Advice for the Lost Cause

So, sometime last week, Sarah found this page of alleged advice to writers, produced by someone who is not a writer. The list of egregious faults in said page is truly mind-boggling, and I’m reliably informed that members of the Hoyt Collective invented new forms of swearing due to reading this.

So don’t come whining to me about your brains exploding from the sheer quantity and execrable quality of the wrong in this thing. You have been warned.

On to the alleged advice. It comes in the form of one of those ever-popular “Ten things” lists. Presumably there’s something magical about having ten of them, since 9 or eleventy-bajillion never seems to happen. The 10 things part on its own would overload the WTF-per-minute-ometer but the explanations for each “thing” really blew the poor thing to pieces – and my WTF-per-minute-ometer is the best model you can get, specially optimized for antique, quirky software.

Thing one: Spend a day being a troll (under your own name, according to the advice section), then end the day by sincerely apologizing for being such an obstreperous wanker. This, the good lady tells us, is necessary to teach us to endure shame and shut down the inner censor.

Really? Sweetheart, if you saw half what my inner censor blocks, you’d run screaming into the night. As for enduring shame, if you need an external source to teach you that, you haven’t lost your moral compass: you never had one in the first place. Aside from which, this kind of thing is only appropriate for journaling as therapy. While I’d be the first person to say that writing fiction can be wonderfully therapeutic, that’s a side benefit. The main thing I’m trying to do is tell a damn good story as well as I possibly can.

Thing two: Spend a day being silent. This is apparently an exercise in self-awareness, although as a raging introvert who’s spent years living alone, only one day of silence is easy. I might exchange ten words with people during a normal day – and I’m married (the husband and I share some remarkably eloquent silences). One of my favorite activities is to find myself a pleasant location and sit and just absorb it. I’ll talk when I need to – like when the supermarket checkout girl wants to know if I’m going to use paper, plastic or something else. I’m not going to make the poor thing’s life any harder by going through some stupid pantomime in the interest of becoming more self-aware.

Thing three: Spend a day as a “student of reality” (I’m not making this up, you know) This, the editor-female says, is to teach us to write in our readers world. That’s all very well, but I don’t think I have any readers in alt-history late 1400s Eastern Europe. I’m damn sure I don’t have any in my other universes with the possible exception of the con vampire ‘verse and only because that one leaks like a busted sieve. I don’t know about you, but I happen to enjoy observing people and stuff so long as I’m in a sufficiently clear space. I don’t need to spend a day taking notes on the exact consistency of the cement tiles in location X when I’m going writing about someone whose only concern is that her shoes don’t get dirty.

Thing four: Spend a day with the lyrics of your favorite songs. By this our precious snowflake means to take a verse of said song and attach a honking great splat of details from your current circumstances (in excruciating detail, of course) to the lyrics, then analyze the results to see what kind of weird new meanings arise. The goal is to learn subtext.

Now aside from the unfortunate little fact that subtext is going to be different for everyone because of their history, if you haven’t figured out as a writer that you can set up a whole cascade of subconscious cues with the right words or the right little details, this exercise ain’t going to help you. It might be worth doing for drunken party games, but that’s about as far as I’d take it.

Thing five: Spend a day writing and rewriting a single scene. Apparently to teach hard work.

Darling, I know what hard work looks like. This isn’t it. This is nothing more than wankery pretending to be hard work. If a scene works, it works and it doesn’t need to be taken apart, much less rewritten five different ways to show up how a different perspective can make it totally different. That’s newbie stuff. As the whole “even more honestly” thing? Not everyone lies to themselves the way you do. But then, not everyone writes about themselves, either. I sure as hell don’t.

Thing six: Spend a day on research. Okay, this might look like a valid idea, until you look at what Ye Almighty Editor actually means by it. For starters, she doesn’t actually know what research is. For seconds it’s not going to teach deeper understanding the way she thinks it will. Oh, no… her exercise will generate a facile overview of a few topics, and some shallow essays of the sort I routinely pulled from unlikely portions of my anatomy all the way through high school and three degrees. Three and a half, actually, but who’s counting?

Thing seven: Spend a day watching children. Now aside from the fact that for some of us this is a highly refined form of torture, the reason for this exercise is allegedly to teach compassion for all your characters. That sproinging sound you heard was my WTF-per-minute-ometer finally giving up under the strain and blasting itself into spare parts.

To start with, I don’t need compassion for all of my characters. The fellow behind the bar who sells my main character some ale? He’s a bit player. I don’t need to know anything more about him than that he’s there doing his job. Same for the third enemy soldier from the left whose sole purpose in the book is to die horribly in a failed attack. Of course, I’m writing stories, not self-indulgent navel gazing literature, so I’m probably not the proper audience for this.

