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August 31, 2017

Don’t Believe These Writing Myths: Part One — Guest: Jeff Lyons

Stonehenge stone circle with text: MYTHBUSTERS: Writing Advice Edition

If you’ve hung around the writing community at all, you’ve probably seen a lot of advice. Some advice out there is great and helps us with just the trouble we’re having with our writing or our publishing career. Other advice that gets passed around is misleading, impossible to follow, or just plain wrong.

Unfortunately, that bad advice can be shared just as much as the good advice. We’ve talked here before about watching out for bad advice, but sometimes it’s hard to recognize what’s good or bad—especially when the advice might be helpful to some extent, but not to the “rule” level that most assume.

Luckily, Jeff Lyons is here for another visit to help clear up the confusion. Today, he brings us Part One of his list of the most common writing myths, and he’ll be giving us the scoop on what’s true, false, or misleading for these frequently passed around “writing tips.”

Please welcome Jeff Lyons! *smile*

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Bust the Top Ten Creative Writing Myths to Become a Better Writer: Part 1

by Jeff Lyons

We live in the age of click bait, sound bites, and viral memes. On any given day, hour, minute, or second on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram, you can find any number of cat videos or fortune-cookie platitudes meant to bolster one or another emotional cliché or bubble-gum metaphysical insipidity.

Some writing advice “truisms” are clichés of the creative process. Click To TweetThey reflect our moods and emotional states, reinforce happy thoughts, or confirm our darkest vulnerabilities. We read them, consume them, have a laugh or a wistful shrug of self-reflection, and move on to the next one, invariably saying to ourselves, “Oh, I’ll have to remember that one,” but we never do—it’s always in one ear, out the other.

But, sometimes these little fortune cookies linger and gnaw at us, and ultimately solidify into calcified truisms. These insipid notions, memes, and banalities take on a substance they were never meant to have, and as a result find a level of acceptance and “truth” that endures and endures.

This phenomenon is everywhere, in all endeavors of creative life, but is most easily seen in the world of creative writing where, for many, clichés have become the lifeblood of creative process.

What’s Wrong with Writing Myths?

“So what?” comes the obvious reaction. Who cares?

Buying into the big myths and clichés of creative writing hasn’t done any real harm; people keep writing, books and screenplays are still being published and produced, more creative writing is happening now than at any time in human history—so what’s the big deal?

The big deal is that lots of harm follows these myths and clichés:

  • wasted time
  • pointless writing
  • lost money
  • unnecessary struggle
  • missed opportunities
  • just-plain-bad writing
  • the list goes on…

Abandoning the myths of creative writing is essential to maturing your creative and practical writing processes. When you buy into the myths, you go on creative autopilot and shut down the greatest gifts you have as a creative person:

  • your ability to discern,
  • your ability to assess, and
  • your ability to make informed creative decisions.

Reviving and relying on those abilities are at the heart of being a conscious writer: i.e., a writer who knows what he-she is writing, why he-she is writing, and how he-she is writing. Being a conscious writer honors our true creative process and is the only path to achieve deep, authentic, and meaningful connection with readers.

I have written a great deal about what conscious writing is all about, and how to become a conscious writer, but busting the biggest myths of creative writing has to rank as one of the most important first steps onto the road to becoming a conscious writer. So, let’s take that first step here and now and bust the top ten myths of creative writing.

Top Ten Myths in Creative Writing:

(in reverse order of destructiveness: #10–#6)

#10:  Show Don’t Tell

The Lie:

If you are not writing visual scenes, or giving the reader a visual experience, then you are failing.

The Truth:

It’s not either-or, it’s both. You have to tell and show.

Telling is called exposition. Showing is giving a visual expression to character behavior. The implied sub-lie here is that exposition is not your friend, so you should avoid it as much as possible. Not true.

Exposition is a tool and you have to learn how to wield it effectively. Showing is not always the best solution.

Take a simple example:

A teenage geek is put under the tutelage of the grizzled martial arts master, whose job it is to turn the geek into a ninja killer—and he has 15 years to do the task.

The 15 years that pass cannot be shown to the reader in detail—it would take an entire book to show how the boy or girl goes from geek to killer. You have to tell it in exposition and cut it down to a manageable amount of prose.

Showing in this case would be pacing-death to any story. No, you use telling exposition to economically reduce the 15 years down to a few paragraphs, or maybe a few pages, and then you move on to the mainline story with minimal digression.

