Or…When I Quit Listening to Writing Advice
About ten years ago, when I began to get a bit braver about showing my stories to humans other than J, I had a handful of creative/writer ‘friends’ that I let read a few stories. They were all men. None of them wrote (or read) love stories. Most of them didn’t even write character driven material, which is what I write. These men, unsurprisingly gave me advice about the stories I wrote.
I don’t intend to make a sexist assertion here, because John Green, who is one of my favorite writers, writes beautiful character driven material, and I’ve since made a very good writer friend, E, who is one of if not THE best beta reader/constructive editor I’ve ever had read my work, and he never offers me ‘expert’ wholesale advice on writing, and he actually says the same things my readers generally say; the opposite of all of the writing advice I heard before I actually decided after lots of patient coaching and encouragement from J to self publish my stuff. But speaking from my own personal experience as a quiet woman, men love to give me unsolicited, and it turns out, especially in the case of writing, often unhelpful advice.
The men I knew who read my work before I published love the cliche (and detrimental, I think…at least when it comes to writing character driven work, particularly love stories) ‘Kill your darlings.’
Make your characters suffer relentlessly.
Kill mains…especially if you care about them.
And mostly…edit your story down as tightly as you can. Tell the story with as few words as possible. Cut stuff. Then cut some more. Then cut some more.
One friend…who is admittedly a more commercially successful writer than me…told me to never write a short story over 10,000 words. In fact, he said, try to write stories under 5000 or even under 1000 words. “Most writing contests have word caps for short stories and the ultra high end of those caps is 10,000 words. Most are under 5 or 2 or 1000 words.”
He was earnestly trying to be helpful there. And I still feel flattered that he would push advice out to me about marketing, because it must have meant he thought I had some quality material. He thought I could sell it. He thought I could be seen. He was trying to assist me to maybe make a living as a writer. That was thoughtful, but I’m blessed to not have to need to support myself with writing, and I can focus solely on storytelling craft and message and my own creative control.
I get it. His wisdom and compliments didn’t go totally unappreciated. And I get the ‘cut stuff’ too. I really do. No one wants to read a whole bunch of redundant drivel. If your words aren’t saying something, they should probably be cut. Or at least changed. But I stopped following the directives of other writers once I found a real reader base. Because the feedback I was getting from readers? Was asking for what I wanted to do with my storytelling before I followed any advice from other people.
“I feel like I know these people and I don’t want their story to end.”
“I want more.”
“I love all these intimate details.”
And lots of specific questions about specific characters/relationships that they wanted answered, and that I DID answer in draft one…I knew all the answers. I had them readily available…because I’d already written them. And cut them. Because cut things. Cut some more. Then cut some more…
It turns out that there are readers out there who want to read the stories I wanted to write, exactly the way I wanted to tell them. Now, my edits are very rarely cuts. They are almost enhancements and expansions.
It’s still odd to me that there are humans out there in the world who look forward to reading the stories I write, but I am grateful for them. And aspiring writers have asked me for advice, which I also find extremely strange (but I don’t mind).
My advice is simple and maybe not commercially viable, but when I write this way myself, I feel the most fulfilled, so…
Write the story you want to tell. Write a story you’d want to read. You don’t have to adhere to someone else’s views about word counts or lean style or how to be ‘marketable.’ Tell the story in your head the way you want to tell it and be brave enough to let it go. Your audience will find you. It might be a small audience. But they will care about your characters and stories in similar ways you do. And they will not ask you to fit into a box or follow a bunch of virtually arbitrary rules or kill your darlings. If they do, don’t listen to them. (Don’t listen to me either if it’s stifling your storytelling.)
Lit, my next novel, is in final editing today and will hopefully be available to purchase and read sometime tomorrow.