13 Myths About Writing

Without further ado, here’s a list of screwy myths about writing fiction and the madmen who do it.

 

1. Writing is a solitary activity

Just because we sit in front of the computer a lot doesn’t mean we’re isolated. Sure, once upon a time when writers had only pen and paper, or typewriters if they milked their family for money, they were alone when they labored away at their works of literary art. But nowadays, sitting in front of the computer doesn’t isolate you. Quite the opposite.

The writer of today doesn’t battle solitude, he battles emails, blog comments and newsletter subscriptions. There are thousands of writers out there, flocking in forums and on writing platforms, chatting away and making friends, beta-reading and reviewing hell for leather. And don’t get me started on social media and the lovely new concepts of hyperfiction and interactive fiction.

As a modern writer you also make a lot of new friends in the ‘real’ world, especially if you stalk people, draw fantasy maps on the latest iPad in the coffee shop, or go to Renaissance fairs to enact your latest plot. And for sci-fi die-hards there’s always the next Comicon.

 

2. Real writers find writing easy

Not if they’re doing it right, they don’t. Writing doesn’t get any easier with time, it just gets faster. Meaningful writing comes from ruthless introspection and unbiased observation, and those are never easy. What makes experienced writers so prolific is not that they find it easy to turn themselves inside out, it’s that they make a habit of it.

If writing doesn’t come easy to you and you struggle to put your imagination into words, there are only two possible explanations: you just need more practice, or you need to choose another means to express yourself, like mural painting or singing in the shower.

 

3. A debut novel is a writer’s first novel

Rabbit raisins! Every true work of art needs a rough draft, that’s why writers usually write several drafts before a novel is finished, and several novels before they write a publishable debut novel. There are exceptions of course, but those exceptions are based on either one of the following:

– having experience writing something else than novels (short stories, novellas, etc.),
– having the right connections beforehand,
– self-publishing as soon as typing “The End”,
– or suffering from incurable selective amnesia.

Don’t sweat over your pile of false starts, unfinished novels or rejected manuscripts. All writers have them. It’s called practice.

 

4. You need to be a good writer before you write professionally

That’s like saying you must be a good swimmer before you get into the water. Writing is something that is only learned on the go, not beforehand, and results only come from doing the work. All you must do to become a good writer is to write, write, write, study the craft, practice the craft, then write some more.

Besides, even the most successful writers you admire had no darn clue what they were doing until they did it.

 

5. Writing is a compulsion

I bet you’ve heard it before: “I just have to write, otherwise I’ll go crazy!”

Aspiring writers love to hear themselves say that, it makes them sound like naturals. Because they assume true artists are somehow misteriously remote controlled by their compulsive talent.

Meadow muffins! If writers were so driven to write, why doesn’t a lot more writing get done?! Feeling a desire to claim you’re writing but not actually writing much has nothing to do with compulsive, irresistible talent.

 

6. The characters control the writer

Schizophrenia has never before been so popular. Saying that characters decide where the story goes is saying they’re real human beings, with free will and strong personalities, and that implies the writer must be some freakin genius! Isn’t that flattering? Saying your characters are so real they write the story themselves?

Realistic and well rounded characters are every writer’s ambition, and many work very hard to create such beasts. But the writer is always in control, even when, in the dead of night after 3’000 bloody words, you feel as though the characters are the ones giving orders. But who ultimately takes the decision is the writer, not some figment of his imagination.

When it seems as though a character comes up with a surprising, wonderful twist that takes the plot to a whole new level, it’s in fact the writer who comes up with the juicy bits, while wearing said character’s personality as a mask. Wearing a character costume, that’s what I’m saying; a chara-guise. That crazy shine in the writer’s eye when he’s submersed into his character’s strap-on life? a charasuit! Mon dieu!

But seriously, you always have yourself to thank for the inspiration, not some quiestionable personality split. If you still believe your characters command you, go see a doctor, not a publisher.

 

7. Worthy ideas are special and unique

Good story ideas are so overrated, I’m astonished the world hasn’t turned them into currency yet. Really, ideas are like dust bunnies, or tree lice, or Justin Bieber groupies—they’re everywhere! Just look under your desk, out the window or in the search engine of your choice, and there they are. Staring at you. Crawling up your leg. Screaming in your ear—pick me! Pick me!