But telling doesn’t mean you are only giving information, delivering facts, or filling in story gaps between visual moments. Telling can also be setting mood; establishing emotional context; and building the inner life of a character through emotions, thoughts, and ideas. This is all exposition/telling, and often this is the preferred form of prose tool for the job at hand.

Is “showing” always better than “telling”? Not if telling works better. Click To TweetIn the movie world, the tool for doing this is called the montage. Screenwriters splice together a series of shots showing the passing of time (usually just a few) to demonstrate the passing of time and the evolution of the change taking place, then jump back into the mainline story after the montage. Prose writers can do the same thing with well-written exposition, i.e., telling.

Writers tell all the time, in fact we have to tell a lot, sometimes more than we show. The key is knowing when to do one vs. the other.

This is where the abilities mentioned above come in. You have to discern the context, assess the purpose of the scene, and make an informed decision which best serves your purposes as a writer. If you are on autopilot you will blindly follow the myth and miss the opportunity of writing the best scene possible.

#9:  The Blank Page Is the Enemy

The Lie:

When you sit in front of the blank page (or screen) you are in for pain and anxiety and angst. The blank page will resist any attempts to fill it, and it is your biggest obstacle.

The Truth:

It’s just a piece of paper. It’s just a blank word processing document. Get a grip. The “obstacle” is not the blank whatever, the obstacle is your head—or more correctly, what’s inside your head.

Is a blank page intimidating? Clear your mind and order your thoughts. Click To TweetThis myth actually ties into the #5 myth about writer’s block, because this and #5 have to do with having so much going on in your head that you can’t prioritize and order your creative process enough to be productive. You are so jumbled and crowded with ideas that you can’t break the logjam.

The danger of this myth is that it conditions you to give your power away to some inanimate object (piece of paper or blank screen) and hold that “other” responsible for your inability to be productive. It doesn’t have the power, you do.

Clear the mind, clear the logjam, order your creative thought process and the ideas will flow, because they are there—you just have to get out of their way. More on how to do this in #5 next week.

#8:  Write What You Know

The Lie:

If you can only write what you know, then you will be limited and constricted in what you can write. Writing what you know is restricted by your own life experience, and if you only know your life then how boring will your writing be?

The Truth:

This is actually a very good piece of writing advice, but people get the purpose of it all wrong. Writing what you know isn’t about writing about things that happened (necessarily), it is about the emotional content of what happened in your life.

If you felt abused, write what you know about that. If you felt loved, write about that. If you felt afraid, write about that.

“Write what you know” isn't about limits but about our emotional experiences. Click To TweetThe actual events might be part of that, but it’s what’s under the emotional hood that will grab readers—and only you can write about that from your own emotional experience. This is what makes your writing relatable to readers, because those that felt abused, or loved, or afraid growing up will relate accordingly.

The other truth here is that you can’t write about stuff you don’t know. In other words, you are forced by circumstance (i.e., life itself) to only write what you know, because you don’t know what you don’t know.

Even if you make everything up in a story, it can only be sourced from what you know—as a writer you have no other experience other than your own. So, writing what you know is unavoidable, but it is also important to be reminded of the truth of the sentiment.

The danger of the myth is that misinterpreting the meaning of the advice can artificially restrict or constrict your ability to write, whereas the real function of the advice is to do just the opposite.

#7:  Real Writers Write Every Day

The Lie:

The best way to be productive and accomplish success is to always exercise the “writing muscle,” so that means never losing momentum—write every day.

The Truth:

No, writers don’t write every day.

This myth ties into the #1 myth of “just do it.” Just keep writing, because that’s what writers do. It also feeds into the next myth about storytelling vs. writing (you can see how all these myths actually reinforce one another and can thus derail you as they gang up on your creative process).

The truth here is you don’t have to write every day. I’m not sure who made this rule up, but it is total bunk. Other than eating, sleeping, and going to the bathroom, there are few things we have to do every day. Writing is certainly not in that list.

Don't worry about “writing every day.” Thinking about your story? That counts! Click To TweetThe fact is, most writers are not writing every day, and because they buy into this dumb myth, they beat themselves up and feel guilty because they’re not writing. But they are doing something else (probably every day): they are thinking about writing and thinking about story.

So much happens when we writers stop writing and just mull over ideas in our heads. We’re thinking about story all the time (I certainly do).

This is actually more important than writing because it is what gives fuel to the writing process. It’s called story development and this is something writers do almost daily and certainly more often than physical writing.

