I’ve been writing professionally for a while now, and writing unprofessionally for a lot longer.
What’s the difference? Of course, being published helps. Having work out there for people to praise/destroy is part of what it is to be a ‘professional writer’, but there’s much more to it than simply having a book out there. In fact, the most successful of writers become professional writers long before that first release.
Professional writing is about attitude. It’s about grafting and persevering through the hard times, focusing on getting those words on the page, and making a commitment to ourselves (and to others) to get quality material out there. As well as reading books on craft, it’s about reading the works of peers and adding their techniques to our ever-growing palette. It’s about creating worlds and making people think/scared/heave.
As with all professions, there is a lot of fantastic advice out there. There’s also a lot of bad advice. In this post, I want to identify a few of the most common writing myths I’ve encountered in my writing career so far, and why if followed, they will bring you nothing but eternal dissatisfaction. I don’t mean to inadvertently criticise anybody who may have supported these myths in the past — we all learn the hard way — rather suggest an alternate way of thinking that will ultimately lead to a more productive professional writing lifestyle.
1. The first draft should be perfect.
I still encounter this writing myth every day and it completely baffles me. The first draft is exactly what it says on the tin — a first draft. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a writer who throws the kitchen sink at it and blasts out 80,000 words in two weeks or someone who edits sentence by sentence as they progress: the first draft will likely be a structural and characterisation nightmare. That’s just the way it goes.
Personally, I wouldn’t quite call myself a ‘kitchen sink’ writer but I don’t edit when I’m writing my first draft. I have a clear idea of where I want to go, and although I may deviate from the path, thus surprising myself, usually the destination is always very clear. That way, I have the freedom to enjoy the journey without getting bogged down in editing or cleaning up.
Allow yourself to write absolute drivel. If you come out of a 1,000 word writing session thinking, ‘shit, I didn’t get anywhere today’ then take that as a sign of victory over your evil inner critic. Not only have you shut your inner critic up and written through it, you’ve actually accepted what you’ve written and moved on.
Tomorrow, you can write 1,000 brilliant words, or even more drivel. You have the rewriting process to sort it all out. Banish this writing myth and your productivity will increase massively.
2. You should write every day.
Yeah, this one drove me mad for a while too. I think it’s a writing myth that all us professional writers are guilty of, simply because it seems so logical. If an office-worker is expected to put in a weekly shift then so should us writers, right?
Not necessarily. Some days, we’re simply too caught up in other commitments to write. Family, friends — what burdens, eh? But no, it’s important to take time out every now and then. Although writing every day is a nice idea in practice, for the obsessive like myself, it’s also a recipe for disaster.
Why? Well, say I miss a day, I spend the whole day feeling bad for doing something perfectly social and acceptable at the expense of writing. I spend the following day trying to catch up, which just leads to burnout.
Stressing over writing every day is an unnecessary burden. Instead, I find it more productive to aim to write for five days per week, with a day or two off at the weekend depending on how productive I’m feeling. I’d advise always taking a day off though. You’ve spent a hard week writing, you deserve a bit of time to catch up on a novel or watch the latest episode of your favourite TV show, or whatever.
3. You should rewrite your novel until it is perfect.
Another common writing myth that almost always ends in tears is the idea that the novel should be ‘perfect’ after the rewrites.
I’ve got some bad news for you, sunshine — no novel is perfect. Jane Austen? Pah. Graham Greene? Nah, England Made Me dragged on waaay too much. Although you should strive to make your novel as clean and consistent as possible, aiming for perfection is dangerous because you simply won’t get there.
Instead of aiming for perfection — an unachievable writing myth — take a look at the three-act structure. Test your characters — do they work? Are their goals clear? Send the thing out to a few beta readers and get some honest feedback. Most importantly, when everything’s tight, send it out to an editor.
The fact is, you’ll find infinite ways to fix your novel, even when it’s out there and published. There are some sentences in my fiction that I’d work differently were I to write them again, but letting go is important. Correcting typos and fixing inconsistencies — that’s fine, but no major rewrites once the thing is published (unless, of course, it’s a mess, in which case it shouldn’t be published). Strive for tightness and consistency, not perfection.
4. If you hate your novel, it probably means it isn’t very good.
I’ll tell you a secret: I hate What We Saw.
Does that mean it’s a bad novel? This common writing myth would have me believe so but I don’t like to think it is. Although every novel gets the occasional negative review (oh the joys of free speech), the amount of praise it receives makes me think I must have done something right.
That said, I couldn’t read it again. I simply couldn’t.
Why not? Because I’ve read the damned thing hundreds of times already. It’s one thing reading a book multiple times, but stressing over every single line and sentence and paragraph and chapter — ugh.
So go on — I give you permission to hate your novel. If you do, then you’re probably doing something right.
5. You should write in the genre you primarily read in.
This one’s a tricky little writing myth to deal with.
Although I agree that increased exposure to a particular genre leads to a better understanding of the codes, conventions and clichés, I don’t think any writer should limit themselves simply because they prefer to read in that genre.
I like reading literary novels. I also like horror — particularly psychological stuff — as well as thrillers and crime fiction. I’m partial to a well-written romance. As for my writing, I’ve tended to lean towards the thriller genre because it’s the genre I enjoy writing in the most.
Does that mean I won’t write a romance in the future? In the days of traditional publishing, perhaps so. My creative impulses would have been curtailed in favour of financial gain. With the rise of self-publishing, writers don’t have to limit themselves anymore.
Whilst I might not be hanging up my thriller-writing gloves just yet, there’s nothing to stop me doing so in future. Write in the genre you want to write in and screw what anybody else says. Except me. Please.
As a reward for getting this far, I leave you with a teaser of the Killing Freedom cover, courtesy of the ever-fantastic Lloyd Lelina. To be notified as soon as the book is available, click here.
Have you struggled with any of these common writing myths? Would you add any others to the list?
Image courtesy of matryosha via Flickr.