Thing eight: Spend a day crying. To learn – wait for it – courage. Lady, I live with depression. I have spent entire weeks crying. I do not need to do more of it to learn to be courageous. Courage is what gets me out of bed every damn morning and takes me to work every damn day. That and being a responsible adult, which is something I suspect our magnificent editor has not experienced. Or at least, not experienced much of.

Thing nine: Spend a day laughing at things only you think are funny. To learn to accept your uniqueness.

Honestly, this woman has no idea she has no idea. If you can’t accept that you’re a unique person with value no matter how good or bad you are, this exercise in futility ain’t going to change a thing. About the only good it will do is the purely physical good that comes from laughing, and you can get that by telling dirty jokes any time you please.

Thing ten: Spend a day being grateful. Okay. Gratitude for the good things in your life is not a bad thing. The kind of bullshit Pollyannaish nonsense this woman talks about as gratitude is just literary onanism – but then, to judge by the entire list, the dear lady’s entire career is editing various examples of literary onanism, and worse, loving them.

So, if you feel inclined to actually do any of these, don’t blame me when they don’t do you any bloody good whatsoever, and don’t come whining to me about it. You’re all adults, you’re all capable of taking yourselves to hell or heaven by any means you choose.

And that is something this person clearly does not understand.


  1. The more I look at that list, the sadder it gets. “Laughing at things that no one else thinks are funny”? Is that something that people really have to make a deliberate effort to do?

    It sounds as if she is writing for people who are conditioned to feel and act as part of a group, people for whom the entire concept of individuality is lost.

    All the academic literary establishment’s talk of diversity and inclusion is just window dressing. At its core is totalitarianism–you may only laugh at things the establishment says are funny, only cry at things that are officially sad, be angry when you are told to be angry, be indifferent when you are told to be indifferent.

    From that perspective, this list makes sense, in a very depressing, pathetic way. “We’ve spent thirty years beating any spark of creativity out of you, now we’re going to give you a set of exercises so you can learn how to fake being human well enough to write a book that someone outside the hive might read.”

    1. It does make sense from that perspective – except that they don’t fake it well enough, as a rule.

      1. Which is why they are always shocked when they end up with hundreds of thousands of copies of the latest literary masterpiece that they can’t give away, and come to the conclusion that the great unwashed just doesn’t understand real art.

        We understand it, all right. We just don’t like it.

        1. Indeed. Of course by their lights we’re incapable of forming a sensible opinion. They live life by “heads I win, tails you lose”.

          1. Yeah, have you noticed that? They condemn popular art because it’s not inclusive enough, and then turn around and use the exclusivity of academic-produced art as proof that it is somehow better.

  2. Ok, I’ll admit to not having sen the entire list before… but… omg, what does she edit again? This kind of pedantic BS is why 3/4 of the other people in my college creative writing course (at a film school, no less, with half the people in the class being wannabe screenwriters) thought I was some kind of ‘great writer’…

    I’ve seen lots of people who were fair-to-middling writers who led very ‘normal’ lives, with ‘normal’ physiologies and psychologies, try to write and well, its not bad but not great. It really sounds like this is who what is written for- people with no depth of experience to draw on, or whom have never had any hardship or … I don’t know how to say it. people with ‘normal’ lives need to stretch their minds in order to write anything outside their experience. Sometimes, if they are a really exceptional writer, they can pull it off. Other times, it reads as fake, contrived, thin, etc.

    Do i mean that people must have some adversity in their lives in order to write stories well? No. But it seems to help.

      1. True, that. Being a bit out of the norm seems to make for good writing fodder – but being able to do the standard craft things and being human seems to help a lot too.

        Adversity does help: it’s a little difficult to truly understand how a character will have the strength to go through hell and come out fighting when the worst you’ve suffered is not getting the grade you wanted.

  3. Gah. I get the impression that this woman is more interested in the trappings of being a writer than actually BEING a writer. She can suffer for her art, without actually producing any.

  4. Down in the comments, Victoria explains what she seemingly hopes these will accomplish.

    “They are meant as exactly what everyone is taking them for (they know me): absolutely serious advice on digging down through the layers of persona we all use, to the authentic, unique human being inside who is the source of all real creativity.

    The more you laugh and cry, the more you understand the meaning of life. And that meaning is your entire reason for writing fiction.”

    So I guess when you reach way down deep inside, and find your inner child — that’s the meaning of life. And if you let that inner child romp across the pages, why, you are guaranteed to be a real writer!

    Cough. I went through the hippie years, and remember a lot of folks offering to put us in touch with our inner selves, our real selves, and so on… cheap at twice the price! I wonder if she’s tried EST, or sensitivity training, or… Do we really need to go through that again?

