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Save a cat or dog

Save a cat or dog (Photo credit: rikkis_refuge)

At the bottom of one of the related posts that I linked to my last entry, I found an interesting comment thread in which the author and others debated the pros and cons of Save the Cat.  In this thread the author, The Living Notebook, said something to the effect that some writing advice books like Save the Cat can turn into marketing scams, because: 1. The authors over-simplify things to make it sound like their way is the only way, 2. The authors may or may not be any good at writing fiction themselves, and 3. The readers want to pretend that reading these advice books is the one thing they need to become a better writer, when the real way to become a better writer is to actually write stuff.

This got me thinking about writing advice in general.  How helpful is writing advice to potential writers, really?  Of course, it’s hard for me personally to be objective about this, since I put a whole lot of writing advice on my blog, and determining that my advice was actually harmful to writers would hurt my ego.  But really, is the vast library of writing advice we have out there now good or bad for writing?

Well, first of all, not all writing advice is created equal, as anybody who tries to use the internet to find out about writing will tell you.  If you obtain your advice the good old fashioned way by reading it off a physical page that you found on a physical shelf in a physical location, you can be pretty sure that it’s a least good enough for more than one person to stand behind it (otherwise it wouldn’t have been printed), but online you don’t have that confidence.  Anybody can go online and say anything they want to about writing, but that says absolutely nothing about whether they know what they’re talking about.

Case and point: This blog, M. Giroux Stories.  There’s nothing on here to prove that I know what I’m talking about.  I never said that I had any degree in writing that made me worth listening to, and readers just have to take my word for it that I do actually write fiction.  I might be good at writing or I might be an idiot with thirty poorly written, unpublishable novels my basement.  You don’t know.

The only way you have to evaluate my advice, or most other advice that you find online, is to look at the advice itself.  Am I consistent?  Do I make sense?  Do I sound as if I’ve put some thought into what I wrote instead of just gushing my raw emotions out into the blog-o-sphere?  How does what I say match up with other advice out there that seems to be good?  That’s how people figure out whether it’s a good idea to listen to me.

Second of all, the sad thing about good writing advice is that the people who need it the most aren’t the kind of people who are going to end up finding it.  The people who crank out ridiculously bad fiction aren’t reading writing advice, or if they are, they’re getting it from the first few websites they find online or the one book they read, and then they stick to it, good, bad or ugly.  On the other hand, the “writing perfectionists,” who are really concerned about writing fiction well, sometimes read so many pieces of advice that they get bogged down worrying about creating “perfect” fiction and can’t have any fun with their work.

But I don’t think writers, even good writers, should stop seeking out writing advice entirely, because fiction is so diverse.  One writing advice book, one writing blog, or one writing method can’t possibly tell you everything about writing that would be useful.  Rather, there are plenty of good writing websites, books and programs that all have something different to offer.  Good writers understand this, and that’s why some of them fill their shelves with books on writing.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing.

But these writers also need to remember that: 1. Reading more and more writing advice will not actually put any words onto your page.  Even my blog, as great as I might think it is, cannot move your personal work in progress forward.  You need to do that yourself.  2. You will never know everything there is to know about writing well.  3. Some writing advice, even good writing advice, can actually hurt you if you follow it to the extreme.  There’s a time and a place in writing for everything, a time to “show” and a time to “tell,” a time to describe your setting and a time to write nothing but action, a time to use active voice and a time when passive voice must be used, times not to use adverbs and plenty of times when you should… okay, you get the point by now.  The more simplistic a piece of advice is, the more likely it is that somebody will follow it when they shouldn’t.

RSPCA cat & mouse

It’s like that “Save the Cat” tip that The Living Notebook was griping about in his original post.  Not being that into film studies myself, I’m glad that I personally read that tip, because I agree that it’s nice to make your hero likable, and people who do nice things are likable.  But I also understand that you have to look at the individual story and not just mindlessly toss the standard “do-gooder” scene into it.  Let’s face it; there are plenty of really great main characters out there who just aren’t the kind of people who save cats.  Maybe your character is one of them.  But if YOU like your character, surely you can find a way to show your audience whatever aspects of your character you happen to like.  Maybe then they’ll like him too.

So my advice on writing advice is to read writing advice – with a grain of salt.  Read, think, write, and repeat.  Love your story and love the people who want to help you make it better, but learn how to say no when something someone suggests isn’t right for you, even if it’s something you found on this blog.  I think my advice is good, but I’m not perfect, so it’s very possible that some of my advice is BAD.  The same goes for anybody else out there.  Give us some consideration, listen to the good parts and learn from our mistakes.  That’s how to LEARN how to become a good writer.  Actually becoming a good writer involves actually writing though, so on that note, let’s all go write!