Sometimes I wish every bit of writing advice — every talk, every blog post, every one-on-one conversation — began with a disclaimer:
This worked for me. It might or might not work for you. Give it a try. If it works, great. If it doesn’t, don’t worry about it. Move on.
When we begin writing for publication, there’s so much we’re trying to learn that it’s only natural to begin looking for rules. And well-crafted stories do have some things in common, beginning with engaging at least some readers, one way or another.
But someplace beyond the basics of bringing words and characters and plots together, every writer not only tells different stories, but we tell them in different ways.
Some writers outline; others jump in knowing nothing; others do something between or sideways of both these things. Some writers write multiple fast rough drafts; some write one slow, steady, careful one. Snappy dialogue or lush, descriptive prose. Advance research or researching what you need as you go. Writing every day or writing in passionate bursts of activity. Elaborate writing playlists or complete silence. A book every three months, a book a year, a book every five years.
No matter how you write, there’s someone out there who writes completely differently. And for many of us, there’s a voice inside our heads that, seeing that, begins to worry: Am I the one doing it wrong?
This voice is loudest on the days the writing is going badly, of course. If your messy draft took you five years to revise and you just got yet another rejection in the mail–and if that’s the day you come across a blog post by a bestselling writer explaining that if only writers outlined, they’d make fewer mistakes–it’s hard not to wonder if they don’t have a point.
Ditto if your critique group has just told you that your carefully outlined book lacks voice, and then an award-winning author gives a talk about how to find the heart of their book they had to let go of all planning and just plunge into the story.
Neither of these bits of writing advice are wrong; they’re just not universal.
They left out the disclaimer: This worked for me. It might or might not work for you. Give it a try. If it works, great. If it doesn’t, don’t worry about it. Move on.
It works the other way, too. After struggling to make sense of this whole writing thing, when we find something that really does work for us, it can seem like a revelation, and we want to go out and share our shiny bit of new knowledge, maybe spare others the grief we went through to gain it. We want to say, “Look! I figured out this thing that makes stories better! Everyone should use it!”
Sometimes, in that moment of revelation, it feels like everyone should.
I’ve been on both sides of this: doubting my instincts and experience when I heard that to become a true professional I really needed to outline more; wondering aloud whether stories that relied too much on outlines would ever go as deep or be as powerful as they could be.
On one level, I knew every writer was different. On another, it took me years to truly understand and believe it.
What I believe now is that we’re all on a journey, as writers, to find our own best processes, the things that let us tell our own stories as well as possible. It doesn’t matter what worked for someone else–even if that someone else is a bestseller, or an award-winner, or a writer whose work you admire so much you desperately want to write just like them.
You can’t write like them. You can only write like yourself. If anything gets in the way of that–don’t worry about it. Move on.
So long as you’re trying to make your stories better, you’re not doing anything wrong.
Read an excerpt of Faerie Winter by Janni Lee Simner (Random House, 2011). Read a short story by Janni, set in the same world as Bones of Faerie (Random House, 2009, 2010) and Faerie Winter from Coyote Wild Magazine.