One size fits none

I owe my success to having listened respectfully to the very best advice, and then going away and doing the exact opposite – GK Chesterton

These days, if you’re a writer and you’re on the internet, it’s impossible to avoid Advice. I occasionally perpetrate it myself – or at least I claim to do; whether anyone’s ever found anything I’ve ever written helpful is a moot point. I can only apologise.

I’ve read about making charts, timelines, index cards: I’ve read about new software and apps and other new-fangled tools to boost productivity. I’ve read about time management. Recently I read (and forwarded) not only this article from Chuck Wendig but its indignant rebuttal from Foz Meadows.

Advice works. Presumably the advice-giver has road-tested that which they’re advocating. But when you’re trying to balance contradictory diktats and keep some semblance of sanity, what do you do then?

Here is a list of all the good advice that I’ve not taken over the years:

•  Keep index cards of all your characters/create a database of your characters
•  Do a full mock interview with your characters to get to know them better
•  Fill out full questionnaires for every character in your novel
•  Write full descriptions of everyone, even if you don’t end up using it
•  Keep a notebook by your bed in case of sudden nocturnal inspiration
•  Set up a whiteboard by your desk to scribble ideas upon
•  Create a graph of your novel to keep track of the overall flow of pace and intensity of            your story, and whether it might be dragging
•  Plan the story fully before committing pen to paper
•  Don’t plan at all before starting
•  Turn off the internet whilst writing and unplug the phone
•  Get a room of your own
•  Get a laptop
•  Get an I-Pad-thing
•  Get Scrivener
•  Get anything other than Word 2003
•  Don’t discuss the end of the novel before writing it
•  Write in silence
•  Don’t read fiction whilst writing (yes, really)
•  Only read ‘literature’
•  Read Strunk and White and imbibe their rules of grammar
•  Sentence fragments. Don’t use them
•  And don’t start a sentence with a conjunction
•  Avoid adverbs
•  Only use the word ‘said’ to attribute dialogue. Do not mutter, scream, mumble,                    expectorate or any such alternative

…and so much more.

I love advice. I love to learn, and to read what others – experts – have to say. I mean, they’ve been published, right? They must know what they’re doing. But all they’re really giving you is what’s worked for them. Just like I can only give you what’s worked for me.

So if you’re a writer who’s looking to get better, who’s seeking ways to grow and to stretch their wings, by all means do courses and read widely and – yes – explore the depths of Twitter. But remember that you have to find the way that works for you. You are not these people. If you find the best time to write is right after prayers and that you have to switch off all distractions to get to it then that’s what you should do. If you find that you write best after a sweaty male-bonding session on the tennis courts, do that. Writing is intensely personal. There is no one-size fits all. There are no rules. There is only advice. And you are more than welcome to tell me where to shove it.

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