Writing is like dragons: it’s different for everyone, even if we all agree on it generally, it’s fearsome to face, even more fiercely rewarding to conquer, and it popularly involves damsels somehow, often at its own expense (objectification of damsels in a plot = shabby story, objectification of damsels by dragons = angry knights with really pointy swords). I’m not sure what all that means, but it’s not my job to understand what I’m writing, just to write it. The dragon must be vanquished, even if his dietary and social habits are not ever studied or properly understood. Dragons are an under-appreciated race, despite being wicked cool, though it’s mostly their fault for always eating their callers and being so ridiculously obsessed with sleeping on money. Though, I mean, really, can we say anything much better about humans?
Anyway, today I wanna talk about writing advice, which totally has everything to do with dragons. Okay, you got me, I actually just kinda wanna talk about dragons, but I also sort of had some half-baked thoughts about writing advice (not any actual advice of my own, mind you, just thoughts on other people’s, because that’s easier and takes way less personal intelligence), and it’s a good excuse to talk about dragons. That’s the nice thing about dragons, isn’t it? Anything goes with dragons. You want zombie dragons? Sure, absolutely, that makes perfect sense. Dragons that breathe water? Heck yeah, it’s just like reverse fire, right? Who cares where they’re getting all that excess moisture, it’s not important (the answer, of course, is Magic with a capital M, and hands spread wide with your fingers wiggling slightly, which totally makes the explanation 100% more reasonable).
Writing is very much the same way. We all know what it is, even if we only dimly grasp how it works (it’s Magic, not science, unless you’re Jules Verne, in which case I applaud you, and ask pretty please to see your time machine, and if you stole it from H. G. Wells), and it can be pretty much anything, despite us all totally getting it. You could write a story about a superintelligent toaster from another galaxy (though not anymore, as I just called dibs on that idea) and it would still be a story, and everyone would totally get that. And you could write that story pretty much any way you wanted, so long as you wrote it. Heck, you could write it while standing on your head, dictating to your computer in Klingon (assuming you have a text-to-speech app that understands Klingon, in which case please send me the link to that, as I need that in my life right now), and so long as you actually finished it, and didn’t get lost somewhere on the way like I always do and end up at a psychological 24-hour Denny’s at mentally four o’clock in the morning (which is basically all writer’s block is), it would be a story and people wouldn’t think twice about it. Unless you left it in the original Klingon, but even then hardcore Trek nerds would be all over it. Actually, they’d probably be so happy to read an original story in Klingon they’d be way more forgiving of its faults than the ordinary press, so that’s actually kind of a good thought. I don’t suppose anyone knows where I can learn Klingon…?
I’m being facetious, of course—I already know where to learn Klingon. It’s on Duolingo.
Anyway, the point I was getting at before I derailed and starting talking about Klingon is that it doesn’t matter how you write, so long as you actually do write. And so long as you don’t break any laws, or hurt yourself overmuch, or actually at all. Oh, and so long as the story is at least halfway good, but that’s less important. If you write something and it turns out rubbish, you can just call it a practice round and still feel like a hero. Once again, it’s like dragons: Even if you slay the smallest, measliest one, you still killed a freaking dragon, which is way cool, if a bit monstrous. And isn’t that what writing really is? Minus the monstrous thing (maybe)?
And that’s sort of my problem with a lot of mainstream writing advice. Bam! Bet you didn’t see that coming, did you? From Klingon, to dragons, to the thing I was actually supposed to be talking about. I told you I knew what I was doing. Well, actually, I didn’t, and I would’ve been lying if I did, but you don’t need to know the secret machinations that go on behind the curtain of words, or rather the complete lack of secret machinations. What matters is I wrote the thing, and you read the thing. Whether you think it was a plan all along isn’t important. But it totally was (not). Okay, I’m doing myself a slight disservice here. There was (part of) a plan. Kind of. Maybe not. It’s secret, okay?
Anyway, my problem with mainstream writing advice, right. Totally on topic here. The thing with mainstream writing advice is that it’s usually, well… Let’s not split hairs here, it’s kind of full of itself. Because it’s Right, right? It’s the Right way to Write. Right Write Right. It’s like that stupidly successful businessman who has made millions working at his father’s company saying that all you have to do is “work hard,” and it’s got nothing to do with opportunities. Admittedly (and thankfully) writing is a lot more skill-based than life, but it’s also a lot more flexible, just like dragons. Dragons are flexible, like cats. Mixed with dinosaurs. Which is precisely why they’re way cool (cats = cool, dinosaurs = cool, cats + dinosaurs = way cool = DRAGONS). Who said that writing wasn’t a science? Wait, I did.
And that’s kind of the point, right? It’s easy to say things about writing—you don’t even have to be a writer to do that. It’s easy to say you need to make sentences like this, and talk about your characters like that, and outline your plot the right way (i.e. my way). Anyone can talk like that, with a little practice. Authority has nothing to do with experience or intelligence, it’s just attitude (ask anyone who has a boss, or just Google politics). It doesn’t matter what I know; so long as I talk like I’m British, everyone will believe me. If I have a Youtube channel, I’m automatically an expert, right? That’s the magic of the internet—we all get to play newspaper journalists, while knowing even less than they did (which wasn’t much, by all accounts).