What you do with those ideas in the many weeks of hard writerly labor is what’s special and unique.

 

8. Reading a lot will make you a better writer

No. Reading a lot only makes you a better reader. Reading critically and analyzing what you read makes you a better critic. Only writing makes you a better writer. Writing. It’s even in the name: writer. Go figure! They don’t call them carpenter because they read books about trees, do they.

 

9. If you’re good, you’ll make it

Actually, hell is paved with the starry eyes of brilliant writers whose works never saw the light of day. It’s not enough to write a brilliant work of staggering genius if you can’t sell it. Oh come on, don’t give me that look, if you’ve been out of the cave for more than a day you must have realized that a good writer must be able to pitch his work and market it if he wants to succeed. If not to the audience, then at the very least to an agent or publisher. And querying takes some mad skill.

 

10. Brilliant writing doesn’t need a spellcheck

Suuure. That’s because brilliance makes you immune to intelligent scrutiny, and drooling zombie groupies are far better than a smart audience. Zombies rule the world, you know, when they win the war and survive the Apocalypse and everything. Like cockroaches.

 

11. All writers are Grammar Nazis

This myth is actually true, except for one little correction: the real Nazis lost the war, but grammar will always get you.

 

12. If it’s correct and tight, it’s good

Just because a story complies to each and every rule of grammar, respects classic story structure, has the right amount of description and characterization and action and what-not, doesn’t mean it’ll be a good story. Reading is a subjective experience, and if a story doesn’t rip the reader out of her socks and throws her straight into your storyworld, it’s not going to matter if it’s “correct” or “artsy” from a theoretical point of view.

Storytelling has little to do with dry technical skill, and there are plenty of famous books out there which absolutely lack skill and technique, and break about as many “hard” rules as I can count on a mutant’s third hand, but they’re awesome stories and have touched millions of people. You know which ones I’m talking about.

Instead of worrying about improving your technical skills by force and dry, emotionless exercises, you’d be far better off trying to improve your storytelling skills. Readers overlook poor craft if the story grabs them by the throat, but won’t give a rat’s fart on a work of literary art that feels like nothing.

 

And now for the grand finale, the ugliest, stinkiest myth of all:

 

13. Writer’s block

That infectious disease that causes inspirational blockage and has you trying to paper-cut your veins open. All non-writers are in awe of it, all wannabe writers claim they have it, and all working writers have supposedly overcome it. But a relapse is always around the corner, waiting to ruin you.

*gasp of horror*

Here’s the truth: writer’s block, that condition you supposedly get when you’ve written your mind dry, is an elaborate hoax. A scham. A conspiracy concocted by “love-to-have-written-hate-to-do-the-actual-fucking-work” lazybones. It’s a pile of buffalo steam-pies.

Or, how Roz Morris puts it, “if you’re the kind of person who believes that block will stop you, you’re the type to get it.”

So here’s the thing.

Are you out of inspiration and lacking enthusiasm? Are you eating your pencil and typing suicide poems with the butt of your uncle’s gun? Then you’ve got yourself a case of absolutely normal and un-artistic take-your-pick ailment:

– burnout syndrome, if you’ve actually worked your ass off before this,

– depression, if you wish you would have worked before this, or believe your hard work is worth half a zilch,

– narcissistic fit, if you’re convinced you shouldn’t work at all and still get a Pulizer,

– or an actual case of the loonies if you’ve got nothing to do with writing in the first place. Then you should see a doctor. Seriously. Stop hitting the keyboard. Stop. S-stop. There… easy does it… breathe in, breathe out.

*diales 911*

 

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This blog post is part of the A to Z Blogging Challenge, April 2012

29 Replies to “13 Myths About Writing”

  1. I hate grammar Nazis, and I refuse to join that club. I like your number 12. I own a flash fiction site. I’ll accept brilliant flash fiction, that happens to have a couple of grammar errors, over mediocre flash fiction that is grammatically perfect. Grammar errors can be corrected. That’s what editors are for.