    1. Ergh. I really, really hope not. If things get rough and I really need to find myself, there are mirrors. It’s just that my inner self isn’t a terribly nice person.

      1. None of our inner selves is a terribly nice person. That is why child rearing is a process of taming the little monsters enough to fit into society, or at least not attempt to destroy it. If she thinks her inner self is a good thing to find she has no clue about the evil that infests most of our souls. I do not disparage this evil by the way. This evil and overcoming it is what makes the best of us truly great.

          1. This is why I let a little of it out in my snarky rantings. It helps keep the dark from getting too strong.

  5. Ran across a quote from Raymond Chandler (in a lovely collection of snark!) that seemed apropos to this “writer” as he’s skewering literary writers in general.

    “Their egos require too much petting. They live over-strained lives in which far too much humanity is sacrificed to far too little art. I think that’s why I decided years ago that I should never be anything but an amateur. If I had the talent to be first-class, I would still lack the hard core of selfishness which is necessary to exploit that talent to the full.

    The creative artist seems to be almost the only kind of man that you could never meet on neutral ground. You can only meet him as an artist. He sees nothing objectively because his own ego is always in the foreground of every picture. Even when he is not talking about his art, which is seldom, he is still thinking about it. If he is a writer, he tends to associate only with other writers and with the various parasitic growths which batten on writing. To all these people literature is more or less the central fact of existence.

    Whereas, to vast numbers of reasonably intelligent people it is an unimportant sideline, a relaxation, an escape, sometimes even a source of inspiration. But they could do without it far more easily than they could do without coffee or whisky.”

    1. Absolutely, Cedar. The quote is perfect. If that’s what being an “artist” means, I’ll take being a hack, thank you.

    2. It takes a certain level of arrogance, doesn’t it? I’ve said this before (not here) and people got mad at me because they didn’t want to think of themselves as arrogant… but call it by any other name and you’ve got to at least believe that you’ve got something to say that other people will want to read. If you’re all about the “art” of it, it goes treble. And you’ll know these types because they get angry when something unworthy is published, something that (in their opinion) won’t make the world a better place. Of course, their stuff *will* make the world a better place as it’s all insightful of the human condition… or something. What is it other than arrogance? Selfishness and ego… exactly. And how wrong it would be to deny the world your truth? Sometimes that is so in-your-face that who could miss it?

      But if I allow my own self a small measure of arrogance, that maybe I’ve got something worth sharing with the world, or at the very least, enough talent to be entertaining if I work at it… I’m not going to get my panties in a bunch for admitting that small measure of arrogance, nor insist on calling it something *nicer* like confidence, or worse, trying to pretend that I’m a saint and feel led to share my truth out of purity of purpose and heart.

      Which I think is what bothered me most about that list… it really did seem to be all about doing things that made you a better, more morally aware person… and that personal enlightenment would automatically make you, magically, into a more excellent writer.

      But who knows… maybe some people are so entirely focused inward that they never actually do experience the world around them in any meaningful way.

      1. There’s a subtle difference between self-confidence and arrogance that’s easily missed – but even arrogance is forgivable when you’ve got something to be arrogant about – which these folks don’t.

        That list was indeed all about making you a “better” person – from the perspective that the reader wasn’t sufficiently “good” enough to have figured these things out already. Which sticks in my craw because I really don’t like being talked down to.

        It’s the writing equivalent of hope and change – nothing mentioned about the practicalities of actually *doing* something towards the change you want.

  6. God/dess love her, Kate, ’cause I sure am not about to do so.

    Look. Her comment (as ‘nother Mike pointed out) seems, on its face, unobjectionable. You do have to both laugh and cry in life to get the most out of it, but I don’t understand why this woman thinks anyone would have a _problem_ at seeing uniqueness, much less our own, unique selves, much less all the so-called exercises to recover same.

    My view of things is simple: “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.” — Henry David Thoreau

    I aim to be one of those people who expresses her song, even if it takes me a while to refine it. And I don’t need any well-meaning idiot telling me how to express my song, thank you very many, because I have it inside me already — it just needs to come out.

    Anyone who writes without some sort of acknowledgment of his/her own song is asking for trouble, IMO, and that’s why we see so many pieces of utter dreck in the marketplace.

    1. On the face, yeah, her advice doesn’t seem too horrible – it’s when you look at what she’s saying about how to do it and why that the fail starts piling up.

      And yes – the goal is to be yourself as hard as you can and tell your stories as best you can. Trying to be something else is doomed to fail.

      1. The fact that she seems to think anyone would need help being his/her self is the main thing that continues to perplex me, Kate. Most of us couldn’t _not_ be ourselves if our lives depended on it, so why does she think anyone actually needs _help_ to be ourselves?

