Lots of writers put out writing advice on their social media feeds, which is cool and I’m glad for it. It’s not something I do, though, and I’ve wrestled with it a lot. There’s a part of me that thinks I’m not really qualified, that I’m not studied enough for that. Then again, I also know that impostor syndrome is a fucker so that’s not really what stops me.
The thing that stops me is how I feel like most writing advice sucks. Even the good advice.
Writing advice is almost always delivered as dos and don’ts and NEVERs. Don’t do prologues and epilogues. Don’t use -ly adverbs. Don’t use descriptive dialogue tags; just use “said” because it’s invisible. Never use passive voice. Don’t use multiple POVs in a single chapter. And always, always, you hear “Show, don’t tell.”
The trouble is, there are times when any and all of that shit WORKS. Y’know what? Sometimes telling really is better than showing. Sometimes passive voice is totally the proper voice. And yeah, “said” is invisible (like privilege), but it’s also characterless and dull and using more descriptive dialogue tags can do work. It’s all a matter of not over-using stuff and making thoughtful choices with your words.
One thing I will say as a solid rule: fuck literally everything about “Mary Sue” concerns. That bullshit started as sexist garbage and it hasn’t gotten any better with age. You want some “never” advice? Never give a fuck about someone’s opinions on a fictional work once they start calling characters “Mary Sue.”
But “be thoughtful and don’t overdo it” is boring advice. It’s not simple. It doesn’t fit into a tweet or a list of bullet points.
Almost all of my novels have prologues. Has that cost me readers? Would I be making more money if I didn’t use prologues or adverbs or flashbacks? Hell if I know. That’s the trouble with opportunity costs: sometimes they’re unknown. But at some point, you have to ask who you’re writing for, ’cause if you’re not writing for yourself first chances are you aren’t gonna tell the story you actually want to tell, and it’ll come through in your writing.
I may have lots to say about writing fight scenes or explicit smut scenes* or character death, but in the end, that’s all in the eye of the beholder, too. Some readers want a play-by-play. Some of them want that fight to be over in three sentences. Both of these positions are completely valid. That’s a matter of “who’s your audience?”
And I’m sure any number of writers can come along and tell me I’m wrong.
Before I started writing for a living, I taught high school history. Usually I tell students the only answer to any history question that is short AND true is, “It’s complicated.” At this point I kinda feel like writing is the same way.
*I’m happy to give all the advice I can think of on writing sex scenes or fight scenes if there’s interest. Turns out a lot of that advice applies to both.)