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September 7, 2017

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

Stonehenge stone circle with text: MYTHBUSTERS: Writing Advice Edition

As we discussed last week, if you’ve hung around the writing community, you’ve probably seen a lot of advice. And while much of the advice out there is great and helpful, other advice that gets passed around is misleading, impossible to follow, or just plain wrong.

Luckily, Jeff Lyons is here to help clear up the confusion. Today, he brings us Part Two 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 2

by Jeff Lyons

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:

#10: Show Don’t Tell

#9:  The Blank Page Is the Enemy

#8:  Write What You Know

#7:  Real Writers Write Every Day

#6:  Storytelling and Writing Are the Same

This week we look at the top five myths, the worst of the worst, and break down the lie at the core of each myth, and then reveal the truth that you can use to bust each myth once and for all.

Top Ten Myths in Creative Writing:

(in reverse order of destructiveness: #5–#1)

#5:  Writer’s Block Is Real

The Lie:

Duh—writer’s block is real.

The Truth:

No, it is not (well, kind of). What most people perceive as writer’s block isn’t writer’s block, it’s just generic blockage.

What I mean is this: the feeling of being blocked has nothing to do with writing process. A writer might feel blocked because their lover left them, or they have financial trouble, or life has them depressed—and while this might affect their ability to write, the blockage itself has nothing to do with writing or creative process. The solution to the blockage is also unrelated to writing process (i.e., find a new lover, get a job, get therapy).

In other words, writer’s block is only valid if it sources from your writing process.

There is only ONE circumstance where this might occur—
when you have so much in your creative pipeline
that you can’t prioritize and
make informed creative choices for what to do next
.

That is blockage related to actual writing process, and thus the only legitimate form of writer’s block. I have written extensively on this issue (Anatomy of a Premise Line: How to Master Premise and Story Development for Writing Success, Focal Press 2015), but the bottom line is that any blockage that is not related to this single issue (pipeline too clogged) is not writer’s block, it is merely life blockage.

Need to solve writer's block? Make sure you know the blockage source. Click To TweetThe solution to this legitimate form (and only form!) of writer’s block is directly related to writing process: i.e., apply your craft and story structure skills to break the blockage. A writing problem (blockage) needs a writing solution.

Getting therapy, or taking a yoga class, or going to watch TV, or walking in the forest are not going to work. I repeat: writing problems require writing solutions.

This is why I say writer’s block is 99.9 percent smoke and .1 percent substance. The .1 percent is the only part you can do anything about.

The danger of this myth is that, as with myth #3, it gives your power away to some mysterious “other” that is controlling your process and productivity.

Take back your power and know that being “blocked” from time to time is just a part of the normal story development process, not some writing road hazard that you will drive over, stalling out your car. Falling back on your story structure craft skills is the royal road to busting writer’s block and freeing your productivity. In fact, it is the only way to clear the pipeline and get writing again.

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

The Lie:

Nobody knows anything (as screenwriter William Goldman once said). There are no rules to creative writing, so don’t get distracted by all the how-to experts out there. Just write.

The Truth:

Of course there are rules. The universe runs on rules. Physics has rules, chemistry has rules, mathematics has rules. How does creative writing get a pass on that?

Of course there are rules, and those rules are the rules of classical story structure and the established rules of language usage (grammar, syntax, and rhetoric). Everything based on a system is run by rules—the physical universe dictates this, not story or writing gurus.

So, who says what the story structure or language rules should be? This gets a bit problematic, I understand, but this isn’t really hard to figure out.

Every so-called story expert or creative writing teacher teaches the same basic stuff. Yes, they all have their own proprietary theories and ideas that they slap on lunch pails and market so they can pay the rent, but at the core of every guru’s “teachings” are the same basic concepts.

Learn the writing rules so you can break them with purpose. Click To TweetIt doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure those out, but it does take getting familiar with what is being taught “out there,” and then using those conscious-writer abilities I talked about in #10 to discern the universal truths of story or writing. As Picasso said, “Learn the rules like a pro so you can break them like an artist.”

There are rules to storytelling and there are rules to great writing, and learning them is part of the craft of storytelling and creative writing.

The danger of buying into the “no rules” approach is that writers think they can just fly free, unhindered by best practices, and everything will work out. This is another form of giving away one’s power to the process, rather than taking responsibility for it. Learn your craft, learn the rules, then break them like a conscious writer.

#3:  Good Stories and Good Characters Write Themselves

The Lie:

Good stories will talk to you and take over and you will be lead by the story, rather than forcing it yourself. When this happens it will feel effortless and flow easily and you will be in the zone. So get out of the way and let the story find its own voice and expression.