        1. That’s actually an easy one. The people she’s talking to have spent most of their entire lives being whatever they were told, so they need to learn how to be themselves, and need a way to find out what “self” actually means.

          1. Pretty much, yes. These are the “good” people, the ones who did what they were told and lost themselves in the process.

  7. I went to her recent articles (right now, she’s focusing on NaNoWriMo), and interestingly, considering what you and Sarah and Amanda have said about “Literature” of the past few decades, she does actually understand that a book needs to be interesting. While she still shows the marks of being a good little special flower with her 5 Ways to Make Your Novel Helplessly Addictive, at least she’s not telling people that such things are for the sell-outs who write (gasp!) Popular Fiction.

    So, yeah, not a defense of the merits of her actual advice, but at least she’s not the snobby type who looks down her nose at writing to be sold.

    1. Well, good. Maybe there’s hope there. The special snowflakiness (is totally a word) of that particular piece is ghastly but if she’s figuring out that the goal is to entertain people and that failing to entertain will doom the most technically perfect prose, she might amount to something on our side of the literature fence.

  8. Great. Googly. Gibbering. Goblins.

    I can’t say all the things that went through my head and got thrown at my monitor (verbally, because I’ve learned these things are expensive). Well, I can, but it’s not polite. Sheesh.

    This shallow mud puddle morality play may work for the naive and inexperienced, but real people who have real lives (and know what real by-thunder *work* is) hopefully aren’t going to be fooled. She’s prostituting real virtues for her own callow interpretation of how the world works. The depth of the world far exceeds her facile little list.

    Humility cannot be learned by faking it. It requires not-made-up contrition (“this isn’t really me saying these things, so my apology means squat”), understanding, and a sincere desire to not repeat the mistakes of the past, to make things right however you can.

    Courage rarely comes from crying. There’s different types of courage: moral, physical, emotional, and so on. The author of this list has never faced down a pair crowbar wielding carjackers in a bad part of town armed with nothing but a smart mouth and a fast left cross. Or explained to a grieving mother that not only was her son doing well, she’ll never have any biological grandchildren. Or gone to work for the two thousand seven hundred thirty eighth day… for a boss that tried to cripple you within a week of starting your job. Or any of the thousand tales of courage in war, in times of oppression, or violence, or intolerance…

    Different people are going to come at the process of writing different ways, but I can’t but see this approach producing wet-hanky crap with all the grip of a turtleneck sweater. I could be wrong, I’m no writer myself. But a *good story* moves. It snatches your attention and carries it along, you keep turning the pages because you have to know what happens next. Tension, conflict, plot twists, reversals, suspense, action, emotion, revelation, heck, even romance, all building towards resolution… or a cliffhanger leading to The Sequal if you’re twisted like that.

    A good story demands attention. Oh, I know there’s a market for light work that doesn’t involve the reader much. Somewhere. In desperate holes like airline lobbies and truck stops three hours from anywhere, maybe, because those things are filled with cheap trash priced far beyond its worth and there’s always those lost and forlorn ones who will buy. Or for those who “don’t read” but need to occupy their mental hamster when the ‘net’s down.

    For the rest of us, the bibliovores that gobble up the latest, the old classics, or just the weird and wonderful, this “List 10” approach Will Not Work for the vast majority. I’m hedging, because some of the Odds are Highly Odd- but I’d have to see it to believe it, still. If there’s a story in you that you think I might want to read, make it compelling, not spineless.

    I don’t want to hear about the spots on the concrete unless there’s a blood trail. The towering courage should make the heart swell and raise a cheer from even the meekest soul! The crushing loss should bring sorrow to the most rigid visage, the moving devotion should inspire a monk, and the blackest evil should bring a cry of defiance from even the jaded and the world weary. Writers don’t merely play with words and phrases, they manipulate emotion to tell a tale.

    I’m not saying you have to plunge yourself into the jungles of the Amazon and wrestle river monsters with your bare fists or spend a year counseling the insane, but a realistic appreciation of the depth of human emotion is essential- at least, the ability to *show* that range of emotion is. Crafting all that into a story that sings, that I dunno about, but I’d say the folks that *do* write here have got the essential points down. *grin*

    And if this all makes no sense, TL;DR, chalk it up to four bloody Thanksgivings and enough drama to write at least a season’s worth of soap operas, if they’d tone it down for television. *chuckle* Survived another holiday! For some of us (you know who you are), there should be trophies, award ceremonies, and keys to the city (a different one- for at least a month). *grin*

    1. Dan, yes. Exactly that.

      And don’t you dare say you’re not a writer – your response here is magnificent.

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