thinking about reading about writing

Stephen King says “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot,” and I’m in agreement with him on that one, but I think I want to add a little wrinkle: if you want to be a writer, you must read a lot about writing.

I’ve already talked a bit how there are so many books about writing because we all write differently. Our brains aren’t the same. Our backgrounds aren’t the same. We haven’t read the same books or stayed up too late for the same tropes or drooled over the same authors. So of course we’re not all the same writers, and writing advice isn’t one size fits all. Different strokes (advice) for different folks (authors).

Except I’ve got another wrinkle for you.

I’m not the same author I was a year ago, and definitely not the same author I was when I started writing. Remember how you only learn to write the book you’ve just written and you have to keep learning if you want to keep writing? Writing is all about growth and learning what works for you, but … you change. You grow.

If a man looks at the world when he is 50 the same way he looked at it when he was 20 and it hasn’t changed, then he has wasted 30 years of his life.

Muhammad Ali

So the fun (?) part is that it doesn’t take a whole 30 years to see that you’ve changed as a writer. The question mark comes because this frequently means reading something you wrote a bit ago – something you thought was amazing at the time – and grimacing and wanting to throw the whole thing into an incinerator.

Cringing at your past self is a sign of growth.

I remember the first time I went back to a novel I’d written and didn’t cringe every other page or so. Granted, I find a lot in that manuscript to cringe about now, but we’re talking at a distance of about a year. Prior to that, I’d pick up something I’d written and see already how much I’d grown, both as a person and as a writer. (The perks of writing when you’re a teenager, I guess.) This was one I’d written during my freshman year of college and, when I looked back on it as a slightly older college student, I remember thinking “Hey, I’ve actually got something here.”

I don’t have an accurate count of how many complete or abandoned projects I’d written before getting to that one – the story of how being Robin Hood’s son wouldn’t really be any better than being his daughter, if you must know, and yes I’d seen the Keira Knightley movie shortly before coming up with the idea – but I’d written a lot by then. There’d been a lot to improve since my first attempts, and I’d made enough strides that my learning curve stopped being quite so exponential by then.

But I’m still growing and changing.

And it’s not just about how the stories I want to tell now are different from the stories I wanted to tell a couple decades ago. (Look it really helped that I was in a mediaeval history class with a professor totally willing and able to answer my obscure questions while I was writing the Robin Hood thing. Shoutout to Dr. Wickstrom from Kalamazoo College.) It’s also how I don’t go about writing the same way now as I did then.

Some of the writing “rules” I read about and dismissed because they didn’t apply to me … now apply to me.

Okay, some of that might’ve been the “I’m a special snowflake” thinking – you can’t tell me how to write because you don’t understand me – but not all of it was. I collected various pieces of writing advice and sorted through them, but even the ones that made me roll my eyes haven’t entirely been forgotten.

You have to read widely about writing not just to see how other people think, but because you won’t always think the way you do right now. The trick that never fails to work for you today might not be such a failsafe a decade from now. And, if you decide to engage in writing on a professional basis, there will be days when you really need to force yourself to get words down because deadlines are deadlines, and you don’t have the luxury of time to take a break and do your usual approaches.

For example, let’s take Hemmingway:

I learned never to empty the well of my writing, but always to stop when there was still something there in the deep part of the well, and let it refill at night from the springs that fed it.

Ernest Hemmingway

Past Rebecca definitely thought “Hah okay, Papa, maybe that works for you, but that’s not how I roll.” And Past Rebecca didn’t roll that way. She liked her ridiculous NaNoWriMo word count graphs. (And this Past Rebecca wasn’t actually too long ago, either …)

But today – literally today; I started a new draft for April Camp NaNoWriMo – I hit a word count … and stop, even if I think there’s still some water left in the well. Lately that’s what’s been working for me: hitting a goal that’s a challenge but not too high, and then … doing something else. Letting the ideas percolate in the background instead of trying to force more words and hit the next word count goal.

I’m sure there are many other changes to my process, and many other pieces of writing advice that I used to scorn but now (maybe begrudgingly) agree have their merits, but that’s the obvious one to me today. The biggest sign that I, personally, can see as to how I’ve grown and changed.

Read widely about writing advice, because you never know when you’re going to need it.

What’s your least favorite piece of writing advice? Has it changed over the years? Is there any “popular” advice you used to reject that you’ve now come to embrace?

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