The Truth:

Stories don’t write themselves and characters don’t write themselves. You are the writer; you write it all—it’s all you and your subconscious mind.

When you are in sync with your subconscious mind and your creative process, it will feel effortless, easy, and flowing. You will be in the zone. But, it is not the story driving the process, it is you. I state again: You are the writer.

You are in control, but that doesn’t mean you are being controlling. Being in control doesn’t mean dominating and containing and forcing (i.e., controlling). Being in control means harnessing, directing, and co-creating with your creative process.

Struggling to get into the writing zone? That doesn't mean the story is bad. Click To TweetBuying into this myth is another form of giving away your power to the process itself, rather than taking total responsibility for it. Ironically this is one of the reasons writers fear the blank page, because they sit waiting for the story to take control and tell them where to go. When that doesn’t happen, they get anxious and often despairing, “Why isn’t the story talking to me?”

Well, it’s not talking because you’re not giving it anything to say! You’re its voice, not the other way around.

It might feel that way when you’re in that zone, but be very clear—“in the zone” means you are in sync with your creativity and in balance with your talent and craft. When these are in balance, your process will flow elegantly and fluidly and feel as if it is running by itself with you trailing behind. Know this is not what is really happening.

You are the creative force here, not the story and not the characters. You, the writer, give the story its form and its characters their voices. Never forget this; don’t ever give away your power, not even to your stories.

#2:  Outlines and Story Structure Kill Creativity

The Lie:

Outlining, planning, structuring is all too controlling of the story. When you do these things, you limit yourself and kill the creative process, which has to flow unfettered to be most effective. Be a pantser (go with the flow, by the seat of your pants), not a planner.

The Truth:

Just the opposite is true. Story development and creative writing are reductive processes, not additive.

What this means is that as you develop your story you have to make choices:

  • make Joe the hero,
  • set the story in New York,
  • make the genre sci-fi,
  • give Joe a love interest, etc.

Likewise you make writing decisions:

  • tell the story in first person,
  • use flashbacks,
  • keep chapters under three pages, etc.

Writing is a process of narrowing options, even if we don't plot in advance. Click To TweetEvery choice you make reduces your options and limits your set of resources that you can draw on for scene-level material. If you choose “A” then you eliminate “B through Z.”

Development and writing reduce your options, they do not increase them, but this actually opens up your creativity because you have direction and form and structure that all work together to generate new ideas and possible scene material. And those new ideas are all in harmony with the choices you have made, so everything holds together dramatically and is internally consistent.

If you hadn’t made those choices, you would be constantly sifting through irrelevant options and bad choices, thus making your work harder and the process torturous. In other words, development is planning, outlining, and structuring.

Everyone does it, even the ones who say they don’t. For example:

  1. You choose scene A over scene B. Okay, what do you do next?
  2. You think about it and have to decide what comes next, what is scene C? Okay, what makes sense?
  3. So, you look at scene A and figure out what preceded scene A. That is, why does scene A make sense and how does it lead to scene B? Because scene C has to be consistent with both the other scenes.

Even if it’s only three scenes deep, you’re outlining your story. Just keep going every three scenes like that and you’ll end up with a book or screenplay.

It’s not about how many scenes deep you go, it’s the function of what you are doing—you’re outlining/planning. Everyone does this, EVERYONE.

And this frees you to be more creative, not less creative, because it quiets the chaos of unlimited choices so you can see the trees for the forest. Buying into this myth sets you up for the next myth, which is the most destructive myth of all, and is at the heart of many of the previous myths.

And the granddaddy of all creative writing myths; the one that is responsible for most failed writing:

#1:  Just Do It; Just Write

The Lie:

Writers write. Just get a first draft, don’t worry about the content. Everyone’s first draft is crap. Fix it later.

The Truth:

This is without doubt the single most harmful piece of writing advice ever conceived. Yes, everyone’s first draft is crap, but it can be really good crap vs. really, really bad crap.

Buying into this myth almost universally results in:

  • failed writing
  • voluminous pages of useless manuscripts
  • despair and depression
  • huge sums of money lost in the form of wasted writing time, or third-party services hired to fix the voluminous pages

Writers who fall prey to this advice almost always end up lost in the story woods, or drowning in the story flood plain.

I say “almost always” because there is a small subset of writers who appear able to “just do it.” These are the writers who are naturally gifted and talented with what I call the story gene.

They intuitively know story structure and can naturally avoid getting lost in the development woods, but they don’t know how they do it. They are not aware of what is saving them. Savant-like, they instinctively know what not to do, and so stay on track.

