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  • Writer's pictureAnders Åslund

Why Researching How Others Write Might Kill Your Drive

There are as many ways to write as there are writers. And I suspect the number of writers out there has exploded in the last 10 years or so. Among those, a whole bunch have made it their mission to explain how to write. I’m here to tell you that you shouldn’t listen to them. Not until you have a pretty good idea of what kind of writer you are and what you want.

Horrible writing at 16

When I started out writing, I was 15. This was in 1991, which is so long ago now that the stars that shone the night I sat down by the typewriter (it was electric, at least) are nog longer visible because of the accelerating expansion of the Universe. I had no plan, no clue, and only a ghost of an idea, and the result was, well, horrible. I mean You can just stop giving out prizes for bad sex in literature and give them all to me forever horrible.

At 16, I turned this manuscript in to a publisher, who had a reader read it and leave me a 2-page critique. I think in part because, well, they don't get a whole lot of novels from 16-year-olds, and they wanted to encourage me to continue. Oh, that poor, poor person who had to read it. I'm so sorry to put you through that.

I still have that manuscript. There’s only one copy (typewriter, remember?) and before I die, I will have to burn it so it doesn’t get read by anyone else. For now, I’ll hang on to it. Hmm, might have to leave instructions to next of kin…

Writing is work

Anyway, no plan, no real notion of writing as work. That’s a terrible way to start. Over the years, I’ve learned how I function and how I don’t function, and little by little, I’ve begun to form a good routine. It’s taken me 30 years. I might be slow, I don’t know, but today, there’s enough writing advice online to fool you into thinking that you can learn to be a writer by watching a few hours of Youtube.

There are some who probably can. But I would bet that they’ve had the drive a long time, possibly a bunch of unfinished manuscripts lurking in some drawer, and possibly also a notion of writing as something more than just a romantic dream.

It’s perfectly fine to take in advice from fellow writers. But you will have to conform the advice to your circumstance. What are you like as a writer?

Plotting to be a pantser

Much ado has been made about how much planning goes into writing. Terms like “pantser” and “plotter” and “intuitive pantser” are par for the course on AuthorTube and blogs and what have you. At some point, these might do you good - but not because you must conform to one of them, or even because they seem to accurately describe you. They can be useful if you already know what kind of writer you are. Let me explain.

For me, being a pantser (one who makes very little plans and simply writes whatever comes to them) doesn’t work. Never did. I tried for many, many years, so I know that I’m not a pantser. For me, no planning means I will inevitably tire of the thing and just give it up. I need a plan. It doesn’t have to be solid, or absurdly fleshed out à la Harry Potter. I don’t need to follow it to the letter. I just need a plan to keep me going.

Editing is love

Part of this I think has to do with me loving editing more than I love writing. Yep, I’m one of those weirdos. The editing phase is so much more interesting to me, because that’s when the story has been written. The hard part is done. What’s left is attention and love.

Then you have advice on how to structure your story, create memorable characters, create conflict, structure a scene etc. Such advice you should heed if you don’t already have a good grasp on it. It’s useful to think in story beats when you write, because writing isn’t bouncing along on fluffy clouds of inspiration. It’s work, and work needs structure. There’s a ton of free advice to find on this as well, but a good place to start would be Robert McKee’s eminent book Story. It’s about writing manuscripts for films and TV, but it really doesn’t matter. In fact, having a cinematic sense of a scene is extremely helpful. Take if from one who basically thinks in movie scenes.

Where am I going with this? Not sure. Oh yes, well… don’t get bogged down in watching Youtubers tell you how to write. Only you can tell you how to write, and while picking up pointers is a good thing, you really can’t get to know yourself as a writer unless you write. So I would start there. Write.

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