And even if you are a Super Successful Novelist Wizard Writer of Successful Stupendousness (I’m calling preemptive dibs on that title, too, for when I eventually do publish something, if only because it will be wonderfully ironic), and you know all these things about writing, you’re still just you. Writing is like dragons: it’s different for everybody. Smaug ain’t no Toothless, and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy ain’t no Lord of the Rings. Stories are all different, and they’re all written in different ways, because we’re different people (surprise surprise). That perfect balance of planning and improvisation that you may have achieved may just not work for other people. That plot-outlining trick where you imagine all your characters as chickens in a wagon trying to escape the butcher (let the record show, I do not do this) may just not be as effective for other writers. Sure, doing headstands and writing in Klingon could be fantastically inspiring for you, but for me… Well, I don’t know Klingon, and I can’t do headstands. You see where I’m going with this? Good, because I don’t.
And that’s not to say that writing advice can’t be useful—it can be, and I believe that firmly enough to even dispense a little of my humble horde when called upon—but it is to say that it is definitely unsalted. Meaning that it requires a grain of salt—specifically, many, many grains of salt. What works for Successful T. Samantha Bestsellinger may not work for you, and what works for Internet Authority Phil, contributor to WikiHow, who may or may not even write himself, probably won’t work for you. But, if it does work for you, that’s great, because the whole point of writing is to, y’know, write. Boy that was profound.
I feel like I’m kind of dancing in circles here, which is seen as alluring in some circles (you see what I did there?), but hopefully a few shards of my poorly-chiseled point are coming through. It’s easy to dispense advice, much harder to implement it, and even easier to use it and find yourself worse off, or just plain confused. Impostor’s syndrome runs deep in our tradition, and nothing cripples the insecure aspiring author (speaking from personal experience here) like being told we’re Doing it Wrong. Let me give you an example.
Recently, I was perusing the internet (that’s a lie—my mother actually sent me a link, I’m not really much of a peruser myself), and I came across a blog that was (you guessed it) dispensing writing advice. It had nothing to do with dragons, but shockingly, I read it anyway. It started out alright, but the more I read it, the more I got confused, and then just generally became kind of gently disgusted with it. I’m obviously not going to name names (the hilarity of hyperlinking that did not escape me, but I’m sincere about this), because there’s no point in that, but the general crux of the article seemed to rest on this idea of worrying what, or who, you sounded like. Now, obviously there’s merit to examining and understanding the sound and feel of your prose, but I don’t think that’s what they were talking about. I think the specific example they used was something like worrying about sounding like a “over-educated fifth grader,” or something. Now, putting aside I don’t even know what that’s supposed to sound like, I have serious issues with the assumptions this worry rests on. I thought we were here to blanking write, not play AutoTune with prose. For the love of dragons, why should you care who you sound like, so long as your story’s good and your characters genuine?
Obviously, imitation is a worthy and useful thing, to a degree, but no one honestly and genuinely imitating a great author for the sake of getting better themselves is going to compare themselves to that author… Right? Like, do we do that, seriously? That just seems kinda messed up. You can’t compare yourself to other people like that, because you’ll never be them, and trying to be them, or judging yourself by other people’s identities rather than your own, is just going to seriously mess with your worldview. Like, if you can’t comfortably sound like who you are (and instead, say, try to write dark, gritty novels all the time instead of funny blog posts about dragons, heheh…), then you need to sit down and get comfortable, because you can’t change who you are deep down. You can totally improve yourself, and become a better version of yourself, but what you sound like is gonna be tied up with your identity, to some degree, and you’re gonna be happiest when you’re sounding like yourself. If you like Pokémon, but don’t do anything about it because It’s Not the Cool Thing, then you’re gonna feel all miserable and shrivelly till you do Pokémon (whatever that entails—don’t look at me, I only really know Magic: The Gathering). Your writing style and your identity kind of work the same way: you’re going to figure them out as you go, but ultimately you’re going to get them figured out, and then it’s just going to be a matter of improving them, or ignoring them and trying to be something you’re not (and thus being miserable and unsuccessful at the same time).
Okay, so, I can’t really say that got derailed there, because this is technically what I’m supposed to be talking about, but it got really hard on the rails. Let’s just take a deep breath for a moment. There we go, that’s a lot better. Okay, let’s do this.
When you read, you’re learning more and more not just about the story, but also stories in general, and how they work and how to write them. Books that have a profound impact on you and teach you a lot are going to have an impact on your style. However, as far as I can tell, that’s kind of a natural, organic thing. You certainly can’t just import someone else’s style. And, as I see it, you certainly shouldn’t be worrying about sounding like someone else, whether real or imagined (I’m looking at you, over-educated fifth graders—I don’t think you’re even a real group of people). How you sound is just how you sound, and if you’re being true to the way you wanna write, there’s nothing wrong with that, as far as I can tell.
I’ve rambled a lot here, and probably said a lot of things that don’t make perfect sense, but I’ve never been one to want exact change (sense, cents, heheh, puns…). I didn’t get to talk about dragons as much as I wanted, but hey, life isn’t perfect.
What about you? Where do you think the balance lies between imitating the greats, and staying true to your own personal style? Do you worry about sounding like something or someone, and is that worry as problematic to you as I feel it is, or does it actually help you write better? Are you vaguely fed up with writing advice, too, for reasons not quite fully explained (despite the length of this article)? Let me know in the comments.
Non potui cogitare quid dicam.