Being a pantser, I sometimes write out of order. This topic appealed to me more this week. I actually popped into one of the old boards to poke around (like five minutes). Yeah. Glad I got off them.
Any writer these days has to be on some form of social media, whether it’s a blog, Twitter, or any of the other usual suspects. Writers flock to where there are other writers and talk about writing.
For those of us with day jobs and writing on the side, this can take up what little time we have for writing. The worst part is that it’s about writing, so it looks productive and not the time suck it is.
Then there are the unintended consequences…
When I first got online, I discovered the wonder of writing message boards. In the gold rush days of the internet, they were fun places to be. A bunch of writers getting together and talking about writing. How cool was that?
People even said that you have to give back to the writing community. It felt good giving advice.
So I jumped in on two big writing boards for more engagement (one is still active; the other folded a few years ago). I wanted to learn more about craft, and this seemed like a wonderful way to do it. Some of the writers there said they learned things from even the most inexperienced of writers.
That was a big red waving flag that my critical voice happily ignored.
Little did I realize what I would learn…
I was having several writing problems that I couldn’t find solutions for. One was getting stuck at the one-third point (actually pretty common, though not discussed anywhere). Another was that story ran too short for traditional publishing. So I was looking for answers.
The first issue that surfaced was a conflict because I’m a pantser.
It’s fairly common on message boards for writers to tell you to outline. Usually with great authority that this is the “way to write.” Pantsers are pressured to conform.
It makes pantsers second guess their process. My critical voice, ever vigilant for opportunities, wondered if my writing process was causing the problems.
The anti-pantser attitudes were pervasive. When I asked for help, the advice I got was often, “Outline it. That’ll fix it.” If I said the outline didn’t work, they told me I wasn’t doing the outline correctly. In hindsight, the other writers showed a huge lack of respect for me because I wouldn’t follow their rules.
So I kept bouncing from bandage fix to bandage fix. I gave in and tried outlining. Nothing worked.
Instead, the story got so twisted up in a mess that I would have described it as going from a four-car pile-up to a plane crash that takes out an entire city. Or that I threw paint at the wall to see what sticks or that my writing process was screwy.
Pure critical voice all the way, fostered by beginning writers mired in the mud of critical voice.
Meanwhile, I regularly soaked up all the advice on message boards. I spent hours on it, reading and commenting. I kept looking for solutions to my problems.
A second issue surfaced: Bad advice.
I’d grown up reading the books for the serious writer like Dwight Swain and Jack Bickham, though they were well beyond my experience. Those had largely disappeared by the late 1980s in favor of the ones we see today. These focus on holding the hand of a newbie writer through the baby steps of writing their first novel (read: not getting the novel published).
One writer on the message board actively discouraged writers trying to better themselves. If they tried to learn from a best-selling writer, he’d say, “That writer can get away with that. You can’t, so don’t even try it.” He worked very hard at keeping other writers at his level so we could all share in the solidarity of not getting published.
It wasn’t until I took Dean Wesley Smith’s Productivity For Writers course I realized what was happening. One assignment required me to list all the writing advice I’d picked up along the way, aiming at the myths we get from teachers.
Message boards were poisoning my writing!
All the message board advice came from beginners, many of whom probably hadn’t finished their first novel. They’d read another beginner giving advice and regurgitated it, often acting like they were an expert.
The worst part about this advice was that it sounds credible and even reasonable. And the more you hear it, the more it seems to make sense. I even passed some of it along myself.
Even when I knew a piece of advice was bunk, seeing it reinforced repeatedly on the message boards subtly invited the critical voice in. It said to my creative voice, “See? You don’t know what you’re doing.”
Considering how much time I spent on the message boards, it was no wonder I had problems writing. Some of the worst of the advice included:
- Always outline your story. You must know how it ends. No one respected me as a pantser. Their automatic default was that I was doing it wrong.
- Have an inciting incident. This always got a “huh?” from me. My critical voice tried to add it manually to the story. Now I think it’s something that comes out of MFAs, where the students are critically analyzing published works.
- Cut your darlings. Cut anything that doesn’t move the plot forward. This one never set right for me, though now I know why. You can cut out pieces of fun characterization in favor of plot and suck the heart out of your story. Still, I found myself self-editing the words before I got them on paper.
- Description is boring. Do it in drips and drabs. This was the worst for me, especially seeing it over and over. I’m not detail-oriented, and it took me years to figure out how to get more description and setting into the story.
In 2014, I cut myself off from message boards and unsubscribed to popular blogs that catered to beginners. I couldn’t risk the constant exposure to bad advice. I wanted to be published more.
But now, I also suddenly had more time to write. Who knew?
Follow message boards at your own risk. But with the limited time after a day job, why bother? It’s a question I wished I’d asked myself.