You may want to write as well as some famous successful author – or anyway, you may want to be as famous and successful as they are – but you can’t write the same as they do, and the things that work for them won’t necessarily work for you.
This is because… [a hush falls over the room; I lean in close to speak in confidence] …YOU’RE DIFFERENT PEOPLE!
Many famous writers don’t realize this either. They got successful by writing as they do with their own particularities. They have their habits and their personal rules and they aren’t always so good at knowing which of those things made them good writers and which just made them feel less insecure.
So, for instance, Jonathan Franzen, who is a successful and generally respected novelist, recently came out with “10 Rules for Novelists.” A few of them are pretty useful, but a few of them are… not. For example, one is “Never use the word then as a conjunction – we have and for this purpose.” Jonathan. Jonathan, my man. Not only is that false – here, I wrote about this years ago – but it has exactly nothing whatsoever at all at all to do with the quality of your writing. I guarantee you that the success of Franzen’s novels is unrelated to his avoidance of then as a conjunction.
Look. There are many people out there who are great cooks. Some of them have even published recipe books. Some of these books make a point of telling you, when a recipe calls for aluminum foil, which side of the aluminum foil to have which way. Here’s a little secret for you: It doesn’t matter even the slightest little bit which side of the foil is up. Foil has one shiny side and one dull side because, for economy, they roll two sheets at a time, and the side towards the roller is shiny and the side towards the other sheet is not. But there’s no difference in heat reflectivity or conductivity.
Here’s another analogy. One time when I was younger, I was doing some community theatre, and for one rehearsal the director brought a guy in – I’ll call him Walter – who must have been a community theatre luminary because there was a theatre in town named after him. What golden advice did he have for us? He spent most of his time hectoring the cast about what he considered the proper pronunciation of “palm” (a pronunciation that is not even phonemically valid in Canadian English, and he was Canadian), and he said that the best advice any director ever gave him was when one shouted at him “Stick your bum in, Walter!” Now, along with my 20 years as an editor and my MA in linguistics I have a BFA, MA, and PhD in theatre, and I can tell you with certainty that there is much greater advice for actors than “Stick your bum in!” In fact, I’ll be telling you some of it in a few days, because it’s also great advice for writers.
People who can do something well don’t necessarily know why and how they do it well. Those who can do often can’t teach.
There’s also a lot of confirmation bias. For some reason, successful people who get up early like to insist that that is what made them successful: “Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.” This has two problems. First, there are and always have been many successful people who are night owls – they stay up late and get up late. Second, no one has made a study of how many people who get up early aren’t successful, but go by your local coffee shop and ask the people working there at 7:30 AM when they got up and whether they would take a better job if they could get one.
All of the above notwithstanding, being able to do something well does increase the odds that your advice is worth listening to. Great figure skating coaches can’t all jump triples and quads, but in general they’re pretty good skaters who would probably be even better if they had the bodies and natural aptitude of their star students. You do want some sense that the person who is giving you advice is qualified to give it. After all, there are many people who are not especially good writers or good editors or good writing coaches who nonetheless have lots of unsolicited advice for writers.
That leads me to tomorrow’s gift.