They are often the ones who are most vocal about “just doing it,” because it works for them, so why not everyone? These are the rare few who are born with the storytelling gift. Most writers are not so lucky, consequently “just do it” is a recipe for disaster.

Until we know how to develop a story, “just write” isn't great advice. Click To TweetMissing the story gene, most writers have to shore up their story development craft skills. Once strengthened, writers can successfully navigate the development and writing processes with less fear of getting lost in the woods, and whatever first draft they end up with will be more structurally sound and cohesive as a narrative—thus making the rewrite process much more productive.

But, getting to the point where a writer understands their vulnerabilities to this myth is often a painful process. This is where becoming a conscious writer can save your creative life; so, hone your abilities of assessment, discernment, and informed choice.

Learn that story structure is your personal super power, and story development is your closest friend. The evil villain is blind writing at the service of some twisted definition of creativity.  Once again, it is about being in control of your creative process, not being controlled by it.

Conclusion

The toolbox of conventional—and oh-so-generic—creative writing advice is chock full of easy to digest bromides that will soothe a writer’s nerves and calm shaky confidence. Sadly, any palliative effects don’t last long, and the pesky shakes always return, usually with a vengeance.

Many writing myths undercut our creative power—don't believe them. Click To TweetThe solution to lasting relief is not more sound bites and bromides, but rather information, critical thinking, and trust in our own creative process.

Do not listen to these ten Sirens on the rocks, because they will only lure you to your doom with their promise of quick fixes and feel-good stopgaps.

Tapping your ability to assess, discern, and make creative choices based on those abilities—i.e., being a conscious writer—is the only long-term solution to the anxieties and angst that are unavoidable in the creative writing process. Don’t ever give your creative power away to anyone, certainly not to the myths of creative writing.

*****

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! Once again, you’ve shared a ton of great information here.

I hope everyone takes the time to read everything Jeff says for each item, even if we have a gut-level rejection at first. As a pantser, it’s no surprise that I initially wanted to disagree with #2. *grin*

However, as I read further, I understood that Jeff’s point isn’t that pantsing isn’t a legitimate way to write a story, but rather that we shouldn’t be afraid of organizing our story ideas (whether that’s in advance or as we go). Organizing doesn’t limit us—it encourages more creativity.

Ask any teacher why they use writing prompts for students, and if they’ve tried the alternative, they’ll share that students faced with no guidelines (just a blank page) struggle to come up with ideas because the assignment to “just write” is too broad, too vague. Instead, a bit of direction lights a fuse of creativity.

Like those students and Jeff’s point about the myth of writer’s block, we often struggle to write when we’re overwhelmed with possibilities. Limiting our choices by focusing on story structure can give us the equivalent of a writing prompt for our story. In other words, Jeff is right: organizing can be good for us, pantser or plotter.

Similarly, each of these myths—if we buy into them—take away some of our power over our creative process. Whether we agree with every word from Jeff or not, we can still take another look to ensure we’re not giving up our creative power. *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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21 Comments on "Don’t Believe These Writing Myths: Part Two — Guest: Jeff Lyons"

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

Sieran
Sieran
Hmm, I don’t quite agree with everything in this post, unfortunately! Not trying to start a debate, but just because our personal philosophies and approaches seem very different. Yet, it doesn’t matter what we believe, as long as we finish the stories and our target audiences love them, right? I believe that story characters and their stories are already fully formed–they are people existing in parallel universes. So we don’t “create” anyone or anything; we only discover them. All I do is to pick what to tell and what to not, and HOW to tell / show these things. In a sense, I’m more like a biased reporter than like a creator. Of course, I’m pretty sure most people disagree with my beliefs, but that’s okay. Nevertheless, my belief system has never been a hindrance to me. I don’t suffer from writer’s block, and I can just write. I don’t end up with random useless junk either, since I’ve finished entire novels with this method (pantsing all the way too), and readers like them. (I’m not implying that my works are perfect, of course. All drafts should be edited and improved!) At the same time, I don’t think I’m naturally gifted with a story gene, no matter how pleasant that sounds. Rather, I think that different people just think and work differently. I don’t plan, but I don’t write randomly either. Instead, I follow my intuition. This may seem quite mystical to some people, but it works very well for… Read more »
Elizabeth Randolph

Interesting. It was fun to image your process.

Sieran
Sieran

Thanks. 🙂 I enjoy talking about the wonders of our intuition, haha.

