You hear the advice everywhere. It gets pronounced from high upon soap boxes, repeated as gospel, and heeded often without thinking. It makes for a pithy reply to the question “how do I…?” and absolves the responder from delving into the heart of whatever question was asked. Some of it is good advice in principle, but boiled down to a hard, leathery core too unyielding to be practical. Other bits are a matter of personal preference codified into law by whoever said it first, ages ago.
Here are the ones I choose to break.
Put Your First Draft in a Drawer for X Days/Weeks/Decades
I’ve heard writers say that anywhere from three days to two months is the right amount of time to distance yourself from your manuscript before picking it back up to start revisions. The theory is that you need to forget what you meant and read it as a reader (or an impartial editor). If that theory were to hold, you would pick up on omitted details that you knew but somehow never managed to write and awkward sentences wouldn’t convey what you intended them to say instead of what they do.
The problem? I’m not going to forget.
There is no amount of time I’m willing to put aside a first draft that will separate me from the gritty details that might make me overlook its warts. Conversely, putting the manuscript aside is going to make me forget the feel of the story, which is far more important to me. When a draft is new, the first few chapters involve a feeling-out process (especially for the first book in a series). By the end, characters may have smoothed out and rounded into form. Some may have required backstory tweaks, or altered their speech patterns. By putting off going back for editing, you lose the chance to keep that end-of-book feeling in your brain as you revise the beginning to match.
I start editing the day after I finish the first draft.
Write What You Know
This may be good advice for writing crime procedurals, medical dramas, or anything involving firearms. But what do you do when you’ve decided that you’re writing about an underground civilization with rune magic and dragons? Do you need to talk to zoologists, civil engineers, and local occult practitioners for research? You’re likely to get a condescending lecture, a well-reasoned explanation about impractical city planning, and an education in a rune system that isn’t compatible with your world’s magic.
Speculative fiction is the playground of the imagination. It’s about telling readers about things no one knows.
The alternative is that the only people who write are retired black ops agents, mad scientists, and serial romantics. You wouldn’t see much fantasy or science fiction without actual wizards or time travelers.
This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t research topics that come up in your writing that you’re not knowledgeable on. Writers have cause to look up information on all sorts of topics, from the proper terminology for parts of a castle to the ingredients needed to make lethal poisons in a temperate forest. Research fills in the gaps between what we know, what we imagine, and what we need to write.
An aside: This is one area where I think fiction has fallen into a trap of sorts. By writing “what they know,” many heterosexual white males have left out viewpoints that they can’t slip their minds into easily. Whether through fear of offending or disinterest in alternate perspectives, it has been responsible for under-representation in fiction. It’s a trap I try to avoid falling into.
Always End in the Middle
The theory is that you never want to start the day with a blank page. Some people find a blank page intimidating. Not me. I’ve defeated enough of the buggers by now that I know I can take one in a fair fight. Blank pages are wimps, bullies who pick on the shy, bookish sorts who… wait, that sounds a lot like many writers. Hey! Don’t let that bully ruin your writing life… go George McFly and stand up to them.
But do you know what really bothers me? What bugs the crap out of me? Leaving something half-finished.
I might be able to stop mid-scene to grab lunch, or find out what horrible mayhem my cat just caused in the other room, but I can’t end my day’s writing like that. Well, I can, but I hate it. Hate. Hate. Hate it. When I’m not writing, I spend many of the spare processor cycles in my brain going over upcoming scenes. Half-finished scenes gum up the works. I’ve already given them due consideration, yet I’ve left the door open to change things, and facts aren’t set in order to make plans for those upcoming scenes as solid as they could be.
Is it neurotic? Probably. But it’s the way I work.
Advice is advice. It’s not a rule. And advice meant for the world at large means that maybe it works for a majority of people. Don’t get hemmed in by following advice that doesn’t work for you. If you’re struggling, try new ways, whether it’s something suggested to you by a blogger, a book, or a friend. But none of them are any more valid a source of writing process than your own trial-and-error. Whatever produces results for you, go with it.
Great rule-breaking advice!
First point -draft in a drawer- might work for people who are writing short novel or can Sanderson-juggle many books at the same time. For a single-novel type like me, I agree with your view. There’s no way I’m putting my big child away unreviewed for any amount of time.
About the “Write what you know” thing, I do see the point in this. We are writing fantasy, alright, but if you have a degree in, say, political science, make it count!. Make those societies look alive, write about how normal people can -and will- support any totalitarian regime provided it’s their own guys who run it. Write about fascism and nationalism in a medieval fantasy realm. Among thousands of writers, you will have an edge with that sort of “write what you know”.
Thank you for your posts!