Five writing myths – and why they’re crap

posted in: On writing | 34

The writing business is full of advice, some good, some bad and some plain bullshit. I guess I’ve heard one story too many today, so this rant is my response.

1. You’ll never make money from your first novel

Have a look at this list of ‘first novels’. Admittedly, some of these people will have other manuscripts that have never seen the light of day, tucked away in desk drawers and the like. But one hears so often about the number of rejection slips. This is, if you wish, the other side of the coin. No one is saying all those first novels were necessarily an overnight success. We’ve all heard about how many of those were rejected multiple times. But they’re still ‘first novels’. Sometimes, indeed, only novels.

2. Your first novel will be crap

Really? Please see above. I’ve actually read advice along the lines of “write four novels, throw them away, then write your ‘first novel'”. Hello? Throw away four books? Throw away? Don’t do it, folks. Revise your little heart out. I’m here to tell you that the first versions of the first two books I ever wrote don’t look a lot like their published versions. But that’s editing, which isn’t the same as throwing away. Oh, and while we’re on the subject of editing, be careful whose advice you take. I had a little rant about that.

3. Shucks. My muse did it for me

Before I start, I’ll make the point that this one is just my (humble) opinion. I see it so often, writers extolling the virtues of their ‘muse’. I remember watching a presentation by a very successful author who claimed the words just kinda “came out” of their own accord. She was very humble about it, telling her audience some other hand had written through her. To that I say, bullshit. The muses were a bunch of minor Greek goddesses. I don’t believe in some sort of higher entity which works through me. I make up my stories in my head, undoubtedly building upon the stories I have heard or read or seen during my life. But they’re my words, they’re my plots and I take responsibility for them. If I write a load of universally panned rubbish, can I also claim that it wasn’t me, I didn’t do it? Point my finger at… oops, there’s no muse for space opera. Maybe that’s my mistake? If you have to take responsibility for your mistakes, why can’t you glory in your successes? But I’m not here to judge. If you’re a muse supporter, you go for it.

4. Aaaaargh – writer’s block!

This one isn’t just from the ‘muse’ supporters. “The word’s aren’t lining up in my head and pouring out my fingertips,” the writers complain. Did you guys watch The Jewel of the Nile, with Kathleen Turner and Michael Douglas? Turner played Joan Wilder, successful writer of romantic action-adventure. In the opening part of the film, there’s a ludicrous chain of events with a bunch of impossible characters, doing unlikely things. That was Wilder suffering ‘writer’s block’. And that, dear reader, is how to solve ‘writer’s block’. Go and write. Something. Anything. Yes, it might be crap, but you can edit crap. Writer’s block is really

  • I can’t be bothered
  • I’m not in the mood
  • I have other things tying up my brain cells right now
  • What if I can’t do this anymore?
  • It won’t sell anyway, so what’s the point?

And other bits of negative and/or non-productive nonsense. If you want to write… write. If you don’t, do something else. It’s your choice.

5. Good writing will rise to the top

Er… no. Writing isn’t a bottle of milk, and ‘good writing’ isn’t cream. What is ‘good writing’? I’m not talking about grammar and spelling here. To me, they are tools of the trade and if you don’t know how to use them, you have no business in this profession.

Let’s name a few names which are often included in the ‘bad writing’ lists. JK Rowling, Dan Brown, Stephenie Meyer, EL James. And some people touted as ‘good’ writers. James Joyce, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Ernest Hemingway. I loved Harry Potter, wouldn’t touch Twilight with the proverbial barge pole, ditto for EL James, and I blew a resounding raspberry at the da Vinci Code – but in each case, not because of the writing. To me, Joyce is incomprehensible, Dickens is overwritten pompousness, Jane Austen is dated and Hemingway is just not very interesting. Sorry. Okay, actually, I’m not sorry. These are my opinions and they have as much validity as anybody else’s. And therein lies the point. ‘Good’ writing is relative. It depends on you the reader. I’ve mentioned before today that I persevered with a piece of fan fiction which was full of grammatical errors, because I enjoyed the story. Isn’t that what it’s all about?

So there you go. Rant over. Anything you’d like to add? Any other writing myths that are sure to get your goat?

34 Responses

  1. Laurel C Kriegler

    Love this blog post. All SO true. I stand admonished on the “muse” comments on twitter, but I kid about having a “muse” more than I believe there is one (I don’t!).

  2. Cassandra L Shaw

    Hi, Greta, I too live not far from the coast in Queensland. I agree, enjoying a story and an author’s voice is subjective and if the voice is right and the story good I don’t care about some craft issues, if the writing is good enough, I don’t notice them.

  3. Vicki Batman

    Hi, Greta! This is a great post. Although sometimes, I have no idea where the stuff in my head comes from. I don’t blame a muse; I blame magic. LOL

  4. reganwalker

    Thanks, Greta…great post. I’m going to put it on my FB.