Sieran
Sieran
On writing rules, I’m a great believer that nothing is universal; it all depends on the context. There are different story and writing norms in different genres, languages, cultures, eras, etc. When I read a book that is not authored in the 21st century and/ or written in English, I often see things that violate deeply-held beliefs in our modern writers’ community. But this is not a problem for that story, because it was written in a culture, era, language, etc. where this style is perfectly acceptable or even normative. For instance, I know that in our 21st century English writing community, there is a lot of scorn towards Mary Sues and Gary Stus. Yet, in the Chinese martial arts novel genre, Mary Sue and Gary Stu protagonists are the norm! And nobody is bothered by that because it’s so normal. Another thing that many of us writers of 21st century English fiction frown upon, is excessive description of someone’s physical beauty (see Twillight.) Honestly, I was laughing when people complained about the gushing over Edward’s looks in Twillight. These folks should see those Chinese martial arts stories where the norm is to keep reminding the reader of how ridiculously gorgeous a girl is, for example (my approximate translations): lily hands; flowery breath, beautifully-scented sweat, jade arms, delicate voice/ cry, peach face, seashell ears, jeweled tears, pearly teeth, fragrant flower heart, etc. These may sound ridiculous to the modern English reader, but these phrases are established traditions in this genre,… Read more »
jeff lyons

Thank for your lengthy responses … I dont’ really disagree with most of your observations, frankly. Especially about the distinctions between historical/cultural periods in writing. Your comments seem more about style than “rule following,” which is fine. All interesting points. I guess the thing I don’t want to get lost here is just the simple reality that many writers latch onto memes about how to do this writing thing, and it is not always the most productive activity. Overall, we’re on the same page. 🙂

Sieran
Sieran
Hey, it’s pretty interesting that we defined “rule” differently here. Nevertheless, I think it doesn’t matter what the writer believes, as long as they can still write good work that their intended audience enjoys. So, just drawing on what Sallie said below, if writer A believes you should just write, but feels demoralized and can’t get started, that’s a problem. However, if writer B also believes you should just write, and this belief helps them start and develop into a skilled writer, then that’s good. I’m more like writer B. One proponent of the “just write” or the “shitty first draft method” made a good point: You’ll only get better if you get actual practice in writing. Even if what you write down appears to be crap, throughout that writing process, you were still practicing the art of expressing ideas and images into words. In my opinion, some writers (not you, Jeff, I’m talking about some other writers) seem to care too much about content that they neglect their writing, as in the words and language themselves. Some seem to think writing (using language) is “easy,” so there’s no need to spend tons of time training up their skills of written expression. :/ Well, I believe that the only way for me to improve my ability to put what I mean into words, is to write and write and write. I learn from reading others’ writing too, but ultimately, I can’t skimp on getting LOTS of experience actually writing myself.… Read more »
Jeff Lyons

Thanks for your comment 🙂

You wrote: if writer A believes you should just write, but feels demoralized and can’t get started, that’s a problem. However, if writer B also believes you should just write, and this belief helps them start and develop into a skilled writer, then that’s good. I’m more like writer B.

Sadly, this is why I wrote the post. This isn’t what happens (almost never, anyway). Just writing doesn’t lead to anything but disaster for most people because they don’t have the craft skill or talent for story development in place yet (craft and talent are different). This is not a relative problem of perspective or personal peccadilloes …this is a practical problem of skill and experience. Just doing it won’t lead you to being more skilled, not really. You have to learn craft so that if you have any story talent them it will emerge. Craft potentiates talent… it’s not enough to be talented. A very lucky few can just “do it” and make it work, but like I say, that is because they have the natural story talent (vs. craft) … and can pull it off despite themselves. Personally I think it is very important to not reduce these memes/myths to personal perspective or cultural differences, etc. These issues have practical impact and practical solutions regardless of personal pathology or cultural upbringing. My 2cents anyway.
J 🙂

Sieran
Sieran

Hi Jeff,

Ah, okay, I seem to have misunderstood you when you talked about the advice “just write.” Correct me if I’m wrong, but in your post when you mentioned the “just write” advice, you also imply that the person doesn’t read much or any novels, and almost never learns about the writing craft via books, blog posts, workshops, etc.? Wow, no, of course I don’t believe you can write fiction well if you don’t read copious numbers of novels and/ or short stories too. As for writing craft classes, books, etc., I think it would be hard to figure out all these craft things yourself, though I wouldn’t say it’s impossible.

