by Laurie Boris
Over the many years I’ve been writing, I’ve gotten some excellent advice from teachers, editors, publishers, literary agents, and other writers. But some has been, well, not as helpful. Here’s some of the wackiest advice I’ve gotten. (Note: your actual experience may vary.)
1. Write what you know. Pretty much every writer has been hit with this one. Yes, writing about people, places, and situations with which you are intimately involved might make your writing more immediate and more powerful. (How could Mark Twain have pulled off so many of his great novels if the Mississippi didn’t course through his veins?) But this type of dogma can limit your creativity by forcing you to focus solely on what and whom you’ve been exposed to. What about science fiction and fantasy writers, who imagine worlds so palpable it’s hard to believe they don’t exist in “real life”? How could Gene Roddenberry have created Star Trek or Frank Herbert written the haunting, sandworm-infested world of Dune if they’d stuck solely to writing what had passed by their eyes and ears? Perhaps we could tailor that phrase, as many have suggested, to read, “Write what you want to know.”
2. Comedy doesn’t sell. Augh! And me, a (mostly) comedy writer! Yes, comedy is subjective. This may be why some in the publishing industry are reluctant to take it on. But there sure are a lot of people buying Carl Hiaasen, Janet Evanovich, Sophie Kinsella, Rita Mae Brown, Nick Hornby, and Dave Barry.
3. Adults don’t want to read stories with teen protagonists. A literary agent told me this, as I shopped around a novel with a sixteen-going-on-thirty-year-old protagonist. I think it’s ridiculous. Had she never heard of Holden Caulfield? Or maybe Bella Swan? Twilight readers aren’t all teens. Many of them are mothers of teens.
4. The novel is dead. Are you kidding me? We could argue about the possible passing of printed novels underneath the wave of e-book sales, but story itself? No. We want to read stuff. Sales figures show that. Categories may shift in popularity (vampires this month, cheeky British singletons the next, telepathic zombies after that) but novel sales—especially romance and YA—are not horrible.
5. Women can’t write male POV characters (and vice versa). This is a fascinating bit and I could probably write a whole blog (or two) about it. A teacher of mine, for whom I have nothing but respect and admiration, regularly lectures women writers to stay out of men’s heads. That we couldn’t possibly know how men think, and if we asked one, he’d lie. I have a problem with this. Yes, I’ve read many stereotypical, cardboard or just plain WRONG female POV characters written by men (Steve Martin’s Shopgirl in particular disturbed me), and I imagine you guys could give me a few examples of off-key male characters written by women. But have you read Memoir of a Geisha? Arthur Golden did his research, interviewed geishas, and even made himself up as one so he could get closer to the characters he wrote so brilliantly about. Jonathan Franzen took some heat for writing female POV in Freedom. NPR’s Terry Gross asked him if, as a man, he’d found it challenging to write Patty, his female POV protagonist. Franzen merely replied that he’d grown up around women. So, what’s not to know? I grew up with a father, two brothers, and later, a whole bunch of stepbrothers. And mostly (judging from the feedback of guys who’ve done my crits), my male characters are authentic. Unless they’ve been lying to me.
I hope you won’t lie to me. What is the wackiest advice you ever got about writing, or about anything else?
Laurie Boris is the author of The Joke's on Me, a contemporary novel NEW from 4RV Publishing. She also blogs about writing, books, and the language of popular culture at http://laurieboris.com.