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All Advice Is Bad

The arbitrary brain feed of writerly legends who could easily be the faceless guy at the bar crying into his shoulder bag.
June 20, 2012, 4:00am

Last year or so the Guardian rounded up a bunch of writers over the age of 60 or something and asked them to give advice to writers who use the internet, AKA college students. Some of them offered up some pretty dumb ideas, and even the ones that seemed reasonable to me were mostly just as arbitrary as the ones that clearly were the brain feed of someone who’s been too long in a game where even the legends could be the faceless guy beside you at the bar crying into his shoulder bag.

1. Elmore Leonard: “Never open a book with weather. If it's only to create atmosphere, and not a character's reaction to the weather, you don't want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for people.”


If you’re a pussy, this rule is true. Giving up some banal crap I can look out my window to find out isn’t that necessary, but there are plenty of ways to talk about what’s in the air without sounding like you’re setting up an Elmore Leonard novel. One of the most famous opening lines ever, Pynchon’s “A screaming comes across the sky,” isn’t regarding weather per se, but it’s just provocatively situated enough to make you think it could be. And our crime drama writer Leonard is OK with the weather as long as you’ve got a human telling about it? Isn’t that every sentence in every book? I’m sorry to break it to you, Elmore, but humans are the most transient pieces of weather on the earth.

2. Margaret Atwood: “You most likely need a thesaurus, a rudimentary grammar book, and a grip on reality.”

A grip on reality is the last thing I recommend if you are hoping to devote your life to sitting at a machine all day while other people work for actual money and then go home and spend time with their families while not still in the back of their mind doting on the fantasies they ejaculated that week at the desk. More likely you should have a willingness to completely dash any hope of being a normal person with a normal face, though it does indeed help not to be a total headcase motherfucker in the meantime, so perhaps find/replace “reality” with “death.” I don’t think you’ll find that replacement in your thesaurus, which is why they are mostly a waste of time.


3. Roddy Doyle: “Do be kind to yourself. Fill pages as quickly as possible; double space, or write on every second line. Regard every new page as a small triumph.”

I like writing in a frenzy as much as anyone, but to pat yourself on the back every time you’ve blathered the roughly 450 words it takes to fill one double-spaced page, which is essentially the length of a slightly-too-long email, is not only unnecessary, it’s pathetic. Look, no one cares what you do at your desk or how long it took you to get there, or how many words you snuck in today before going to the gym to burn off the beer you drank to feel better about having sat in one place all day again, or how long the manuscript you’re currently working on that should probably have half of itself deleted if you really want to be kind not to yourself or to the reader but the thing you’re making, which is the point in the first place, right? If you’re the kind of person that needs a new small triumph a few times an hour, take up playing billiards against toddlers. If you want to write, put down the mirror.

4. Richard Ford: “Don't read your reviews.”

If you’d read your reviews, Richard, you might have found enough self-guilt to do something new.

5. Jonathan Franzen:“You have to love before you can be relentless.”

Giancarlo DiTrapano and I already extensively covered our feelings on J-Franz, but I’m still cringing about this little nugget. Is that, like, make sure you squash your itch to watch old episodes of Friends before you sit down at the computer, otherwise you’ll just never quite be able to focus?


6. Esther Freud: “Editing is everything. Cut until you can cut no more. What is left often springs into life.”

I mean, yeah, you need to edit, but this sounds like you just put the printout in a magic hat and shake it around and out it comes all wise and ready for the National Book Awards. “Cut until you can cut no more” taken to its logical conclusion pretty much ends up with a blank page, which is maybe some advice that could be taken more regularly, for sure, though this thing about springing into life reminds me for some reason of the Smurfs. Why do so many grown ass-people sound like wise-beyond-their-years nine-year-olds?

7. Neil Gaiman: “Remember: when people tell you something's wrong or doesn't work for them, they are almost always right.”

No. Bad Neil. You are wrong.

8. David Hare: “Write only when you have something to say.”

Following this rule, every Facebook status update could be expanded into a novel. Your baby is six weeks along now? Well by all means, tell the world! Why stop at 50 words? I AM SO READY TO HEAR EVERYTHING THAT’S ON YOUR MIND. How about instead only write when you have absolutely nothing to say and aren’t even in your body so now it’s not you with all your shitty human want and wishing, and is instead something bigger than a person ostensibly writing out a Christmas list of narrative action on paper?

9. Hilary Mantel: “Are you serious about this? Then get an accountant.”


Barf on my dick, Hilary.

10. Michael Moorcock: “Introduce your main characters and themes in the first third of your novel…. Develop your themes and characters in your second third, the development. Resolve your themes, mysteries, and so on in the final third, the resolution.”

Hi, Reader, I’d like you to meet my character, Michael Moorcock, and my theme, Anti-Transcendent Definition of Impossible-to-Define Terminology in the Name of Pretending There Is Perfect Science to My Mythology When in Fact the Only Thing That’s True About Anything Is What It Actually By Its Own Admission Is, Which Doesn’t Mean Anything Because Storytelling Is Just a Bunch of Stories and Making Art Is Making Art and The Reason People Are Sick of Reading Mostly Is That So Many People Think They Have to Follow Anybody’s Shitty Rules Instead of Thinking of Their Own Rules With Their Blood Instead of Their Brains and Just Fucking Creating Something Else.

11. Annie Proulx: “Write slowly and by hand only about subjects that interest you.”

AKA never learn anything, never invent anything, never change speeds, never feel deleted, never scare yourself, never scare anyone. Sure. Sounds good. See you in the gardens.

12. Will Self: “Stop reading fiction–it's all lies anyway, and it doesn't have anything to tell you that you don't know already (assuming, that is, you've read a great deal of fiction in the past; if you haven't, you have no business whatsoever being a writer of fiction).”

I suggest you start with the work of Will Self.

13. Colm Tóibín: “Finish everything you start.”

Now, if you’ll excuse me, when I was six I wrote the first verse of a rap called “The Supersonic Dudes from 3003” and never got around to finishing and now I realize why I never sleep….