When I looked at the advice “just write,” I interpreted this as getting people to sit down and write, rather than to JUST read novels and learn lots of things about craft. You won’t get anywhere if you accumulate so much knowledge about craft but don’t APPLY your knowledge through actually writing. I was one of those kids who spent too much time reading writing craft books, and too little time writing my own stories. (Though thankfully I’ve always read a lot of novels.) So this advice was helpful for me.

jeff lyons

This is very confusing sometimes, because we all have our own experience, preferences, beliefs about process, etc. We all filter this stuff through our own filters. Including me. You are right, the other side of this coin is analysis paralysis … reading how-to books and never actually writing. they both are two sides of the same coin IMO. Bottom line here is that I’m just telling people to not listen to anyone. Do what makes you productive. If that means just doing it… then just do it. If that means standing on one leg and spitting… then do that. There is no right way to do any of this stuff… but there are very wrong ways. 🙂

Sieran
Sieran

Yeah, often in discussions, we don’t realize the assumptions we’ve made about certain terms until later. Just like I didn’t realize that I assumed “just write” implied the person was just spending too much time reading and learning theory and too little time writing their own stuff. It was only until our discussion here that I realized my own implicit assumptions and that the advice “just write” could be interpreted in a different way.

I too don’t think we should blindly listen to just any advice. Everyone’s different and everyone interprets the same writing advice differently, so I ultimately think it’s about seeing what works for you. And respect your own methods. (Without assuming that your methods will work for others. I wouldn’t advise everyone to pants like I do.)

jeff lyons

That’s facinating re the Chinese … 🙂 I’m also a fan of cliches… they are not always bad. Every cliche is grounded in a basic truth of some kind… they’re cliches because they get repeated all the time the same way, not because they’re wrong (necessarily) :). And yes the cultural piece is a definite factor … I’m clearly skewed to the Western sensibility. Great comment though ….
J

Sieran
Sieran

Yes, I find cultural differences in literature quite fascinating. I don’t know if you would agree with this, but a friend of mine thinks that 19th century British novels tended to be more prim and proper compared to 19th century French, Russian, German novels, which tended to be more wild and “crazy” (crazy in a good way). I guess I can see what she means, though Wuthering Heights was pretty wild in my opinion.

Clare O\'Beara
Clare O\'Beara

Thanks! To get started writing, I generally write a book review and post it on Goodreads. So that is an example of using writing skills to prevent a block.

Saille
Saille
These aren’t normally the ‘myths’ I find myself being told, or even buying into. I’ve never had writers block. (A statement that confused many a writer I know.) I’ve certainly had times where writing wasn’t going to happen, but as stated I can’t think of a single time it ever really was about the writing. I think the no rules for creative writing comes from the over abundance of advice about writing that is so often used as gospel truth. I know there are rules, but sometimes I get tired of hearing don’t use adverbs, when what you really mean is don’t write weak sentences. Good characters, great stories, they do sometimes come effortlessly, but I’ve never given away my control. It’s my story, I made these people up. Sometimes, it does feel as if it’s coming from somewhere else. When a story idea, complete with characters, and all the elements just appears in my head. (It does happen. Not often, but sometimes. The flip side to that is there is no guarantee that the story is actually good.). I don’t outline, by that I mean I don’t actively write down what is going to happen in the story in what you’d call an outline. I’ve tried a bunch of different ways to outline/plot a novel and all of them lead to me having tons of information that should make writing easier, but for some reason don’t. So, I end up putting them away and never writing the novel. I’ve… Read more »
Sieran
Sieran

Thanks for your insightful comment, Sallie! I was also one of those who were helped by the “just write” advice. Ever since I took that advice and wrote tons of stuff without fear, I became much more confident (and more productive) as a writer. This does not mean my writing is perfect, since there is always something to improve on, and always more to learn. But the endless journey of learning is one of the best parts about writing, imo.

And amen to the point that some writers think you can apply any advice to any situation. :/ They really need to look at each and every unique context! I rarely agree with universal statements, since “exceptions to the rule” can be found in most cases. Even for the “basic story structure” rule, there are some cases I’ve heard of where that structure can be cast into doubt. I myself argue that the “black moment” is not ALWAYS necessary for a satisfying story too.

It’s intriguing to discuss these things!

Glynis Jolly

Numbers 5 and 1 seem to go hand in hand for me. I do not feel I have a writing block, yet I am stalled because I am probably not following a process that would work better for me and get me moving on some furious writing I long to do. I am currently looking for was to fix this dilemma.

jeff lyons

It’s always in the story structure … that’s where the bottle necks happen … I have a free ebook on my website on how to bust writer’s block or being stalled … you might want to check that out.. 🙂 (jefflyonsbooks.com)
J

Glynis Jolly

Thank you, Jeff. I went ahead and downloaded the e-book about moral premise too.

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[…] week, Jeff Lyons finishes his series Don’t Believe These Writing Myths, with the top 5 worst advice myths for […]

jeff lyons

Oh my … word’s getting out????
J

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