  5. DebE


    I enjoyed the Harry Potter books. Haven’t picked up Twilight (saw the first 5 mins of the movie when it was on TV and was bored to tears) or EL James.

    My first novel is published (by a small press… first submission, first acceptance). Is it brilliant writing? I think I did OK – I took several years to polish it. Is it fresh? Yes, I think most people would agree on that point – there is a natural freshness to a first-time novel. Is it utter brilliance? Hell no! Even now, I look at it and can see all the little darlings I probably should have killed for the sake of a better quality story… But those “darlings” are where the freshness comes from. And heck… there are people who absolutely love it, so who am I to begrudge them?

    And, yes… when I get writer’s block, it really is one of those reasons… shhh.

    And rising to the top is all about creating buzz… It’s about the book landing in the right hands… in the case of EL James, I suspect a lot of the sales came from “Are you serious? I have to see this for myself.” (even I have been tempted for that reason).

    Meanwhile… I go dream about my first novel earning the childcare payments to help me finish the next ones…

  6. theparasiteguy

    I must respectfully disagree with point #2. If a writer has no prior experience, then it is entirely possible that their first novel will be completely impossible to salvage. It won’t just be the writing that will need revising: it’s entirely possible that the characters, plot and setting won’t be any good either. Such a book would require so much revision that it would probably be quicker and easier to just start from scratch.

    That said, I agree with the rest of this article. Great work 🙂

    • Greta van der Rol

      That’s true – but it isn’t ALWAYS true. And that’s my point. So often new writers are told “them’s the facts, luv, suck it up.” It wasn’t true in my case, or that of many other writers I know.

      Thanks for adding your thoughts – that’s what it’s all about.

  7. georgefloreswrite

    Greta – just wanted you to know that I finally finished The Iron Admiral and loved it! I’ll be writing a review sometime this week. Thank you again for my copy! You are a terrific writer!

  8. Frank Mikes

    This is a great post! I think you definitely have a point about the Muses, but I am equally certain that sometimes the writing just flows better and easier than other times. Perhaps I’m just feeling more energetic and engaged some days.

  9. Gae-Lynn Woods

    Bravo, Greta! A great big dose of reality, and thank you very much! The amount and variety of ‘absolute truth’ spouted about writing is wonderfully amazing. Thanks for debunking some of the myths.

  10. Steven J Pemberton

    The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong… but that’s the way to bet. A few writers were lucky enough and/or talented enough to write a brilliant first novel and make a stack of money from it. But it’s unwise to assume that you, as a new writer, will manage to do the same.

    I agree with points 3, 4 and 5. The one about the muse is interesting, as many people (particularly politicians and business leaders) will take credit for their successes but blame failures on others. What’s different about artists that makes them do it the other way round?

  11. Richard Leonard

    Oh, so true!
    Another “Good” author: Jules Verne. Started reading 20,000 Leagues. Abandoned half way through. Reading it was like wading through treacle. Very dry treacle. IMHO of course.
    As for The Da Vinci Code, I can’t help wondering if the entire trail of religious controversy was just a red herring (Arringarossa! 😉 ) for the real point of the story which was the dying curator’s desire to reunite Robert Langdon with his grandmother. But I’m not aware of anyone else picking up on this so I’m probably wrong. I thought Angels and Demons was a better story.
    Agree with you about the muse. Fairy-tail scapegoating!

    • Greta van der Rol

      See? To each his/her own. I read a couple of chapters of Angels and Demons, rolled my eyes and skipped through the rest. The ending left me curling my lip. I’ve enjoyed a couple of Verne stories – many years ago. But the point is made – what’s “good” writing? Thanks for adding your voice.

  12. rinellegrey

    Oh I’m so glad someone else has said this! I LOVE the first book I wrote. Yep, it was crappy writing, but the overall plot and characters can be saved. And I do plan on saving them, because they’re still my favourite characters.

  13. Julia Rachel Barrett

    Funny! E.L. James sucks. Can’t tell a story for shinola. Twilight? Bwaaaa-haaa! However, except for The Old Man and the Sea Hemingway bored me to tears. Jane Austen? Boooooring. Harry Potter? Book One only. Same for Diana Gabaldon. Wish I’d stopped at Outlander. However I did love The DaVinci Code. Thought it was a blast, a borrowed blast – Holy Blood, Holy Grail, but a blast nonetheless. Regardless of the quality of the prose I won’t forgive grievous errors, either in spelling, some grammar and some facts. Spit me right out of the story.

    • Greta van der Rol

      Yet all of them sold a truckload. The da Vinci Code lost me when it got silly – about the time they ended up in the French manor house. From there, I just skipped. I will usually bow out for crap grammar etc – but as I said, not always.

  14. MonaKarel

    And the one absolute: If you don’t finish the book and get it published, no one will buy it to read.
    Great rant, thanks!

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