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Writing Wednesday: Bad Advice From (Supposedly) Good Writers

May 4, 2011

Hooray, I can thank Roger Ebert for providing me with fodder for another post.  Only this one’s not about movies.  It was April 25 when he Tweeted (or reTweeted) Zadie Smith’s advice that you shouldn’t have your computer hooked up to the Internet when you type.

My reaction:  “Oh, puh-leeze.”

Look, I write on a NETbook.  My apartment has Wifi, as does Panera Bread and Starbucks, where I do most of my writing–at least when the weather is cold or crummy–and most libraries have it now too.  Even McDonald’s, Tim Hortons, and other fast food places have Wifi.  So basically wherever I go, my computer is hooked up to the Internet.  Does that mean I don’t write anything?  Fuck no.  Just the opposite last year.

The only time I get distracted by the Internet on the computer is when I’m tired and just really don’t feel like writing in the first place.  That’s my point here:  writers write.  When I really want to write it doesn’t matter if I’m writing at Starbucks or in a subway station (if we had such things in metro Detroit) I’m going to get some writing done if that’s what I want to do.

Point #2:  distractions are everywhere!  Even if it’s not the Internet, I can get distracted by neighbors stomping around upstairs, loud people at the Starbucks, interesting bird out the window, or even a spot on the wall.  But again, these distractions only occur when I’m not that focused on writing, or when I’m at a point where I need to stop and think.

Of course it would be easy to sneer and say, “Well yeah but you’re a nobody and Zadie Smith is somebody.”  (Though for the record I thought White Teeth sucked.)  That doesn’t mean everything she says is great advice.  Just because a writer is published doesn’t instantly make everything they say gospel.

The important thing to remember is that when writers give advice, they’re saying what works for them.  That might not work for YOU.  So take it with a grain of salt.  Try it if you want and see if it works for you.  If it doesn’t, don’t think you’re doing something wrong; you’re just not Zadie Smith, which I would say is a good thing.  Ebert would probably disagree.

Just for Briane Pagel, I’m going to make a Star Wars reference.  Remember in the prequels Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson in the first one) decided that Anakin must be the Chosen One and should become a Jedi.  How did that turn out?  Not so good.  So even Jedi Masters can be wrong.  (Though if you want to get into a nerdy argument you can say it worked out in the long run…after millions of people, clones, and droids were killed and enslaved.)

Friday I lament the sorry state of movies today…


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  1. Yes, definitely. If I’m in the zone with my writing, the only thing that’s going to get me onto the ‘net is to quickly research something on wikipedia. If I’m not in the zone, then not being online won’t help, I’ll find something else to distract myself with.

    That’s a good point about all advice being personal. There are no rules for how to get yourself to write, it’s different for everybody.

  2. Yes, I hear this over and over again, so it must be sound advice: Writers need to find what works for them and then do it. 😉

  3. So true. Everyone is different, so not everything works for everyone. Case in point. Some authors swear by writing to music (making sound tracks for each book) while I write in silence. Big thumbs up if it works the them. But me?Honestly, when I’m writing I’m so focused I wouldn’t hear the music even if it was playing.

    • I write with my MP3 player on when I’m out to filter ambient noise. At home sometimes I’ll just put on the Classical station on my cable’s music stations and listen to that. But yeah, that’s just what I do, which from my results is probably not recommended for everyone else!

  4. I always say that all bits of advice are guidelines. There aren’t all that many rules in writing. 🙂

  5. Love the post, and not just because I’m mentioned.

    “Advice is a form of nostalgia, dispensing it is a way of fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts and recycling it for more than it’s worth.”

    I write with music playing (to set a mood) or with the radio playing (because I don’t like to read the newspaper anymore, since I’m trying to prove a point about newspapers. It’s a long story.)

    And Scott Turow wrote his first book riding on the Metro, which worked out pretty well for him.

    I myself kind of like the distraction — I almost always have some other form of media in the background; it helps me focus.

    • Writers with spouses/kids/pets are bound to face a lot more distractions than someone like me.

      Maybe working in a dark bunker cut off from the outside world works for Zadie Smith and others, but I would hate that.

