We repeat what worked for us, but we often make the mistake of overemphasizing, as if what worked for us is the only way to be a successful writer.
The trick, if you’re an aspiring author, is to not let the conflicting advice be a source of confusion. Take it for what it’s worth…a statement of what worked for that particular writer.
Learn to separate the craft from the art. Art is often presented as craft, and that’s where the confusion begins. The craft is the craft. I can say a lot of objective things about the craft of writing (grammar, usage, story structure, pacing, characterization, setting, plot, theme, symbolism, and on and on…) But the art is in how you express those crafty bits.
If it works for you, that’s awesome. If not, you’ll eventually find your own awesome way of being awesome.
Let’s take a look at a handful of common writing myths you’ll run into.
Show Don’t Tell
You can’t so much as express the desire to become a writer without someone regurgitating this chestnut. Even people who aren’t writers have heard this, though they have no idea what it actually entails. Make no mistake, it is usually better to show the reader the action as opposed to telling them what happened. But you must make the decision based on the context of the situation, not whether or not there’s some golden rule you have to live up to. [Or should I have said “up to which you must live”? Yeah, the subject of grammar has a lot of these “rules” too.]
A couple of quick examples:
Jim felt depressed.
Sure, it gets the point across. The reader now knows how Jim feels. Because you told the reader how Jim feels.
Jim had nothing left. He wanted to move, to speak, to do something, but he stood paralyzed.
In this version, we’re showing the reader how Jim feels by pulling in tighter on Jim’s PoV. Which version is better? Who knows? There was a time I would have said “definitively the second”. I’ve since found there are as many successful writers who will tell you the first as will tell you the second.
Why? Because one of the two is actually, objectively better? No, it’s because their own personal style cries out for one or the other. But only you can know which is better within the context of your prose. Imagine a scenario in which you need to quickly cover 8 weeks of a character’s life in order to get from one story element to the next story element. Are you going to show that 8 weeks? Egads, I hope not! No, you’re probably going to write one or two quick paragraphs that summarizes what took place during that 8 week period.
That’s telling. And it’s perfectly okay.
Know when to tell and when to show.
Writer’s Must Write Every Day
Sure, I could write every day. And I’d end up with the following:
- A divorce
- No day job to supply me with a living wage
- No meaningful relationships outside of the writing world
- Drafts of work that are shittier than shit and will require months of rework
- An all-encompassing hatred of everything writing-related
But that’s me. Not you. I know very successful authors who manage to write every single day and not end up with any of the above. In fact, some of these writers would be less successful if they didn’t write every day.
I don’t write every day. I take 3-4 months off between books, and so far each of my books are Amazon bestsellers. Moreover, with a full-time day job, it’s simply not possible for me to write every day.
Could I get up a couple extra hours early and write something?
No. Because I go to bed at midnight and wake up at 8am. Period. That’s my life. It works for me and I don’t want to change it. I need 8 hours of sleep. My body is so well-tuned to this schedule that I don’t need an alarm clock. Shifting my sleep time ahead 2 hours means less quality time with the family. That’s a sacrifice I’m not willing to make.
Writer’s Can’t Not Write
Well…I’m a writer, and I know how to pull off a solid day of not writing.
Look, a lot of these mythical rules (this section and the one above) comes from an egotistical place. Many writers want to believe that they “have something special”, or they’ve been “blessed by the universe” or some deity shoved the “Mystical Fountain Pen Of Writerlisciousness” up their ass at the last winter solstice.
It’s all bullshit. They have an obsession. Sure, many of them are very good. But you don’t have to have a writing obsession to be a good or even great writer.
Want to be successful? Let writing become a part of your life in the most organic way possible. No one knows your daily challenges better than you do. Certainly not some lottery winner in an ivory tower.
Never Use An Adv… Nah… Screw it.
I was going to continue this bullet list, but it’s just not necessary. You get the point.
YOU define what it means to be a writer.
YOU define what it means to be successful.
YOU must fit writing into YOUR life in such a way that you successfully navigate all of your challenges and obligations. Neil Gaiman can’t help you with that.
Sure, use the “common knowledge” advice as a great launching point when you’re a beginner. It’s always best to at least try what has worked for those who have come before you. But don’t think that just because you can’t work Stephen King’s habits into your routine that you’ll never be a good writer!
You’re still here? Go! Write!
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About Nat Russo
Nat Russo is the Amazon #1 Bestselling Fantasy author of Necromancer Awakening and Necromancer Falling. Nat was born in New York, raised in Arizona, and has lived just about everywhere in-between. He’s gone from pizza maker, to radio DJ, to Catholic seminarian (in a Benedictine monastery, of all places), to police officer, to software engineer. His career has taken him from central Texas to central Germany, where he worked as a defense contractor for Northrop Grumman. He's spent most of his adult life developing software, playing video games, running a Cub Scout den, gaining/losing weight, and listening to every kind of music under the sun. Along the way he managed to earn a degree in Philosophy and a black belt in Tang Soo Do. He currently makes his home in central Texas with his wife, teenager, mischievous beagle, and goofy boxador.
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Thank you, Nat. I feel better about my irregular work habits as a writer now.
Be the best *you* you can be! I think success has a lot to do with that. More so than attempting to live up to some arbitrary standard.
Nice. I’ve reached a lot of these conclusions as well. Particularly when you submit your work for online critique, there’s a great deal of potentially helpful information.
But if you take it all, all the time, you’ll end up with something written by a committee, with no voice in your writing at all.
