Word by Word

Practical insights for writers from Jessica P Morrell

Good Advice, Bad Advice?

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Mar• 04•12

Bad Advice? Good Advice?
©Jessica P. Morrell
You write to be read. That is the bottom line.” ~ Jane Yolen

While teaching and working with writers I’ve heard them parrot all sorts of advice by well-known authors, experts, and cranks. And I’ve concluded that there sure is a lot of lousy advice aimed at writers. You’ve got to wonder: do plumbers or dentists or professional baseball players hear a lot of bad advice also? I doubt it. I want to weigh in on some dubious advice I’ve heard over the years.

The advice that’s probably heard most often is write what you know. I couldn’t disagree more. Now, if you’re writing a memoir, sticking to the facts is essential, but for fiction writers the advice should be write what you don’t know. After all, if you’re writing science fiction, how can you travel to Mars fifty years in the future to create the details of your story? Likewise for stories set in 17th century Scotland, the Pentagon, or those which are littered with corpses. Most writers have never even seen a corpse, much less murdered someone. Or at least I hope not.

Instead, we write based on research and imagination and emotion. All writers need to write about what ticks them off, fascinates them, or keeps them awake at night. Write about emotions you’ve felt, motivations you understand, character traits that you can bring to life, and themes that you believe are important.

Now, for writers who craft articles it would seem on the surface that you should write what you know. If you live in a small town and stay home raising kids and keep your friends in stitches, that advice might work. Your town might be brimming with quotable misfits, your children’s antics might be hilarious, and your slant on life entertaining. But most free-lance journalists write based on research and interviews and follow their curiosity.

Advice I cannot disagree with more is to never use flashbacks. I believe this one came about because often editors see premature flashbacks in a manuscript. A novel can start lots of ways with a stranger coming to town, a letter arriving, a bad guy sliding a knife into his victim’s spleen. Fiction requires an inciting incident that yanks the protagonist and the story world off balance. An opening introduces threat or suggests conflict to come. Unless you’re writing a frame story that starts with the ending, and then backtracks in time so that readers understand why the ending came about, you don’t start with the past. You begin in the present at the brink of change. You immerse the reader in the story world so that he can unpack his suitcase and walk around and come to know a dangerous or troubling situation.

Now, once the reader has his suitcase unpacked, including his dental floss and travel alarm and has checked out the neighborhood and the hotel’s amenities, then you can start introducing aspects from the past. After all, without a few journeys into the past, or the delving into the protagonist’s memories, how will the reader understand why the characters do what they do and say what they say?

Recently I worked on a fiction manuscript for a client that was riddled with problems. One problem was that the protagonist, who we’ll call Daniel, had inherited a strange mix of messages from his mother. In the story, Daniel’s father died while trying to escape from a Viet Cong prison. His mother, embittered about his death, told Daniel that his father was irresponsible and he should never be like his father. Now, I thought the logic of a man trying to escape being called irresponsible made no sense—call him plucky, brave, or determined, but not irresponsible. So this subplot focused on how Daniel was burdened by his mother’s bitterness at her husband’s death. Problem was the reader never met the mother in a flashback, never heard her words, or witnessed a sharply-drawn memory. The manuscript needed excursions into the past for proofs. Backstory illuminates the front story of fiction and without it a story is often thin and confusing.

The other advice I hear from fiction writers is never write prologues because editors hate prologues. The truth is editors hate stories that begin twice. But a well-crafted prologue can cast a shadow of danger or intrigue or excitement over a story, especially if the past is complex. It can also explain some crucial information that would weigh down the story’s opening. In the aforementioned manuscript I suggested that the client create a prologue that introduces the father in the POW camp so that we can understand what Daniel has lost and how he shares traits with his father. [He already had written a prologue that started two weeks before the inciting incident and didn’t add to the story.] I suggested he use Colin Harrison’s Afterburn as an example—it’s also about a character captured during the Vietnam War, but he’s rescued. Harrison’s prologue also introduces one of the themes of the book—torture and asks if torture works as a method of terror and control.

Advice you can toss out like yesterday’s fish is only write about likeable characters. I’m currently finishing a book that is about how to write about edgy and unlikable characters. In fact, I’m postulating that fiction doesn’t need to be about heroes and feature Hollywood endings. It needs to resemble more of the grit and creep factor of life with antiheroes, unlikable protagonists, sociopaths, and emotional cripples in starring roles. But if your protagonist is a jerk or a less than sympathetic, you need a firm reason for his starring role, and consequences from his actions. Perhaps the story teaches him lessons or a comeuppance. Write stories that include deeply knowable and fascinating characters.