The danger of this myth is that it might make a writer discount their internal story development process as less valuable than physical writing. Just the opposite is true.

If you write every day, fine, have at it. But, know that doing so doesn’t make you more of a writer, or even make you more productive as a writer. The writer that thinks and ponders more than physically writing is probably going to produce more useful work product than the one that blindly writes every day hoping for real productivity.

#6:  Storytelling and Writing Are the Same

The Lie:

Writing is storytelling and storytelling writing. There is no difference and any perceived difference is just semantics.

The Truth:

Storytelling and writing are two different things, and they have nothing to do with one another. Storytelling is about story. Storytelling is about us. Story is what we tell ourselves about what it means to be human.

We’ve been telling ourselves stories for 40-thousand-plus years. We’ve only been writing for 6 or 7 thousand.

Writing is about language/rhetoric, it is about the rhythm and musicality of using language to convey meaning, thoughts, and ideas. There is nothing that intrinsically connects writing to storytelling.

Storytelling preceded writing and a story doesn’t need to be anywhere near the written word in order to be told. Think about it; stories can be: danced, mimed, painted, sculpted, sung, spoken—or written. Stories need storytellers, not writers.

Storytelling is not writing, but story structure and development. Click To TweetThis is a hard one for people to wrap their heads around, especially if they think writing is storytelling. No, writing is just one way to render a story.

In addition, writing and storytelling, because they are different, also represent separate kinds of talent and separate kinds of skill sets. Because you are good at one does not mean you will be good at the other. In fact, most writers are good at the writing function, but bad or poor at the story function.

Storytelling is usually not the strongest skill set with most writers. This is why learning story structure and story development craft is so critically important for creative writers.

The danger of buying into this myth is that writers will assume because they can string two sentences together, and turn a nice phrase, they can tell a story properly. The myth gives them a false sense of security in their own skill sets and talents. Writers have to learn how to do both well, that means learning the craft of story development and the craft of creative writing.

Summary

The previous six myths are the least destructive of the ten overall myths, but they are each still capable of derailing your creative process and hampering your productivity.

As you read Part 2 next week, always keep in mind the idea of the conscious writer, and the abilities you have as a conscious writer to bust these myths and thus re-empower your personal writing process:

  • the ability to discern,
  • the ability to assess, and
  • he ability to make informed creative choices.

In Part 2 we look at the last five, and most destructive, myths:

#5:  Writer’s Block Is Real

#4:  There Are No Rules When It Comes to Creative Writing

#3:  Good Stories and Good Characters Write Themselves

#2:  Outlines and Story Structure Kill Creativity

And the granddaddy of them all:

#1:  Just Do It; Just Write

*****

Jeff LyonsJeff Lyons is a published author and screenwriter with more than 25 years’ experience in the film, television and publishing industries as a writer, story development consultant, and editor. He teaches craft-of-story-development classes through Stanford University’s Online Writer’s Studio, and guest lectures through UCLA Extension Writers Program, and is a regular presenter as leading entertainment and publishing industry conferences in the U.S. and the U.K.

He has written for leading industry trade magazines such as Script Magazine, Writer’s Digest Magazine, and The Writer Magazine, and Writing Magazine (UK). His book, Anatomy of a Premise Line: How to Master Premise and Story Development for Writing Success, is published through Focal Press.

Visit him at:
www.jefflyonsbooks.comTwitter @storygeeks

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*****

Thank you, Jeff! Wow! So much great information in this series. I’ve touched on #10 and #7 before, but it’s fantastic to see all of these in one place.

With many of these, we might have vaguely thought about how they’re not true (or not always true)—of course writing isn’t the same as storytelling!—but we might not have thought about it consciously. And as Jeff said, it’s interesting to see how they all build on each other, keeping us from thinking deeply about what we’re writing.

Whether we want to improve our writing craft (such as using rhythm or rhetorical devices) or our storytelling (such as developing our character’s arc), we need to be—as Jeff said—a conscious writer. Or as I’ve said before, we need to write with purpose. Without purpose, we won’t know if what we intend ends up on the page or if unintentional messages interfere with our story. *smile*

Which of these advice clichés have you seen the most? Did you question any of them before? Are there any that you believed (and if so, does this post help break down that myth in your mind)? Which mythbusting above is your favorite? Do you have any questions for Jeff?

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What do you think?

