More Words of Advice from Famous Authors That Are Just Wrong

Last week, I went over a few bits of writing advice from famous authors that I personally disagreed with. Maybe some of you disagreed with me. I think it’s great to agree to disagree. Hopefully, though, some of you got the point—that just because someone is famous, it doesn’t mean you have to follow their formula (or creed or belief system) to become a great writer. Or a successful one.

Sometimes following a lot of advice from other people tends to confuse who you are. You are an individual, unique, and what works for one writer may not work at all for another. Stephen King doesn’t like to plot, but somehow his books have been hugely successful. His method seems to work for him, but I can assure you it doesn’t work for everyone.

So, let’s look at some more wise advice from famous authors, and you can decide if the shoe fits. But know that for every specific bit of advice, you can often find the opposite. Take a look at these two quotes for example:

  • “Wait, wait, wait, wait. Don’t try to write through it, to force it. Many do, but that won’t work. Just wait, it will come.” ~ Toni Morrison
  • “You can’t wait for inspiration, you have to go after it with a club.” ~ Jack London

Hmm, so do you wait or not? To quote my personal adage that I shared with you last time: “Whatever works for you.” Jack London tamed the wilderness with his novels; I can picture him out there on the Alaskan tundra fighting off wolves with the aforementioned club. But Toni Morrison delves deep into character motivation. And often that motivation can’t be coaxed out with any threat of bodily harm.

The longer you work at the writing craft, the more you learn what draws the story out of your imagination. Maybe you’re the club kind of guy. Maybe you’re more like Toni Morrison. Maybe eating a lot of chocolate will do the trick.

Here are some more words of advice from famous writers that are just wrong to me:

  • “Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.” ~ Neil Gaiman. Such is the pitfall with critique groups or partners. I know an author who just can’t trust her instincts. She has her critique group read her novel, and each person gives her completely different advice on what to change and how. Then she tries to please everyone by implementing everything. You can imagine the mess that results. Even if a writer has only one critique partner or test reader, what that person may say is wrong and should be changed may not be the plain truth. In fact, it could be the worst advice ever. So, the first part of Neil’s sentence doesn’t work for me. In fact, I think it’s dangerous advice. And the second part of the sentence is also untrue. I trust my excellent test readers (who are authors I highly respect), and if they tell me what is wrong with my novel and give me some ideas on how to fix it, they are often wonderfully right! I so love it when a critique partner points out my errors or weak passages or plot holes and tells me ways I can fix those flaws. In fact, I make my living working full-time doing exactly that for my writing clients. I tell them what doesn’t work and how to fix it. My caveat here is that once advice is given, the author needs to ponder on the advice and see if it feels right. Intuitively, it will either ring false or true. It’s your book; you get to decide. Don’t listen to everyone who wants to tell you how to make your book better. Conversely, don’t tune those people out who have good suggestions for you.
  • “Be daring, take on anything. Don’t labor over little cameo works in which every word is to be perfect. Technique holds a reader from sentence to sentence, but only content will stay in his mind.” ~ Joyce Carol Oates. This is a weird one. I am all about laboring so that every word is perfect. Technique is paramount. I don’t think content will stick in someone’s mind as well as a perfectly worded sentence that is beautifully written. I’m actually not sure just what she is talking about. But even a great plot or premise will fall flat if the writing isn’t tight and each word isn’t exactly the right word needed in that particular sentence. Be a perfectionist. Content is not the only thing that will stay in a reader’s mind.
  • “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away. ~ Antoine de Saint-Exupery. I tend to disagree with this as well. I like the gist of it–that you have to pare down and remove the bits in your story that are unnecessary and are just adding filler. I am all for trimming so the words that remain are all needed. However . . . often to achieve “perfection” in a story you need to add. I would say, from doing hundreds of critiques, this is more the case. Scenes need to be added. Characters need further developing. Themes need to be reiterated. Less is usually more. But too little is . . . just too little. Maybe I would rewrite this sage bit of advice to this: “Perfection is achieved when a writer adds exactly what is needed and takes out exactly what is not.”

So now that I have given the impression that I’m a snob and dismiss all the great advice those highly successful authors tout, in an upcoming post I’ll share some famous quotes that I wholeheartedly agree with. Hopefully you’ll think better of me after that.