Writers are also advised that they shouldn’t quit their day job. Good advice since it’s hard to write when you’re worried about keeping the lights on. Recently I was talking with an author who hasn’t been published in years. He’s a good writer and has a terrific concept for a manuscript. However, he’s not working, is living on credit, and is anticipating being offered a more than 6-figure advance and lucrative movie deal. When I gently suggested that his aspirations might be a tad unrealistic, he was not dissuaded. I left the meeting feeling worried about him.

A free-lance journalist might be able to quit his day job if he’s columnist or already has a regular freelance gig or a book deal. If you’re writing fiction you need another income in the family, a sizable pension, or enough money to live on for at least three years. Success can happen overnight but for most of us it takes time. Lots of time along with luck and contacts. The truth is most first and second books are written while the author is working full time. It’s fairly typical that a writer cannot quit his day job until his fifth or sixth book is published and even then, royalties and advances might not be enough to live on. Learn to put writing first in your life and stick with it while your friends are at the mall, the beach, the block party.

Write all the time and if you’re most happy when writing, that’s a clue that you should keep at it. But at some point you need to turn your manuscript over to the gimlet eyes of the publishing world or a knowledgeable reader. I’ve met plenty of writers who have been working on manuscripts for five or ten years and what they’ve produced is drek. It’s so sad but some people will never be published or will only enjoy modest success. So don’t bank on writing a best seller unless you’re in the middle of a bidding war.

You can also ignore advice that claims that there is only one way to approach writing. There is no right or wrong way to write or plot or edit. Some people need to outline, some people need to wing it, and some people need to write while wearing a beanie with a propeller on top and listening to the Elvis in Vegas CD. However, there are a number of skills you need to acquire to be the best writer possible. You need to understand your characters or subject deeply. You need a flair for language and ear for dialogue. Immerse yourself in craft, build habits of strength, and let the story come out, staying close to it, always staying close to it.

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6 Comments

  1. Sharon Anderson says:

    Jessica, as always, your advice is good. Thank you!

  2. Thanks for dispelling these “truisms” about writing, Jessica.

    One of the issues I bump against all the time is the character “likeability” factor. I think this is a gender bias problem. Male authors have created scores of unlikeable characters: Rabbit, Portnoy, Holden Caulfied, and there work is lauded. Female authors have trouble getting published if their characters aren’t perceived as likeable, and the majority of successful female authors have likeable protagonists: Jo March, Harry Potter, Atticus Finch. I receive feedback all the time saying that though my work is well-written, my protagonists aren’t likeable enough, a criticism that my male writer friends never hear about their much-less-likeable characters. There just isn’t an expection of likeablity when their work is being evaulated — much the same as in life when strong and powerful women are labeled bitches for behaviour that would be labeled leadership were they men. Ah me.

    • jessicap says:

      The male characters you’re mentioning are all anti-heroes. A fascinating subset of fictional characters because they’re unpredictable and we never know if they’re going to do the right thing. This is why I wrote my Bullies, Bitches, & Bastards book. I wanted writers to think further than nice girls. When women break the rules in real life and in stories, there is just a lot more tension and suspense. It just works. Olive Kitteridge and Barbara Covet are two of my favorite all time characters.

  3. Elizabeth says:

    I have heard all of the bad advice you mentioned yet continue to write flashbacks about main characters that people don’t necessarily like – cest la vie. The bad advice that I received, from a paid professional no less, was that no one wants to read about bad things happening to nice people. I don’t buy it. I have a room full of books about charming people that are beat up by life.
    The other bad advice I have heard is the keep your paragraphs super short to keep a fast pace. Even short sentences in short paragraphs are slow and boring if nothing is happening.

    • jessicap says:

      Elizabeth,
      Writing likeable characters is common advice that writers receive. However, not all characters are likeable, or need to be. Take Olive Kitteridge for for example. She’s snarly and sometimes her hard is a stone. But she’s human, fascinating, and knowable. I wrote a whole book on this topic (
      Bullies, Bastards & Bitches) so really studied this topic. And fiction is all about bad things happening to nice people, and not so nice people. Too many short paragraphs is like driving over a series of speed bumps–it will actually slow down the reader. Vary your paragraph lengths. Short paragraphs are for emphasis.

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