Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Advice About Advice: Mind the expiration dates.

Yes, I'm giving advice about advice again. The thunder of approaching typewriters heralds the word avalanche known as NaNoWriMo and the explosion of writing advice posts on every site that even pretends to cater to writers.

I've been fighting a particularly nasty chest cold  recently, so about all I've been up for is reading and sorting through the books on my shelves. The unfortunate fact is that my library has as many books stacked on the floors as it does on the shelves. Which means (gulp) culling the herd.*

I'm sorry, but some of you will just have to go. Don't worry, we'll find new homes for you in the country where you can gambol and play...

In case it hasn't become clear in the past, there are a lot of books on my shelves about the craft of writing and what purport to be maps showing shortcuts through the labyrinth of publishing. Some of them are timeless. Tomes of inspiration that will never die. However, many, if not most of them are well past their expiration date.

Some of them expired before they hit the shelf. It's just that kind of industry these days.

It seems that almost every author of note from Norman Mailer to Ray Bradbury to Stephen King, eventually writes a memoir of the craft, which tracks their rise from being 'That weird kid**' to a giant in a world of words. Nearly all of these books are split about evenly between memoir and advice for new writers.

We like to think that if we follow in the footsteps of the great and the good, that we too can apply their formula and achieve success. That's certainly the conceit of most writing guides. The problem is that the industry that spat out most of the greats either no longer exists or is teetering on the brink of extinction.

As I face the decision on which of these many books to keep and which to discard, in the end it will come down -- as it always does -- to the writing. Unless you have a time machine handy, business and publishing advice from even as late as the 1990's and early 00's is essentially useless. Only the writing advice is timeless.

This is a theme I return to time and again. Just the other day, I talked about how much I liked Neil Gaiman's list of writing rules because it focused almost entirely on the writing. In order to be a writer, Gaiman tells us, you have to write something, and you have to keep writing it until it's finished. This is important because that's the only advice that will outlast the expiration date of all other advice.

Unless it's also a compelling memoir and worth keeping for that fact alone, any writing guide that doesn't boil down to this very simple concept goes in the Goodwill pile.


* I would like to apologize in advance to anyone in the Puget Sound region who is startled by the whoop of joy originating from my wife's location wherever she happens to be when she reads that sentence.

** As much as I try to keep away from the idea that there's some sort of universal "writer lifestyle" that we all should aspire to, there's a nearly insurmountable pile of evidence that writers tend to arise from the ranks of "that weird kid".

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Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).