Maybe the best advice I can give writers is this: If you’re going to give advice, remind writers that your advice might not work for them. That they should embrace whatever works best for their personality and creativity. Got any words of advice you’d like to share? Let’s hear them.

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  1. We are beset by so much advice, how tos and don’t dos. Beyond commenting I tend not to give advice. Even though I’m an older person it doesn’t change the fact I’m an apprentice. I still listen to advice and decide. My editor is a great advisor, sometimes we don’t agree. My decision is the one I have to live with. There’s an occasional blog on writing with an index on my site—there will be more guest posts. I’ll happily share a link if that suits, Susanne.

    My advice on advice for what it’s worth. Don’t abdicate. Listen, digest, listen to your heart, decide and act. Remember, it’s your readers who ultimately decide on your writing.

  2. I had a great laugh over your first column on great advice you’d never take. I agree wholeheartedly– whatever works for you. I observe my own process to figure out what works for me.

    Some of these comments were probably said by a writer quickly- someone asked how do you…? and they replied with something snappy that got repeated.

  3. Thank you Susanne for a great post and advice. In the long run we’re the final judge of what feels wrong, and what feels just right in our writing.

  4. It sounds like each writer comes at things from a different angle, depending on personality, gender, upbringing, personal experience with the setting of their novel. Seems to take some of us a lifetime to grasp that we just can’t be someone else.

    My bit of advice: When you’re done, do a search of your manuscript for “It is…” Eliminate if possible. When you see “it is…”, “this is…” and “that is…” be sure that your readers will understand WHAT it is. I’ve seen writers refer back to a clause in the previous sentence and I wasn’t sure just which one.
    Example: “We all like to read a story where the protagonist wins the battle, rather than seeing him bite the dust and lose the girl. This is what satisfies readers and sells books.”

  5. Great stuff! I think the main message here is that every writer is different. Practice until you find what works for you, and don’t let every piece of advice you hear (even from the pros) change the way you work.

  6. I’m sorry, but I’m afraid I disagree with your disagreements.

    On Neil Gaiman’s:
    First half: Readers know when something doesn’t connect with them. It either does or doesn’t, and since the writer’s aim is to connect with readers, they should mark when a piece they’ve written doesn’t.
    Second half: You said you trust the advice of your test readers—who are also authors. As such, they’re approaching it as experienced story crafters themselves, so of course their input will be more precise and carry more weight than a regular reader. But even that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s right. And advice from regular readers can be fatal to a piece. They didn’t like a character dying because they’d grown attached, but that character dying might be what gives the whole thing resonance, and they might not be considering that. Ultimately, the writer should bend to the will of the story, not the reader, not the critiques he or she receives, not even him or herself.

    On Joyce Carol Oates’s:
    When readers talk about stories they’ve enjoyed, they never cite that perfectly crafted sentence on page 47 as their reason for enjoying it. They talk about how the story moved them, how emotionally invested they were in the characters, how fresh or powerful the premise was. A lot of writing gets published despite poor technique because it engages the reader, and engagement what matters. Technique should be important to the writer, no question—but not top priority. Bad technique is only a deal breaker when it’s so bad it’s distracting. Content is exactly what stays with people.

    On Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s:
    Adding is the first step, taking away is the last. It’s like sculpting something out of clay. Your first draft is where you to pile up the clay. Then, once you have enough to work with, you start carving away until you can see the story hidden inside that pile. As you said, there will be places where you misjudged at first and need to add another handful of clay, but the final step is when there’s no carving left to be done and only the heart of the story can be seen. The quote doesn’t suggest you never add, only that leaving in anything that doesn’t serve to clarify or reinforce your message will serve to obscure or distract from it.

  7. Haha, I love the way they contradict each other back to back.

    I spent a year being blown hither and yon by every writing book I could get my hands on. I rewrote my book in deep POV and despaired when my critique group gave my differing opinions. I rewrote it again, and again. It’s better now, but not perfect, alas.

    But through the process, I discovered that the way I’d always written for years (I’ve been writing fanfiction for years) was what worked for me. A bit of outlining, a bit of pantsing. Shallow POV in some places and deep POV for greater impact. I’ve learned to take advice, see if it works for me, and throw it out if it doesn’t. I can’t pants an entire draft anymore, nor can I rigidly outline the whole thing. The very broad Three Act Structure and James Scott Bell’s LOCK acronym work for me.

