two different ways he could write in a style that better fits what we see in books, because his style was so different. Then, a couple of years later, I started reading Coben's novels. The exact same unique style, of combining an ensamble novel with multiple points of views on the one hand, with a central protagonist that speaks in first person. I'm glad Harlan Coben didn't have a friend like me. And if he did, I'm glad he didn't listen to those jerks, and went on uniting two different writing styles.

    -Read a lot. Know your subjects.

    When you write about a character you don't truly know, or even a bunch of characters with different life stories and backgrounds, you should know about things in their lives, about their hobbies, political stance, etc. When Ralph Reed, formerly of the Christian Coalition, wrote a political novel about US elections, he needed to understand what both sides truly believe, in order to portray each side in a believable way. The funny thing, I think that this republican author portrayed the democrats in a much more interesting and humane light than the republican characters. In my own case, I have dug up information about restorative justice simply because one of my characters knows a lot about that subject, a lot more than me. And even though I disagree with that character's stance of abolishing the prison system, I do think that when I watch a movie like "Felon" with Stephen Dorff, that helps me to "be" the guy who opposes the existence of prisons. I'm not a pacifist, also, and not a marxist, but reading about pacifism and marxism might help me write such characters in a believable way, because I don't want to create cardboard characters of those people.

    Also, if one has a lesbian character, maybe one should read and watch stuff about that, even though it's one minor character.
    And what does a character feel when he's told his spouse is pregnant? I don't know, I've never been there. But maybe reading about it would help me, since I have such a character.

    Anyway, any advice can help if you truly analyze it. But that's just my opinion, I could be wrong. Now time for coffee.
     
  20. Birmingham
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    Birmingham Active Member

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    Oh, and lastly: Someone recently started a thread about how one writes a bad guy character. I gave the example of Stephen J. Cannell and his protagonist, a sociopath named "Chick Best" who is a 55 year old man who would do anything to be with a beautiful 30 year old he is infatuated with. You need to understand the perspective of another person to rationalize what a character like Chick does. Remember, every single character, just like every single person, believes he/she is justified. If you want to write the inside thoughts of someone like Usama Bin Laden, in a first person, you have to portray that sack of garbage as the good guy, because he believed he was. Same goes for Vic Mackey, Dexter, whoever.
     
  21. cruciFICTION
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    cruciFICTION Contributing Member Contributor

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    First of all, to answer the original post, the reason writers don't give away "secrets" or any advice about actually writing is that there are no secrets. There's no one way to write, and if anyone tells you different, they're just being condescending and trying to act superior. You have to write the way that works for you. That's why you get such good advice as keeping a routine and writing every day. Because keeping a routine makes it easier for you to develop your literary voice.

    As for On Writing, it's not Stephen King's "excuse" to just write an autobiography. It's about his life which has been centred on writing since he was very young. It tells about how he threw his first draft of Carrie in the trash before his wife pulled it out and convinced him to finish it. That right there says volumes about not second-guessing your own writing. If you want the "secrets" and the tricks of the trade, reading about how someone else did it is a good way to find them.

    I've been to a couple of writer's conventions and festivals and stuff, and some dicks (excuse my profanity) actually go on about "formulas" to writing a story, which is absolute bull. There's no formula to it. Anyone who says different is selling something.
     
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  22. AmsterdamAssassin
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    AmsterdamAssassin Contributing Member

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    Not really, but perhaps I've read more books on writing and I don't need help on some of the issues you need help with.

    It's a work-ethic thing, that's right. But then, most beginners approach writing as 'fun' and stop when writing gets hard. However, if you want to be a published writer, you'll have to work at it. And that requires that you have to write every day, not just when you feel like it. A lot of writing is like work, so an advice on work ethic makes sense. At least, to me.
    As Elmore Leonard said, 'Drama is life with the boring stuff removed'. If you read his books, he'll skip the boring stuff. No descriptions of flights or car rides, just departure and arrival, unless something interesting happens during the flight or the ride. And even then, you don't have to write about being welcomed by the flight attendant, strapping yourself in, getting a refreshment, relieving yourself in the tiny toilet, etcetera. That stuff makes a reader's eyes glaze over.
    With unique, they mean you shouldn't copy other [successfull] writer, but find your own voice.
    If you try writing a mystery while you're not a mystery fan, you're likely to think you're being unique and original while you're hashing out worn-out plots and cardboard characters>the cynical private eye, the weary cop, blahblah.


    Maybe you read the wrong books? Have you checked out 'characters and viewpoint' by Orson Scott Card? Or 'the first five pages' by Noah Lukeman? 'Stein on Writing' by Sol Stein.

    Or you have questions that are not answered by the books you've consulted. If a book covers 'everything' about writing, it tends to talk in generalities unless it's a huge book, so you'd need to check out books that deal with specific issues - plot problems, writing dialogue...

    At the end of On Writing, he shows an unedited short story, how he edited it, and the polished version... And he is a former English teacher, so I don't doubt that he writes and edits his own work.

    Indeed. It's a perfect guide for essays - 'Omit Needless Words' - and has some good points on redundancy, but it is too restrictive for fiction writers.
     
  23. shadowwalker
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    shadowwalker Contributing Member Contributor

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    As far as plot points, etc, I don't really think writers can tell anyone things they can't pick up in any high school or college creative writing book, and from plain old reading. What they can tell you is how they begin, proceed, and finish. Reading what various authors do gives you new methods to try, to see if they work for you. And yes, a lot of what they talk about is 'work ethic' - because that's exactly what will get someone from a wannabe to a gonnabe.
     
  24. Jhunter
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    Jhunter Mmm, bacon. Contributor

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    Reading and writing are just about the best advice anyone can give someone that wants to improve their skills.

    This is why "famous authors" say that.
     
  25. Mercury12000
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    Mercury12000 Member

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    So how do you explain the role of a college english professor? I mean, if such topical advice as "read and write a lot" are enough, then surely an english professors are giving their students inferior advice.

    (I'm saying author's advice should be more like a college english professor's)
     

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