Writing Mis-Advice Reported as Facts #1

Earlier this year, I took a class on writing produtivity, and one of the parts was listing all the writing junk that I’d heard over the years. You know, those things that get passed around by writers, sound reasonable, and yet may not actually be true. Here are five of them:

  1. You can’t make money writing

I’ve heard this one back since the 1970s. My uncle wrote during the pulp era and could never make enough money to write full time. What it tends to say is “You’ll never be successful” with the implication not to try too hard.

Granted, if I wrote one book every few years, I probably wouldn’t make a whole lot of money unless it hit the best seller list. A lot of indie authors are making money simply by producing a lot of stories.

  1. Build up your writing credits by writing for free

I also heard this one probably as early as the 1970s, but definitely into the 1980s. I remember looking at a Writer’s Market and seeing the percentages of writers submitting to pro-rate versus the non-paying. Then I’d think, “I’ll never have a chance, so I’ll try the easier one.”

I got a really rude shock when I applied to be a charter member of Interntional Thriller Writer, and they pretty much told me that none of it counted. Even submitting to the agents, I started finding that a lot of it didn’t count because it was non-paying, which, unfortunately, also said something about my writing that I wasn’t aware of.

What I also didn’t realize I was doing was that I telling myself that I was never going to be good enough to be professionally published and I wrote to that level. Once I started only submitting to professional paying magazines (.05 or more a word), I started improving dramatically and have been getting personal comments.

I wish I’d understood this one earlier.

  1. Delete the first fifty pages

I heard this one back in the 1980s I think. It assumes all writers spend the first fifty pages doing backstory and not story.

Of course, I was a writer who didn’t start with backstory. What listening to this gem of advice got me was starting a book in the middle, rather than where it needed to start. It’s not a good thing to start in the middle, especially for a pantser. Things came into the story out of order and distorted it into a mess.

  1. All stories use the 3-Act Structure

When I started writing in the 1970s, not one writing book talked about 3-act structure. It appears to have surfaced because of Blake Edward’s book Save the Cat, which is very popular. It’s gotten so embedded, I hear writers say, “Three act structure has been around as long as they’ve been doing plays,” as if all plays were in exactly that structure.

Uh, well, no. I was a theater major, I knew better. Just look up Shakesphere’s plays. See how many acts they have. I’ve attended plays with a very long first act (due to set requirements) and two short acts; a one act play; a two act play. It just depends.

Three acts started out in the movie industry because that’s when the reel ran out.

I’m not an outliner, so when I tried the 3-act structure, it put an artificial structure on top of the structure already in my story and turned it into a mess. I started thinking of adding something to end the second act and writing to that instead of following the natural flow of the story.

  1. To do (fantasy) world-building, you must start with a three-ring binder

Years ago, I was thinking of doing a fantasy novel. Then I heard the advice that to world build, I needed to do a tremendous amount of prep work. It was, “Start with a three ring binder and tabs.” Then I was supposed to answer a lengthy list of questions about the world.

I don’t outline at all, so I was so hugely turned off by this “requirement” that I never write the fantasy novel. Having to do all that prep work as described took all the fun of writing the story away.   It was years later that I discovered that the people giving that piece of advice were people who enjoyed building the world almost more than the story.

But it’s interesting that at a recent con I went to, the panelist in charge told a writer who asked what needed to do to world build was told “Write the story first.” No fussing about notebooks and tabs and tons of questions.

Any “facts” that you heard along the way that turned out to be really wrong?

10 thoughts on “Writing Mis-Advice Reported as Facts #1

  1. Pearl R. Meaker

    Never use adverbs or adjectives.

    Have you ever tried to describe things without them?
    Do you realize how weird your characters will sound if they don’t use them?

    This started, I’m sure, because of overuse and abuse by some authors, especially beginners I’m thinking. The truth is all authors use adverbs and adjectives – just like real people do. 😉

    Liked by 2 people

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  3. Peggy

    Well, to be fair, all stories DO have three acts, in the sense of a beginning, a middle, and an end (per Aristotle, among others). That said, first, pretty much EVERYTHING has a beginning, a middle, and an end – a human life, a meal, a description of a chair, so that’s not exactly helpful information overall.

    Second, and more importantly, none of the original sources prescribe lengths of any of those sections. And, in fact, the “formula” as prescribed by a lot of people (off the top of my head, Larry Brooks comes to mind) of 20-25% for Act 1, 50-60% for Act 2, and 20-25% for Act 3 is not nearly as inflexible as proponents would have you believe.

    I took a workshop from John D. Brown, and he talked about the lengths of story setups. I don’t recall specifics, but I do remember that he said he’d checked several stories, and the setups ranged from 10% up. What I took away from that is, follow the story you’re telling (or, if you want to be mystical, the story that wants to be told through you) and let it dictate the length of its acts.

    A footnote to that comes from STORY TRUMPS STRUCTURE, by Steven James: If your story wants to be broken into 12 acts, why not? (Paraphrased, but the intent is correct.)

    Long-winded explication, but maybe it’ll help someone else come to the “it’s OKAY not to do (insert advice/fact here)” realization.


    1. However, writers are treating it like a formula — you hit all your high points here, here, here, like having one right before the commercial break. I found that to be very unnatural because the story had its own natural points, and they didn’t fall neatly in the formula.


      1. Peggy

        So very true. What they forget is that a lot of movies (and, I’m sure, books, too) DO hit every point in the formula … and still fail, for whatever reason. (See, e.g., “Green Lantern.”) Survivor bias, anyone?


  4. livrancourt

    The thing that strikes me is that there’s a germ of truth in all the rules you mention. I mean, worldbuilding has to happen at some point, and you’re going to need some method of tracking it so you can keep things straight from one book to the next. Patricia Wrede’s list of worldbuilding questions is daunting but I find working through them – usually while the writing is happening – enriches the project. And as the previous commenter said, all stories have three acts, but if you’re going to write genre fiction, you should probably pay attention to a ‘hero’s journey’-type structure.

    I think it’s like the rule for multiple-choice tests: if an answer has ‘always’ or ‘never’ in it, it’s probably wrong. I also think that making money through writing fiction might be easier now than it was in the ’70s, but it still takes a crap-ton of work and persistence and dedication and discipline and…


    1. Liv, I wouldn’t write fantasy if it was mandatory to use Patricia Wrede’s list of questions. As a pantser, it would suck the life out of the story long before I even started. I’ve never paid any attention to the hero-journey. It’s just story, characters, and setting to me. Thinking much further than then tends to cause me to overthink and wreck the story.


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