15 Comments on "Don’t Believe These Writing Myths: Part One — Guest: Jeff Lyons"

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Athaia
Athaia

I’d add “all adverbs are evil.” No, they’re not, and their use is perfectly justified, just like using verbs, adjectives, or nouns. Who singled out a whole class of words and decided they can’t be used in writing anymore?

Sieran Lane
Sieran Lane

Athala, “all adverbs are evil” is one of my favorite ridiculous myths too, lol. In general, I distrust any advice that uses universalizing words, like “all,” “never,” “none/ no,” or “always.” I pretty much don’t believe in any universal statements.

Deborah Makarios

I try to write six days a week – but “writing” involves all parts of the writing process to my mind, not just the physical act of writing (or typing).
Another writing myth I despise: the idea that ‘good’ writing means writing that’s in tune with the zeitgeist. The zeitgeist is too angsty and ironic for my tastes (and in any case the death of diversity is the death of creativity).
Maybe that’s mostly an NZ problem – we tend to produce the dark and depressing and look down on lightheartedness and positivity.

jeff lyons

Writing for the zeitgeist is like writing for the market … you’re always behind the curve and never in sync … so waste of time. 🙂 I agree.

Sieran Lane
Sieran Lane
Lol, the “show don’t tell” is my favorite (or least favorite?) writing myth. I roll my eyes every time I hear someone criticize a piece of writing because it was “telling.” As if telling was an inherent sin that needs to be avoided at all costs. Oh I’ve actually never heard of the blank page myth. But I’m familiar with the writer’s block idea. I like your take on the “write what you know” argument. Yeah, if I write in the first person perspective of a seagull, for instance (like in Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull), I won’t have any literal experience being a seagull, but I can draw on my emotional experiences. On writing every day, I think it depends on the writer and their current circumstances. I personally prefer to write every day, because I think much better when I’m in the physical act of writing, and writing daily or almost daily keeps my emotional bond with my characters strong. It’s like keeping in touch with your friends. Sometimes, absence makes the heart grow fonder. But usually, it’s “out of sight, out of mind” for me. So regular contact would be advisable for me as a writer. Everybody’s thinking and creative processes are different, though, so I am in no way implying that other writers should do what I do. (I think I mentioned in another one of your posts that I don’t really get ideas during the day. I basically only get ideas when I’m physically writing.… Read more »
jeff lyons

Thanks for the lengthy reply … much appreciate 🙂 The story vs. writing thing is a very interesting topic. I don’t follow fan fiction very much (actually at all) so not familiar with the phenomena… but I’ll take your experience on authority 🙂

Best
J

Clare O\'Beara
Clare O\'Beara

Thanks. I’ll take issues with saying you can only write what you know because you only have your own life experience. Not the case. Writers are readers and these days they have also got endless access to video experience. As a young child I was able to write a school story about visiting India and getting caught in a tiger trap in the jungle at night. I’d read Kipling and seen one or two nature programmes. I also wrote a story about a bee and her experiences after reading the How and Why Wonder book of Bees. Magnify that by many years and I could write pretty much anything.

jeff lyons

Jami’s response is pretty right-on. Writers write about all kinds of things they will never do in their lives… flying around in space ships, killing people, being killed by people, aliens, robots, Paris and drinking a 50K dollar bottle of wine … we write about all kinds of crazy things we don’t know anything about other than what we find out on Google. But …. we can only write about those things from an “other” experience… never from the experience of really knowing. We assume, make leaps of imagination, pretend, etc… all from out personal bubble of life. YES … you can literally write about anything … but you are trapped by your lack of real knowing/experience. That is a limitation we all live with as writers. The point is not to make it a limitation, however. The point is to explore what you don’t know from your own sense of knowing (whatever level of knowing you might have). It is expressing that that readers will connect and engage … and they will have fun with the robots, aliens, and time travel romances in Scotland. 🙂
J

Clare O\'Beara
Clare O\'Beara

Thanks! Sure enough I have written about space travel.

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[…] be sharing Part Two of Jeff Lyon’s writing myths guest post on Thursday. Until then, I wanted to share an insight I’ve had during this latest surgery […]

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[…] Last week we looked at five of the top ten creative writing myths responsible for much of the pain associated with failed writing and derailed storytelling. We examined, in reverse order of destructiveness, the myths ten through six: […]

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[…] We all get deluged with writing advice, but sometimes it’s not good advice. Jeff Lyons says don’t believe these writing myths. […]

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