Six issues that aren’t worth the distraction
Most how-to-write articles focus what to do to improve your craft. But are there issues we just shouldn’t worry about, questions we ask ourselves that hinder more than help? Indeed there are. Let’s explore some key distractions we would do well to set aside while writing.
Although Dr. Samuel Johnson famously wrote, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money,” money shouldn’t be foremost in your mind while writing. That’s not to say money is never an issue. We’d all like to make a sale, and professional writers need to earn their daily bread. But producing a saleable work is a matter of craft. Write a good story first, then ponder where to sell it. Your best chance of earning something from your writing is to tell a good story.
#2: The Soup of the Day
We’d all love to tap into whatever subject happens to be hot this week, month, or year. at a given time. While there can be value in knowing the soup of the day, I’d suggest caution in opening a can of it just because it’s on the menu. For one thing, hot topics change all the time. Unless you’re already the server (e.g., you have the ear of an editor who trusts you), the odds of actually delivering the soup before the menu changes are fairly slim. Worse still, if you’re writing stories you think other people want to read, you’re probably writing someone else’s stories instead of the stories you love. And that’s a huge problem. Better to write the stories you love and let them be influenced as appropriate by the cultural surround. Besides, the greatest literature more often than not breaks new ground. You won’t do that by following the crowd.
#3: Word Count
I’m often asked how long a story should be. The correct answer is, “It depends.” Every story has its own natural length. That length is dictated by the complexity of the story. True, sometimes you’re writing to an imposed word count. If you’re developing a story for a flash fiction contest which requires entries to be less than 300 words, then your story had better not exceed 300 words. That means you have to find a story that can be told in 300 words, a tale with a single, simple conflict and very few characters. If your story won’t fit that format, then it won’t. Force a tale into too small of a room and it will feel thin or rushed. Force it into too large of a room and it will feel bloated. A perfect example of the former is my own flash fiction story Driftwood. With a maximum word count of 250, the result felt rushed, so I later wrote an expanded version. Moral: don’t worry about the word count while you’re writing. Just tell the story and see where it falls.
To be honest, I usually don’t even have an outline. Yeah, I’m a pantser. (I hate that monstrosity of a word. Who coined it, anyway?) I know where I’m starting and about where I’m going, but I let my characters surprise me as they traverse the broad area in between. In fact, sometimes their final destinations prove a shock. If I get stuck I’ll work out some plans, but I’m never beholden to them. This approach doesn’t work for everyone, but even if you’re a plotter, I recommend letting yourself be surprised every once in a while. Sometimes the very best story elements are those that unexpectedly spring out at you from the bushes. And if not? Well, that’s what revision is for.
#5: What I Know
Okay, so the old adage “write what you know” does have value, but what if you need to write what you don’t know? Take me. Most of what I know makes for fairly boring reading. You want me to regale you about a programmer fixing an annoying bug in a website? I didn’t think so. So I write about a lot of things I don’t actually know, which is okay thanks to this thing called the Internet. This isn’t to knock writing what you know. The more actual experience you have with something —an occupation, a location, an emotional entanglement — the better you can write about it. But none of us knows everything, and fiction writers like me by definition make stuff up. Don’t let ignorance hinder you. Research as needed. If your stories are reasonably researched and sufficiently engaging, they’ll mask most factual deficiencies. And if you write nonfiction, you’ll be researching anyway. Right?
Okay, this one isn’t strictly true. You do need to think about genre a little. Know whether you’re writing mystery, science fiction, romance, or whatever. But don’t obsess over “the rules” of any given genre, aside from the most basic. A mystery deals with crime. Science fiction deals with worlds that differ from ours in the scientific or technological backdrop. A fantasy should be set in a world where magic or mythology comes to life. Aside from that, put the characters front and center and let them carry the story where they will. You can even mix genres, if you’re careful about it. A little mystery or romance added to other genres is never a bad thing.
So there you have it. Banish (within reason) the above subjects from your mind while writing. Don’t let them distract you. Focus on your craft, tell a good story, and you’ll be well on your way to success.