We all just have to pick and choose. 🙂
Exactly. I don’t want to write someone else’s story. I want to write my own. I’d much rather be the 1st Nat Russo than the next Stephen King.
Have to agree wholeheartedly Nat. I am sick o people telling me how to write. I write as I see it – end of story. Great article.
Thanks, Nat. :You cleared up a lot of bullshit that I had started to believe. frankie
Glad to help! 😀
Hello Nat. I really appreciated this post tonight and I just happened to come across it on my timeline on Twitter from someone I follow. I’m SO glad I took the time to read it because it truly resonated with some of my worries as of late and what other people have told me, particularly the write every day point.
Honestly, I can’t write every day. I have tried it ever since I graduated from college almost two months ago and all it did was make me want to write less. Plus, I loved the advice of just acknowledging how other people write and just focus on how I do it. It’s OK to take something from others, but remember it’s YOUR way and craft first and foremost. I also found the YOU define what it means to be a writer etc bullet points near the end so powerful and true! Very timely this post…thank you again.
I feel very encouraged and reassured. Plus, I always had the feeling I was doing fine, but other people made me feel otherwise. Glad that seems to be fading. :)I love writing and it’s my passion and best way of expressing myself, and that won’t change 🙂
Kristin, thank you so much for those kind words!
We sometimes focus so much on the craft of writing that we forget, or downplay, the art of writing. I’ve been guilty of that myself in the past. Sometimes on this very blog!
I read an article yesterday that a friend linked on Facebook, and it triggered this article. It was something like “20 Top Authors Share One Piece of Advice for Newbies” (paraphrasing). I found myself nodding along with some of it. But other bits of advice they gave had me rolling my eyes (write every day, show don’t tell, etc).
The best thing we can do for our art and our voice is to be ourselves!
Thanks for reinforcing some things about writing that I had figured out in the last few years. I did spend about 18 months writing every day, desperate to get some ideas into rough drafts, and I am thankful I did. It taught me a lot about creative scheduling around my family, discipline, and the surprisingly visceral reward of actually finishing a manuscript (or three). A lot of things are currently preventing me from writing every day, but I know the “sweet spot” and have been able to find it fairly easily when I need it.
Now the tricky part is all the revising, editing, and learning about self-publishing, while also figuring out social media and marketing. I miss just telling a story.
I know how you feel! As independent authors, we’re 50% writers and 50% entrepreneurs. There are days the business of writing has to take precedence over the writing itself.
But the beautiful thing is we succeed or fail on our own terms.
Best of luck on the journey! If there are ever any questions I can answer, you can always find me here! 🙂
As said in a Country I’ve never been to; “Good on ya, Mate!” A lot of these I usually try to incorporate into my stories, but there are times the “rules” must be stretched, and some broken.
For me, the one main thin I try to do is avoid using “was” because I’ve been told many times (by grammar checking software) that it makes for ‘passive’ writing instead of ‘active.’
There is one thing in particular that has me put off, and that is the suggestion to have the stories professionally edited before publishing. I’m not sure about anyone else, but having no job, and therefore no income to speak of, an Editor is pretty much out of the question for me.
Then, there comes the advice that one must have an online presence, a pre-existing fan base, et cetera, so forth, ad infinitum.
Thanks for clearing these few concerns up, Nat!
You’re very welcome, John!
Yeah, there are a lot of “nuggets of wisdom” out there that really should fall under the category of “suggestions”.
I’ve been complimented numerous times on the editing of Necromancer Awakening. That book never saw a professional editor. Like you, I simply couldn’t afford it. I had about 30 pairs of objective eyes on that project for more than 3 years. Took some time, but it’s doable without spending $1500 that you don’t have.
Unfortunately, I don’t have access to thirty pairs of eyes, either. *sigh*
But, I have gotten good comments on my writings even without either of those. Maybe I’m “anal” enough to edit the crud out of my own works? (No puns intended… or are they?)
I am just wondering, if your books are all best sellers why do you need a full time job? Also I think it would have been better if you had expanded on certain things like not using adverbs. This may be abvious to some writers but not to all. I felt that the artikle lacked depth and left much to be desired.
I’m going to approve this post. Not because I agree, but because I know other bestselling authors will get a real kick out of it (the majority of whom have day jobs).
It takes approximately 2000 – 5000 book sales to claim a place on the NYT Bestseller list. So, if you manage to land on that particular list, don’t go yacht shopping just yet.
If you make one of the top 3 positions on that particular list, then yes…you’re most likely independently wealthy. But the *overwhelming majority* of bestselling authors are selling hundreds or thousands of copies. Not 10’s of thousands, and certainly not 100’s of thousands or millions. That’s what the general public thinks. It’s not reality.
Amazon is the largest seller of books on the planet. When they call you a bestseller…you’re a bestseller. Period.
Thank you for your response. We all learn by asking and you certainly enlighted me. Could you mind sharing how authors get their books on the NYT list. I am an author too, published two books and writing the third. I find there is a lot of information out there and sometimes it is overwhelming how much we have to learn.
I think you’ll find this interesting. It’s an article I wrote about how authors buy their way onto the NYT bestseller list, and it concludes with a link to a Forbes article that has additional research.
Thanks for the post, Nat. It’s always nice to hear a successful author remind folks just starting out that they are free to take or leave advice as they see fit. We’re a neurodiverse population. One size definitely does not fit all. Happy writing to you!
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