My best writing advice: Do whatever the hell you want

Apr 18, 2015

I've been teaching a lot lately-- at school visits, at conferences, even at church. (Granted, I don't teach a lot about writing at church.) And it's made me think a lot about all the advice offered at conferences and on blog posts and from people asking "What's your best writing advice?"

Now, before I say this next part, let me make clear that none of those things are useless. In fact, they're all quite helpful and I myself wouldn't even have a book published without them. But if it comes down to my BEST writing advice, the thing I wish EVERYONE knew about writing, I've decided that it would be this:

Do whatever the hell you want.

I'm not really much of a swearing person, except when I feel it's necessary for emphasis. And this idea needs EMPHASIS. Because people toss around this idea a lot and I feel like no one ever listens (or at least I didn't). When I was eagerly asking agents on panels what trends were big and they always mentioned this idea-- "Write what you want, not what's popular!"-- I would nod and ignore it. Not totally ignore it. But I wasn't really listening.

And then I went through a writing panic after my first book got published. I started at least three different books, and trashed all of them because they weren't good enough, or I wasn't good enough, or they weren't marketable, or they wouldn't be what readers wanted. Eventually, I forced myself to pick an idea and write it to the end-- and it took three complete overhauls of the story before I got a finished draft, and I HATED that book for every word it made me wrench from my bleeding brain. (Also, I'm super proud of that book and came to love it eventually.)

But after that, and after some other things happened, and after I had an idea for a book that was totally different and a little weird and completely spectacular, I had a liberating thought.


Because life is too short, and publishing is too picky, and damn it, I just want to write what I want. And who said what I want isn't worth anything?

I want to write something I've never written before that may not mesh with my current published work and readership? DONE.

I want to break the rules of viewpoint? DONE.

I want to break the rules of science? DONE.

I want to write a freaking epic story that might be out of my league but I'm going to give it my all anyway because I'm having a total blast? DONE AND DONE, BABY.

Now, there are a couple of caveats to this free-for-all, devil-may-care attitude. Because, you see, I do want to publish books as well as write them, and I'd like readers to have an enjoyable experience when they read it. So allow me to provide two addendums (or addenda, if I want to be appropriately Latin about it) to this.

Addendum 1: It better be damn good.

Notice again the emphasis. It can't just be good. If you're doing whatever the hell you want and it's not a popular genre or following the rules, it has to be immensely better than GOOD if you want to make it fly. That means you have to work at it. Hard. For longer than you think you need to. It means you have to know the rules before you break them so you do it with purpose. I can break the rules of science, sure, but I better know what those fundamental laws are and how it would affect the world to break them, and how it's even possible to break them (it's not; I can make that part up, but it better be acknowledged in a logical way).

It needs to be so cool and incredible and so well-written that your readers are losing more socks than a clothes dryer because you've blown all those socks off. So really, another way to phrase this addendum is WORK REALLY DAMN HARD.

Addendum 2: Know the limitations and be willing to accept them.

You want to write about fairy zombies on an alien world who use magical pollen to make their spacecraft fly so they can invade Earth? DO IT. But recognize that in doing so, there are limitations. You can make that thing the best-written novel in the history of the world that makes even serial killers cry, but accept the fact that the marketing team may wipe their tears and stamp REJECTED on it anyway. Because that's the fact of things. There are limitations to the traditional publishing world, and you can whine and moan, but it is what it is and you have to be able to accept that a Big 5 publisher might not take a risk on a book premise that sounds like it's waiting for a punchline to be delivered.

So you choose to indie publish. Great. DO IT. But accept the realities of that world too. Accept that it's crowded, and you may have to put money in for a good edit and cover, and all the things that come along with that path.

Do what you want, but do it with eyes wide open. Just because you're doing what you want doesn't mean you'll get what you want out of it. That's not the point, anyway. The point is finding joy in the doing. As Brandon Sanderson said at the Teen Author Boot Camp conference I just taught at, "The book is not the product of your writing. YOU are the product of your writing."

So there it is. After all the blog posts and books and college classes and conferences, this is the best writing advice I've got. Do whatever the hell you want, my friends, and revel in the joy of it. I'm going to go do that now, too.

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