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    1. That’s exactly what I meant, Jolie! You know first hand that storytelling can, and often does, overrule craft. Fiction must first have a certain umph, it must convey a meaning or a feeling, tell a story, not be just a series of words and punctuation, however accurate. Thanks for your comment!

      Like

  2. Oh a girl after my own heart! So many of those adages are just a load of horse poop, or…rabbit raisins (!) The whole of this post, every single point is smack-bang right. I’m popping in from the A-Z and I think I’ve found a little gem.

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  3. Very nice post! There are a lot of myths out there, some of which can become pitfalls that newer writers fall into. Number seven made me smile, as I’ve had people send me manuscripts they asked me to beta read with a copyright notice on them. I mean, I’m no stranger to being protective of ideas, but do you really think your hand-picked beta reader wants to steal your unpublished, unagented, unknown manuscript? 😛

    I must respectfully disagree with Jolie’s comment about grammar, by the way. I don’t think that’s what editors are for. In fact, I know a few editors that get very grouchy whenever someone makes that assumption. Most professional editors I know will reject a story within the first few pages if there are consistent grammar issues, even if the story has great potential (same for agents, by the way). Stories are a dime a dozen, even good ones. There are exceptions, of course. For instance, freelance editors will often include proofreading as a part of their package, but obviously there’s a big difference between a freelancer and a house editor. For things like literary journals and magazines (especially the big ones), a story often won’t even make it to the editor’s desk if it’s got bad grammar. The slush readers will happily toss it into the reject pile so they can move on to the next manuscript in their stack of hundreds.

    Anyway, I guess what I’m saying is that you can count me in the grammarati. 😛 Your story might be good enough to make it with bad grammar, but why take that chance? It can ONLY help to know your grammar and style. There’s really no excuse not to educate yourself in those areas. What could it possibly hurt?

    [/rant]

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    1. I agree with you J.W., that editors who are busy digging their way through a slush pile will gladly, and rightfully, add bad grammar to other disqualifying criteria because such a story would pose even more work to get ready for print. I believe a writer must make his manuscript the absolute best he can, from every perspective, before he even considers querying. I know I couldn’t send it away with even a single typo or grammatical mistake.

      The point I was trying to make is that storytelling should get more attention from beginning writers, because it’s the most important part in attracting readers. A clean text is a must, for sure, but it alone doesn’t make a good story.

      Oh, and rant was parsed and integrated. Unit and integration tests successful. Patch installed and released for system tests. 😉

      Like

  4. Item #12 caught my eye because of two separate experiences this year.

    I was asked to beta excerpts from two different writers. The first was a grammar nightmare (and I am in no way a part of the grammarati) – but the story was great. Interesting characters and an engaging voice.

    The other piece was “technically perfect” in its grammar, spelling, etc., but it was painful to read. I just couldn’t care about the characters and the plot (although having the potential to be quite compelling) was dry. The voice coming through was flat. Now, these are my opinions, of course. Perhaps another beta reader gave it top marks, but it was an opportunity for me to see firsthand how you need both: the writing skill and the storytelling talent.

    Thanks for your post, Vero! 😀

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  5. Well, I agree with some of what you said, but, mostly, I just wanted to say that I would follow, but there’s no way showing to do that. And the tabs at the bottom are all giving me error messages.

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    1. Hi Andrew! Thank you for your comment!

      My blog isn’t hosted by Blogger, it’s a self-hosted WordPress blog, so there’s no “Follow” option just the RSS feed — which you can find at the top right of the sidebar, shaped as a coffee cup or in the middle of footer. Which tabs were giving you error messages? They all work fine for me.

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  6. Respectfully, I disagree with several of your points.

    #1–Writing is solitary. It is. No matter how many friends you have and how many people you may share your work with, when it comes to the writing, it’s all you–and while other writers may come closest to understanding it, no one else is ever going to share the exact experiences you have while actually writing, and that has to be done alone.

    #2 and 3–I agree with most of what you said, but there are times when writing does come easily, and there are people whose first novels have been published without having any of the exceptions listed. I know someone with a beautiful style and fantastic first novel who could very well publish it traditionally with no need for shelved practice manuscripts.