  8. i have to laugh because I’m a Stephen King type. I ploted my entire last book and got writer’s block half way through because my characters disagreed with my direction. Whatever works for you, as a writer, is the way to go.

  9. Hello! Your article is perfect! I just published a novel, which I wrote without taking a single creative writing course — oops, yes, there were a couple of weekend workshops…. I wrote passionately, several versions, before I was satisfied — the entire process took me 20 years! The novel is getting rave reviews — genuine ones, and was selected as Book of the Month of UK’s Prediction Magazine. And while a hundred friends gave me invaluable feedback over the decades, I mainly followed my own story-telling instincts…i can’t imagine how they can be specific rules for writing — when we are each unique and have such different tales to tell. However, the big ones — practice practice practice – work to your own standard of perfection — pour your heart and soul into every word — and drop the ego, write as if the gods were pouring their fuel into you….hold fast, at least for me. My novel: Whip of the Wild God (Author: Mira Prabhu) Blog: — you can read the first three chapters via my blog for free. Sorry for the self-promo, but after saying what I did, i thought i should offer this info.

  10. There is an old saying “A person with two clocks never knows what time it is.” So it goes with writing. We are all different how we handle the task of writing.I am grateful for all the wonderful ideas, thoughts and considerations in writing, but in the end, I think we must all decide the best approach to our craft.

  11. I love this! I chafe at the “rules of writing” that are imposed on writers, like Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules.

    All the advice is great, except when it isn’t. Every book and every writer is different. I think Gaiman’s is closest – a writer should pay attention to readers’ concerns about undefined things that just don’t work, but must find his or her own solution. It is, after all, your own work of art.

  12. I tend to agree with you. When a fellow writer asks me to critique something, I try to not say that he or she needs to do such-and-such. I try to tell him or her what I like, what I dislike simply as a matter of personal taste, and what I think doesn’t work and can be improved. For the latter, I explain why I think it does not work, suggest what I think would improve it, and leave him or her to decide whether it needs changing and whether to accept my suggestions.

    1. Exactly. I give hundreds of suggestions to authors in their manuscript critiques, but I tell them it’s their book and to trust their intuition to know if that’s really the best way to proceed. I may think I’m spot on, and that might be how I would write that book if it were mine, but it’s not my book. However, as you’ll see in a lot of upcoming posts about brainstorming ideas, I find that if I throw a lot of cool ideas at a client’s problematic scene or plot device or problem, that will usually get their creativity jumpstarted enough that they can intuitively find the right solution to the problem.

  13. I can’t think of two writers more different than Toni Morrison and Stephen King, yet those are the two on your list whose advice works for me. Plotting ruins the fun for me. So yes I write in drafts and sometimes have to delete good scenes but it’s better than writing an outline and then not wanting to write the book. I used to feel like something was wrong with me because advice to focus on word count, as if the number of words is the most important thing, didn’t work for me. If my instincts tell me something isn’t right I have to wait it out until I know why.Some days I write three pages, other days one sentence, but if that sentence takes the story in the right direction, it’s a great writing day.
    Fun post. Just goes to show that writers are as different as their stories are.

  14. I have just published my first book. I had the story in my head for years, never knowing which way it actually was going. It was playing with my mind and heart. I enjoyed it, played around with words, invented characters. Sometimes I fell in love with them, sometimes I destroyed them. I was on a mission. Had to get the story out. I have been watched during the whole process, by family, friends, other writers. Critics, advise, plenty of them. At the end, I just kept writing. I created my own piece of art. And I loved it.I still do. I did listen to everything people had to say about my written words. But I made the decision. I wrote them. Commercially, it is not a shade of some color. So what? I write. That’s what I do.

  15. I love this piece and it’s contemporary for me as a developing novelist and an avid writing group and workshop member. What seems to fit most and what I like most is the wild diversity among solutions and the focus on trusting ones intuitive sense. All input can be valuable, even, and maybe especially, to leave alone.

  16. I have never commented on Live Write Thrive before, but this is as good a time as any to say your blog is inspirational and great fun. The articles are always engaging and thought provoking, and the readers comments are routinely intelligent and worth reading! We should have a party–I would love to meet such wonderful people! I am a non-fiction writer, but I find lots of information here that I can and do apply to my work.

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