3 Things People Tell You about Writing that are Wrong

Assiduously avoiding grading my pile of midterms, I instead wander the stacks of my local bookstore like some demented sprite. And while browsing my local Barnes and Noble, I have discovered that approximately 7.39 billion writers have written books on how to write. They probably all give excellent advice. But in the “writing advice for aspiring authors” category, I keep seeing some things that are just—weird. And like tofurkey, they can’t possibly be right. Here are the three rules for writing that are just bizarrely wrong.

  1. If you want to write, read great authors.

Oh! Shots fired. All right, all right. Let the squealing as of the gates of Hades torn asunder and all the devils let loose commence. The Gospel of Writing 101, the Holiest of Creeds, the One True Thing of all writing is that good writers read great writers. Everyone knows this.

Look, I’m not ever going to say that you shouldn’t read great books. Everyone should read great books. But reading a great book doesn’t make you a great writer. And sure, okay, maybe reading great books helps you hone your craft or get inspired—those are very nice things and will come in handy when you’re thinking about beginning to maybe one day write a novel or when you are polishing your manuscript for submission to an agent who’s shown interest. The whole distance in between those two things is going to go a lot better if you have something to write about.

Great writers fly planes or wait tables. Great writers survive giving birth or get lost in a casbah in Morocco. Great writers shoot a rattlesnake in the head after a dinner out with the wife. I don’t know if I want to read the magnum opus of a good writer locked in a room with a computer and a shelf full of the greatest books ever written. But I do want to read the magnum opus of a good writer who shot a rattlesnake in the head.

I mean, you should be reading the great books anyway, just on principle. If you never read anything longer than your Chipotle cup, you’re probably a terrible person.

But if you want to write, go live something worth writing about.

  1. Don’t let rejection get you down; keep revising, keep re-submitting.

True story: lazy writers don’t get published. Well, I mean, E. L. James got published. So there’s that. But more to the point, part of this sage wisdom is solid. Good writers are great revisers.

One of my favorite authors, James Salter, wrote a brilliant little masterpiece called Cassada, which is in fact a completely rewritten—as in, start-to-finish rewritten—version of an earlier, failed novel. In between failing to write Cassada and writing it, he wrote a great deal of other magnificent pieces. Here’s the thing: failing to write Cassada the first time around was how Salter wrote his best work.

And writers get rejected, that’s true enough. But sometimes the best thing to do is take that rejection and internalize it, and just throw the rejected piece away. Delete a whole manuscript. Take the last extant copy of your masterpiece that got rejected seven times, soak it in the cheapest vodka you own, and light a match. If you need to rewrite it, you will—one day, once you’re a better writer and you figure out how to rewrite it. But chances are, you needed to write that piece of shit novel so that you can get rid of that shit novel so that you can go write your real masterpiece. Sometimes rejection is the right answer.

  1. Treat your writing like your day job.

I guess this one depends on how much you love your day job. If your day job is being Hugh Hefner then sure, treat your writing like your day job. If your day job involves showing up at 8:02.58 because if you log in at 8:03 you’re late, and if your day job involves sitting in a cubicle for the next eight hours and if you spend 83% of your workday looking at fat three-toed sloth babies on Buzzfeed, why the hell would it be good advice to take the one thing you love more than anything—writing—and treat it like your day job?

What people mean when they say this, I assume, is that if you want to write, you have to actually park yourself in a chair and write, and not just waft around telling people about that novel you’re one day going to publish. I don’t know. That seems like weird advice to me. Sure, there are some people who say they want to write, they just never find the time. There are some people who want to waft around talking about a novel they might or might not one day write. Let them.

Most writers are people who write because they are writers—in the same way that some people pitch baseballs with their left hands because they’re left-handed. Most writers write because they have to. Because it’s in them like some parasitic creature clinging to the inside of their ribcage or hunkered inside their skull. Because they can’t help it. Should you schedule writing? If you want to. Sure. Go for it. But, I mean, come on. If you hate your day job and writing is your passion? Then leave the clock punching for the day job and break out the gin and the jazz and the joy when you write.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, there’s a Tanqueray with my name on it and a blank document that won’t scribble itself.

How to Tell if You are a Literary or a “Genre” Writer

As a teacher of literature and a creative writer, I frequently get questions from students—who are usually also scholars of literature and/or creative writers—about the difference between “literature” and, well, the fun stuff.

The debate about the difference between literature and genre writing is very old and has already been answered by some of the best writers in history, writers like Jane Austen and Herman Melville who answered with a resounding: What? There’s a difference?

Basically, the problem is that the only real difference between literary and “genre” writing is that literary writing is often genre writing done superbly well. So the question that people are really asking is, Do I have what it takes to be a literary writer?

To help you answer that question, I have composed this helpful quiz.

The easiest way to tell if you are a literary writer, of course, is to determine whether or not you are currently living in your parents’ basement. If the answer is yes, there is at least a 98.4% chance that you are in fact a literary writer. But let’s break it down a bit more clearly.

THE THRILLER:
If you just love writing about evil people and things blowing up and high stakes, odds are good you’re a thriller writer. But are you a literary thriller writer? To answer that question, pick the Baddie who sounds best to you:

A. An ordinary man in a business suit who just so happens to be a serial killer. He is friendly and a good neighbor and no one suspects a thing about his hidden proclivity!
B. An enormous giant of a man who is as hairless as a boiled egg who enjoys nudity, theology, making gun powder, and murdering children.

If you answered B., congratulations! You’re the next Cormac McCarthy.

THE HORROR:
Answer the following questions to determine whether you are more suited to be the next R.L. Stine or the next Edgar Allan Poe:

A. You enjoy a nice glass of absinthe when the delirium is at an ebb. WHAT IS THAT SOUND? IS IT THE DEVIL? Oh, no, it’s just the sound of your own heart beat. You also enjoy the ladies a little bit…deader than usual. Such a pretty young corpse! WHO IS THAT? WHO JUST KNOCK—Oh, that’s just your landlord. Money. Bah, who needs it? And where is your absinthe? WHO DRANK ALL YOUR ABSINTHE?
B. You have an orderly writing schedule. Five hours a day of productivity, and three hours for revision. Your editor appreciates your ability to keep to a quick and efficient schedule.

If you answered B., so sorry: It looks like you’re destined to be a gabillionaire pop writer.

THE “LITERARY POTBOILER”:
If you enjoy writing about sexy, hairy-chested werewolves and/or sexy, chest-waxed firefighters, you may be a “potboiler author.” But are you a literary potboiler author? There is one test to determine whether or not you are an author of literary potboilers. Take the following quiz to determine which you are!

The test: Circle the sentence that sounds best to you.
A. Sheila, with her heaving breasts, threw her arms around the Cannibal King.
B. Sheila, with her undulating bosoms, threw her arms around the Cannibal King.

If you circled “A” you are a potboiler author. If you circled “B,” congratulations! You are still just a potboiler author. But you have literary pretensions! You do you!

The point is, literary writers tend to do all the things they say you really shouldn’t do: they write terribly overblown badguys, they write while high as a kite and they’re not afraid to bring the kink. The trick is that they just write what they want to write, and they do it awfully well.

And that’s the real problem right there. To determine whether you’re a literary writer or a genre writer, you’ve got to answer this question honestly: So you’re a writer, and you’re a good writer. But are you a damn good writer?