Aspiring writers are often short of many things: time, money, inspiration, friends, sanity… but one thing which is never in short supply, as a writer with human contacts and/or an internet connection, is advice. Unfortunately, much of the advice on offer is not actually very good, and if I didn’t know better I’d say it was promulgated by a secret society of successful writers trying to ensure nobody else climbs up the ladder behind them. Here’s a selection of some of my, um, favourites:
1) ‘Write what you know.’
Possibly the most commonly-encountered piece of advice for new writers, and probably the worst. I mean, it’s all very well if what you know is international espionage, bedding gorgeous celebrities and how to find a cure for cancer with one hand tied behind your back, but if that’s the case, you probably don’t have much spare time for writing. Assuming your life is more humdrum, therefore, why would anyone want to read about it? Diary of a Nobody has already been done. So use your imagination. Make stuff up. That’s what writers do.
2) ‘Write your first draft by longhand.’
Or on a vintage typewriter. Or in your own blood, by the light of a guttering candle. First drafts are troublesome enough without inflicting further difficulties on yourself. The computer might lack some of the glamour of scribing in days of yore, but it’s a jolly useful invention nonetheless. Do you really think Jane Austen and Ernest Hemingway wouldn’t have used laptops if they could? Course they would. Austen might have even managed to crank out a few more novels if she’d have had a quicker way to work. Think about that the next time you’re tempted to pick up a quill pen and a sheet of vellum.
3) ‘Set aside a special writing space.’
My objection to the fabled ‘room of one’s own’ isn’t so much that it’s a bad idea as that it’s simply not very practical. Most of us have to live with restricted space and/or other people, so the opportunity for creating a little writing cave is limited, and telling people they need one is just encouraging procrastination. Which is one area where writers need absolutely no encouragement. Much the same applies to setting aside a regular slot of writing time. All well and good if you can, but not an excuse for slacking off if you can’t. There’s only one way to get on with writing a book: get on with it, wherever and whenever you can.
4) ‘<famous author>’s Top Ten Tips!’
There are hundreds of these floating around the aether, containing gems of advice from successful writers on everything from punctuation to diet. Underlying the whole cottage industry is the cargo-cult logic that adopting the same habits as Iris Murdoch will make you write like Iris Murdoch. I’m afraid this doesn’t actually work, any more than buying a replica ‘Blackie’ Fender Stratocaster will make you play guitar like Eric Clapton. Now, some of these tips can be quite entertaining. Some may even be useful. But as to uncovering the secret of success from these writers? All you need to know is this: they are all different.