Writing WisDUMB with Michelle Simkins

I'm madly writing the sequel to NOT A DROP TO DRINK, so some of my ultra-helpful talented e-friends over at AgentQuery took me up on an invitation to guest post here on the blog.

My first guest is Michelle Simkins (
M_Simkins to AQ'ers), who runs a wonderfully eclectic blog over at Greenwoman and tweets from @MichelleSimkins.  You should follow her.  She RT's me. :)  Michelle decided to write a post about writing advice.  BAD writing advice, or as she calls it - WisDUMB.

You know, there's a lot of advice for writers out there. You could spend ALL of your time "learning how to write" and never get a single word on the screen or on paper. The thing is--who ARE these people giving this advice? Do they know what they're talking about? Have you read their writing? Is it any good? The internet gives everyone a platform, but it does not make everyone an expert. In other words: there's a lot of bad advice out there, y'all.

For the most part I've been lucky in the writing advice I've received. I had (mostly) good teachers in high school and college who gave me a wealth of useful information on the craft of writing (No, really, they were great. Anything wrong with my writing is ALL MY FAULT). But I've received a few pieces of very silly advice over the years. Here are my top four (or would that be BOTTOM four?):

1. Don't use semicolons. After I read this comment in a critique from a writing coach, I wondered, "Is she telling me this because I'm using them WRONG?" So I asked The Chicago Manual of style. I was using the semicolon correctly. I'm not sure where my instructors punctuation prejudice came from. She was, in all other respects, a sensible woman with very sound advice.

I think punctuation marks, like vocabulary, are valuable tools when used appropriately. Of course moderation should be practiced, but sometimes nothing but a semicolon will do. Roy Peter Clark, author of The Glamour of Grammar (which I highly recommend), describes the semicolon as "a gate that stands between two thoughts, a barrier that forces the separation but invites you to pass through to the other side." When a period is too much, but a comma isn't enough, I reach for my semicolon.
In the grand scheme of things, "don't use semicolons" isn't an especially horrible piece of advice. But I'm wary of any advice that tells me not to use one of the weapons in my arsenal.

2. Write what you know. We've all heard it, haven't we? But I think it's a load of horse pucky. You want me to write what I know? What I know is working dead-end clerical jobs and spending too much time on the internet. If I write what I know, it will be therapy, not fiction. YES, I think you need to have a life outside of fiction to write fiction that feels real. YES, I think you need to do your research if you don't want to sound like an idiot. YES, I think it's a good idea to infuse your fiction with real-life details from your own experiences and the experiences of people you know. But in my opinion, if you want to actually finish that novel, and have people read it with pleasure? Write what you love. You can learn what you need to know.

3. Write something meaningful. To be honest, I'm not sure if this advice was given to me by someone else, or if I made it up myself. But during my adolescence I got this idea that if you're going to write, it should serve a PURPOSE.

While it's GREAT to want to make the world a better place, you will kill your novel if you try to force your agenda on it. Whether you want to entertain, raise awareness of kitten abuse, or suggest a cure for cancer, your first duty as a novelist is to tell a good story. If your story sucks, your message will NOT hit home, no matter how sincere your intentions. If you sacrifice good storytelling for a message, you fail as a writer AND you fail your cause. Sure, there is truth in fiction. A lot of delightful novels are thought provoking and explore important issues. But the thoughts and explorations should evolve organically out of a good story. Put the story first, and its truth will shine through in the end.

4. Eliminate all distractions when you work! INTENSE FOCUS IS THE ONLY WAY. You know what happens when I eliminate all distractions? I get bored. out. of. my. mind. And I abandon whatever I'm working on.

This might not be true for everyone, but it's certainly true for me: Distractions help me get more done. Not just in writing, but in all areas of life. I can focus very, very intensely on something . . . for about 15 to 30 minutes at a time. Then I need to come up for air, look around, Tweet something silly, check my email, sweep the floor, something. Often my distraction is as brief as clicking on my Gmail tab to see if I have a new email, but it's kind of essential. It's like blinking or something.

Maybe I'm weird. Maybe I have undiagnosed Attention Deficit Disorder. Maybe it's a nervous tension/anxiety thing. Maybe it's just a product of growing up with television (though I didn't watch very much of that) or maybe I'm spoiled by the internet, I don't know. But I do my best work when I have something pleasant to distract me every so often.

That said, I have trouble working in really noisy environments, and (I know everyone will find it shocking) I can't work when my kids are having an argument in my immediate vicinity. So if the advice were re-worded as "Choose your distractions carefully"? Then it would be golden.