Thursday, August 4, 2011

Wackiest Writing Advice I’ve Gotten

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


  1. Write what you know doesn't mean stick to the stuff you can persoanlly claim to have seen happen, it means use what you know, what you've learned and researched within your story.

    So frank Herbert knew about relationships, about family and duty and obligation and betrayal etc and used them in his story. It could have been set on Dune or in Medievel England, that was the least imprtant part as a writer (although the most obvious thing as a reader-readers see a story from the ouside in, writers from the inside out).

    Writing what you know doesn't mean don't use your imagination, it means augment it with the truths about life which you have come to understand.

    Moody Writing

  2. Exactly, mood! Thank you for the elaboration!

  3. I really haven't received any writing advice at all, but I got a few tips here from you. Thanks. I did reply to a post from an author who writes teen fantacies because she was looking for a reviewer, but since I'd not really ever read her characters or book line, she declined my offer, which I thought since I was fresh and new to her type of novels, I might have been a decent reviewer. Saying that, I agree that adults do read all different genre.

  4. I've been sitting here awhile thinking back on ANY writing advice I've received that I actually remember. There probably was Wacky advice at some point - but I tossed it with the parts of my memory that jumped ship at the onset of Peri-Menopause.

    I do, however, remember someone once telling me that they think I'm a good writer, and they'd read it more often, if I didn't use so many words.

    Every time I think of that I flash to a scene from the movie Amadeus where the Emperor Joseph II says to Mozart: Your work is ingenious. It's quality work. And there are simply too many notes, that's all. Just cut a few and it will be perfect.

    To which Mozart replies: Which few did you have in mind, Majesty?

    That's the line I use now when told my message is brilliant - but there are simply too many words, "which few should I remove?"

    Thank you Laurie!

  5. I don't think anyone's ever personally given me writing advice. Either that, or I really do have selective hearing.

  6. What do you think about women writing from a male POV? Acceptable? Possible? Advisable?

  7. "Write what you know"... that one's always bothered me, always so limiting. One of my characters is a weaver. I've never woven a thing in my life. I've never even seen a loom in person. But I spent weeks researching looms and weaving. Youtube videos and google have allowed me to become more knowledgeable and write about weaving. Still trying to get a chance to sit at a loom and handle one in person, but until then, I still feel comfortable writing about this new thing.

    Similarly, in another story (not yet written), ballroom dancing was involved. I've never done ballroom dancing of any kind. I don't even watch Dancing with the Stars. Ballroom dancing and I are complete strangers. But, I've got a plan to research those as well so when the time comes, I can "write what I learned".

    You can learn so much about so many new things if you put your mind to it, especially in this day and age! Never restrict yourself to what you already know. There's a whole world to explore AND write about.

  8. That's great, Sarah Rae! One of my characters was a diver, the star of her high school swim team. I do not know how to dive. It terrifies me. But I drew upon my fears and imagined standing on the diving board of the old family pool. Bouncing for a while, then letting go. I also watched a lot of Olympic divers, and imagined what might be going through their minds and bodies. It was fascinating.

  9. I believe some women authors can write from a man's perspective, but some can't. It depends on how well the woman knows and understands men. The same goes for a man writing from a woman's perspective.

    Ish, some men make women characters too tough, man-like, and some make them too silly and girlish.

    Some women make men characters too, uh, feminine, not acting or reacting like most men I've known would.

    A good writer can get "into the head" of a character whether of the same sex or not.


  10. Where would the modern literary world be if JK Rowling thought women couldn't write from a male POV. Just sayin'.

    Great post, Laurie! I've received tons of both good and bad writing advice. Never write in first person, don't switch POV within the story, don't even try to get published, you should quit writing, take a 2-3 year break, start a blog, never blog, just self-publish, etc. Luckily, I'm not always the best listener. ;-)

  11. Thank you for tossing the "write what you know" idea. That one has driven me crazy for years because I'm not a risk-taker so I don't know exciting. However, I did recently look at what I know from a different perspective. Instead of writing for adults, I've decided to focus on writing for children. I have worked with kids frequently in my life, taught preschool for 4.5 years and have to of my own now--I know kids. :)

  12. I've been fortunate, I haven't received bad writing advice. I think the best advice I've heard from a writing coach is not to compare your writing accomplishments with others.

    Great post, thanks for sharing.