Are you thinking about trying your hand at a short story or a novel? Have you written a few, or started few, and aren’t sure where to go next? Here are some suggestions to help you move to the next step.

MY ADVICE IS THE BEST ADVICE YOU WILL EVER RECEIVE. (Read: sarcasm.) And everyone else who gives you advice—be it from their mouth or a book or the internet—thinks the same. They might not say it, but they do. Everybody else gives advice that you can’t always trust, except for theirs.

Except for mine. Mine you can trust because I'm going to tell you not to trust it.

DO YOU NEED ADVICE? Do you need to read books about writing or get people to critique your work? No. After all, approximately 1 in 1000 of all professional writers today have become successful without seeking advice. (Read: more sarcasm.) Who am I to say it can't be done? The statistics would make me a liar.

Okay, so you’d rather not have a measly 1 in 1000 chance of succeeding. Then whose advice should you take, and how much of it?

Here’s a breakdown of how successful would-be writers are at various levels of advice-taking. And by “advice-taking”, I mean everything from rules like “show-don’t-tell” to critiques from other people to suggestions from books. All of it.

WRITERS WHO FOLLOW LESS THAN HALF OF THE WRITING ADVICE THEY RECEIVE: These people don’t usually write for long, and don’t write very much. And what they do write is unfocused, unoriginal crap. They run out of steam because in a world with no rules, there’s no challenge, no guidance, and no motivation to produce a story that at least one other person in the world will want to read. They’re unoriginal because they aren’t aware of the mistakes and overused ideas that thousands of other writers have made. These are often the people who say that they “write for themselves.” Go ahead, write for yourself. There’s nothing I can do for you.

I pity these people. They are always frustrated and never happy. How could you be happy when everything you write is grievously flawed? Nothing can ever follow all of the rules. If your characterization is superb and your plot zings, then your setting isn’t as detailed as it could be. And if your characters, plot, and setting are all great, your novel is just too long. You can’t win. These people sometimes publish, but more often they burn out, or at best produce lackluster, derivative work. Following all the rules stifles originality and hides the unique strengths that every writer has. Sometimes it seems like the people in this category enjoy critiquing other peoples’ stuff more than they enjoy writing themselves. In any case, it’s no fun being them.

WRITERS HUMBLE ENOUGH TO FOLLOW A FAIR AMOUNT OF WRITING ADVICE BUT CONCEITED AND WISE ENOUGH TO REJECT SOME OF IT: A happy balance, but it still ain’t a cake-walk. You have to know when to flout the rules and when to obey them. You have to be willing to experiment and do something crazy, but you also have to put aside the juvenile desire to write an entire story in second person present tense just to prove it can be done. You have to recognize which “wild and original” rule-busting ideas are not wild and original at all, but instead have been done a thousand times (and you’ve never seen them in print because no one wants to read it, or because it worked fifty years ago and editors roll their eyes at it now.)

BOTTOM LINE: Don’t go to either extreme with writing advice. Most of it is decent, but all of it is suspect. Pick and choose carefully what advice to follow, and know why you make the choices you do.

COMING NEXT: To give you some help separating the sheep from the goats, my next lesson will cover some gems of writing advice, and the real deal on each of them. Remember, of all the advice you will ever receive, only mine is 100% trustworthy.

Lessons List * 1* 2* 3* 4* 5* 6* 7* 8* 9* 10* 11* 12

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