    #10 and 11–I am my own spellcheck. I can’t rely on machines to fix my mistakes; I have to rely on my own knowledge. And yes, I am a Grammar Nazi, but there are hundreds of writers who can’t figure out where their own commas belong, let alone someone else’s. I’ve found that most others, even writers, don’t want or like me to correct them, though, so I’ve learned to keep those Grammar Nazi habits to myself. (It’s still hard; I find errors constantly–even in this post, for instance…)

    I apologize if it seems rude for me to say this, but I’m not trying to intrude upon your thoughts or observations. If you could hear my tone of voice, you would know that there’s no anger or malice in the things I’m saying. I simply wanted to explain that there are other possible views, and that there is a basis for every myth, some element of truth to it that may have been twisted along the way. Thank you for sharing this; I honestly enjoyed reading it. 🙂

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    1. Thank you for your comments, Rachel. It’s important to express your opinion, even if (or especially if?) you disagree with something. I can’t possibly be offended by that. 😉

      Of course none of the things I’ve listed above is carved in stone, not the so called myths and not their opposites. My intention was to point out things that might play a role in some writers’ lives without their conscious “consent”, and to draw attention and get some cogs and wheels spinning.

      There are endless arguments on both sides of anything, that’s what’s so marvelous about the human mind. That’s why I do what I do. It’s all an exploration in written form, like a cartographer venturing in the wild unknown where all other maps drawn before might be unintentional misdirections.

      Thanks again for stopping by and commenting! It was very informative for me to glimpse into your opinions. 🙂

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      1. I like to be cautious, though. I’ve had a few people get angry at me when I’m just trying to be sincere, so, I wanted to clarify that. 😉

        I really appreciate what you did with this post. It definitely got me thinking about things I’d kinda forgotten about. It’s good to remind writers that THEY are in control, not some imaginary force.

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  7. I just found your blog today, and am really enjoying it! Thanks!

    I have to say I agree so much with what you’ve written, except for #8. =)
    Reading alone won’t make you a perfect writer without practice writing, but reading ingrains in you a sense of what sounds good, how paragraphs come together, what makes a satisfying story arc. You can learn about these things from book on writing, but if you’ve never read, it will be a formula.
    The common advice these days is to read your story out loud. It is only from already reading tons of books, can you hear what works and what doesn’t. It helps you develop “the ear” for good writing.

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    1. Thanks, Marniy!

      Of course reading helps a lot in figuring out what type of story you love most, and how certain things work. In speculative fiction, it also helps knowing what’s been done already and how, so that you can avoid unprocessed cliches. But to some degree, reading won’t have as much of an effect on the quality of your prose as lots of writing and experimenting will. However, reading truly is a big part of a writer’s life.

      Thank you very much for visiting and commenting!

      Like

  8. Rant on writer’s block – best EVER! I’d quote you, but I’m writing a book encouraging Christians to write… lol.

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  9. 8. Reading a lot will make you a better writer.

    This is not a myth. Reading a lot does not just make you a better reader. Too many writers today want to have their voices heard, but have no interest in reading the voices of others. Reading can show you what works and what doesn’t. You can learn world building, character development, better story plotting, etc. etc. etc.
    You cannot learn these things from writing. It’s like golf. You can swing the same way in practice over and over again. If you don’t understand how to correct your swing by getting instruction or watching the greats, you’re never going to do it correctly.
    As a teacher, author, and editor, I find that the worst writers do not read. Their dialogue is clunky. Their plots are trite, and their characters are flat and underdeveloped.
    There are so few readers in the world today. Please don’t discourage people from reading.

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    1. Hey JC, thanks for commenting.

      Of course reading is paramount to becoming a better writer, reading in your genre, reading in other genres, deconstructing the plot of popular books to understand how things work, etc. But reading alone cannot make you a better writer unless you actually write, unless you try to apply everything you learn to your craft again and again.

      Just as you are right about writers who think they’re good but have no term of objective comparison since they never read, I know of writers who are voracious readers and could analyze any book in great insightful detail but they absolutely can’t transpose that understanding into their own righting, and so they procrastinate from the “tedious” practice by… reading more and more, and claiming they’re researching. Just because you’ve read a dozen libraries dry doesn’t mean you can write anything worth your salt.

      I definitely didn’t intend to discourage anyone from reading by writing this tongue-in-cheek post.

      Like

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