Revisiting Advice

We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time. – T.S. Eliot

When we first start out writing, we want for guides, gurus, gatekeepers, and guardians to tell us the way to go. 

Just as other young boys and girls on the cusp of adulthood don’t have the experience or wisdom to separate adult’s vices from their virtues, so young writers may not be able to separate Hemmingway’s drinking, Hunter S Thompson’s drug use, and literary professors’ endless maundering on style over substance or entertainment from the need for practice, an understanding of the forms and functions of grammar (and when to break it), and the value of training your muse to a work ethic instead of waiting for its inspiration.

Let me very firmly state here: many artists and authors have been bipolar or experienced depression at some point in their lives. They managed to create art DESPITE it, not because of it. You will NOT lose your creativity or muse for treating your problems; instead, you will be happier, more able to enjoy life, and able to produce more art with the extra energy. If the specific medication you need to use is affecting your creativity, work with your doc to try a different one – don’t give up!

Second, writers who go looking for advice will receive more of it, from every direction, than they could hope to sort through. Especially in the age of the internet, if you wish for a crust of bread, you will be handed a banquet. We then face the biggest problem with advice – separating “this works for this person in that specific application” from “this is what will work for you.”

There is a third, hidden problem: when you drink from a firehose of information and advice, you will miss as much information as you catch. A judo instructor summed it up thus: “The punch you throw as a white belt is not the same punch you throw as a green belt, which is a completely different punch again from the one you throw as a black belt. I teach the exact same punch to all three, but the students have to learn how to throw a white belt’s punch before they can learn a green belt’s move.” (To be clear, we were discussing this over martinis in a hot tub while waiting to see if the solar storm about to hit the northern latitudes would spark a brilliant aurora. Not in a dojo. I do not know judo.)

There is a value in going back and practicing the basics. A very world-weary instructor once told my husband (back when he was a young troep) “Son, an amateur practices until he gets it right. A professional practices until he can’t get it wrong.” Following that advice kept that 18-year-old alive long enough for him to grow up and become my husband, so I’m a fan!

Similarly, there’s a distinct value in going back to the good advice you’ve found helpful before, and reviewing it. Chances are, especially if you were getting advice from someone who’s very good at their craft, you’re going to read or watch the same thing, and learn something completely different the second and third time around, now that you’ve learned and practiced what you caught on the first try.

For example, while mired down on writing a story and unable to figure out how to get the interminable middle interesting, or even written, I went back and watched Brandon Sanderson’s lectures. Right there in one of the first classes, he mentioned offhand “I plot backwards and write forwards. I have a handful of promises to fulfill and scenes I know I’m going to write, and goals that will be reached. Then I make a list of things that have to be accomplished in order to reach each one of those.  Then I’ll take a handful of those bullet points from each one, put them together, and say ‘Okay, how can I accomplish this in the next scene? What needs to happen?’ And then I write that.”

Yep, hadn’t remembered him saying that at all! But when I went and tried it, suddenly a whole lot of things started falling into place, and suddenly I was 6K further along into the story, with conflicts building up, and subplots, and things were fun and interesting again.


  1. Good post. Another thing about advice beyond the basics is that what works for one won’t work for another. Trick is tracking down which advice you need. Best advice is not how to put the words on the page, but how to get it so that you CAN put the words on the page. Speaking of which I should be busy doing something….

    1. Time Management! Productivity goals. Design of Experiments as applied to a manufacturing environment.

    2. Yes. This bit is less about the advice, but the attitudes about giving and taking advice:

      For the advice giver:

      Don’t get upset if the person you are giving advice to doesn’t take it. It may be that the person is looking for other perspectives, and even if the advice you give is ultimately ignored, take that you’ve given a different perspective as helping in it’s own way.

      For the advice taker:

      Don’t get upset if the advice being given isn’t what you wanted to hear. If you get mad, then what you wanted wasn’t advice to begin with, but affirmation that your choices and decisions were correct.

  2. I use OSCard’s _How to Write SF&F_ like that. There’s not a durn thing in it that doesn’t just state the obvious (at least, it’s obvious while I’m reading it). But sometimes it helps to reinforce the obvious, so you don’t forget where you’re going.

    1. Like Dwight Swain’s Techniques for Selling Writers. It’s good to revisit it once in a while. You get reminded of stuff you remembered, and pick up new bits that you missed.

  3. Especially in the age of the internet, if you wish for a crust of bread, you will be handed a banquet.

    If you call it a banquet when several of the dishes contain food poisoning, and others are stuff you are deadly allergic too.

    There is advice that is simply bad, and advice that is bad for you.

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