      And the world needs more Star Wars references!

  6. Those spots on the wall are so distracting to me – which is why I insist they be spotless before I write. But I guess procrastination is another topic altogether.

    • It’s not just the spots on the wall; if there’s any small object nearby I’ll start playing around with it if I start getting bored. Like at work I twirl around the little white-out tape dispenser thingy. I’m very easily amused like that. Probably ADHD or something.

  7. My process is to write 1000 words a day. That usually doesn’t take very long. Once I hit that point, I usually stop unless I’m on a real roll which doesn’t happen very often. The reason I stop is that the longer I write, the more hurried my writing tends to be because I want to get to a scene that’s floating in my head or something. If I force myself to just take time and describe things and work on dialogue and then stop and hold that scene off, I discover I’m happier with the end product. That being said, I’m always connected to the internet. I don’t have a problem not using it and it comes in useful on spot lookups and spell checks etc.

    I think it’s wierd that writers provide so much advice on writing. Personally, I’m a traditionalist and think writing advice belongs in a classroom. Successful writers should post advice on selling. This is what I do to sell my work. This is what I did to pimp myself to a publisher (not how many adverbs they trim). If they want to tell you how they got an agent…they should never start with “I write so damn brilliant and this is my process”… They should say, “I write just like everyone else and I got my agent cause I have nice legs and found out which starbucks he or she hung out at and showed up there with my Coco Chanel purse and we started hanging out.” That’s an exaggeration of course, but it’s about selling, not about writing.

    Too many writers have Charlie Sheen syndrome. They want to hit other people with the hashtag #winning and then explain why they’re winners and you’re a loser and if you want to win you copy them. It’s a refusal to believe that they sold themselves. That they wrapped themselves up in a brand and they were the right price and bammo, someone bought. Maybe there’s a social stigma to being a salesman? No salesman afterall were ever lauded as brilliant so it goes against the whole “Sheenius” dilemma. How can I be praised for my amazing mind if I admit that I can sell snow to an Eskimo? How is that a talent?

    It is a talent though. Hitler had it…massive charisma. Sure he used it to kill 6 million jews but he could have just as easy sold 6 million books. It wouldn’t have mattered what was in it.

    • Hasn’t Hitler sold 6 million books yet? Not sure how well Mein Kampf’s been selling. Is that on Kindle? Probably not.

      It kind of bugs me when I go to all these other writing blogs and it’s all “This person does this” and “This person says that” and all this self-help nonsense. I’ve never found writing a book to be that hard, but then I’ve been doing it on and off since I was 12. Even back then it was pretty obvious. I mean, I read a lot of books, so it wasn’t that hard to come up with my own. Writing a “good” book, now there’s the rub.

      But yeah advice on selling the book would be far more interesting than Zadie Smith’s Writing for Luddites crap. Sad thing is she’s probably not even 40 yet; way too young to be railing against the evils of technology like some old fogy.

  8. Mutt go check out Nathan Bransford’s blog. He’s got his query letter posted. Things that I learned: 1) It seemed like a run of the mill query letter to me. I mean, I have several and have revised over and over on some (I showed you one and I agree with you that it had too much going on). 2) It didn’t matter that it was run of the mill…it was Nathan Bransford. He sent out 8 queries and got like 50% partial requests and a full ms request and bam agent. 3) He knew practically all of them and they knew him. Not faulting the guy at all. He’s charismatic and I’m going to buy his book in a week even though I won’t ever read it (who cares about a planet with burp breath)? It just reaffirms to me how you can get represented if you can string lines together and have a story if you just know people.

    • It seems every industry has its good ol’ boy/girl networks.

      • I wasn’t saying that he was undeserving. I think he’s as good a writer as you or I and perhaps even better? I dunno..I haven’t read his pre-edited stuff. I make the distinction of pre-edited because I think editors can really put a spin on a finished manuscript kinda like Fox News does on the relevant issues of the day.

  9. And that’s the reason why I don’t write about writing on my blog. Sure, I can say what works for me, but that’s just me. Everyone’s process is different, whether it’s a lot different or just a little different.

    Every post should have a Star Wars reference.

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