The Best Piece of Writing Advice I Ever Got — And The Worst

One of the surprises, for me, of finishing a first novel was discovering just how many of the most hackneyed pieces of writing advice actually turn out to be true. For example: Nearly every interview with every writer will include some reference to how important it is to just sit your butt in the chair—meaning, the best way to get writing done is simply to get it done. This is true. And then there’s the best piece of writing advice I’ve ever gotten. Spoiler alert: You’ve probably heard it before. Here goes: Write the book you want to read. GIVEAWAY: Adam is excited to give away a free copy of his novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (UPDATE: burrowswrite won.)
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One of the surprises, for me, of finishing a first novel was discovering just how many of the most hackneyed pieces of writing advice actually turn out to be true. For example: Nearly every interview with every writer will include some reference to how important it is to just sit your butt in the chair—meaning, the best way to get writing done is simply to get it done.

This is true.

And then there’s the best piece of writing advice I’ve ever gotten. Spoiler alert: You’ve probably heard it before. Here goes: Write the book you want to read.

GIVEAWAY: Adam is excited to give away a free copy of his novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (UPDATE: burrowswrite won.)

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adam-sternbergh-writer-author

Guest column by Adam Sternbergh, who is one of three featured
debut authors in the January 2014 issue of Writer's Digest. Adam
is the author of SHOVEL READY (Crown, Jan. 2014). In a starred
review of the book, Booklist said, "Mixing dystopian science fiction
and urban noir with a Palahniuk swagger, this could well be the first
novel everybody is talking about over the next few months." Adam
is the culture editor of The New York Times Magazine. He lives in
Brooklyn and is at work on a second novel. Find him on Twitter.

I know what you’re thinking: Sure, fair enough, makes sense. But here’s the important distinction. It’s very easy to confuse this advice with a very similar, and very bad, piece of advice: Write the book you want to write.

Now, the book you want to read and the book you want to write may be exactly aligned — if so, Godspeed — but they may also be worlds apart, and you need to understand the difference between them if they are.

The book you want to write is the book that you imagine, in your fantasies, autographing the inside cover of at your overcrowded book signings; fielding congratulatory telegrams about from all your favorite famous writers worldwide; and eventually seeing the cover of projected across the back of the stage when you win every literary prize available. That’s the book you want to write—or, better yet, the book you want to have written. And these are all worthy goals, or at least engaging fantasies. Enjoy them. Then put them all out of your mind.

(Why writers who don't have a basic website are hurting their chances of success.)

The book you want to read, by contrast, is the book you’d curl up with if you had an entire week or month alone, with no one looking over your shoulder. It’s the book you’d grab if you knew you’d be stranded in some faraway cottage or, what the hell, a tropical island somewhere. It’s the book you love and lose yourself in then stash on the shelf, dog-eared and half-destroyed, then pull out every year to read all over again.

That’s the book you want to read. And that’s the book you should be striving to write.

Now here’s the worst piece of writing advice I’ve ever gotten and I bet you’ve heard this one too: Write what you know.

This is probably the most common piece of creative-writing workshop advice with the possible exception of “Show, don’t tell.” (Which may be the second worst piece of writing advice, but this isn’t an essay about the second worst piece of writing advice.) To be honest, Write What You Know is perfectly fine advice, sort of, except for one thing: You have no idea what you know.

Personal case in point: I work in the world of New York media, and have for the past ten years. So when I sat down to write a novel, my first pass was—you guessed it—a light satire of the world of New York media. Because that’s what I know, right?

(The skinny on why to sign with a new/newer literary agent.)

And yet, despite my deep and abiding knowledge of that world, this first pass was terrible.

So terrible, in fact, that I chucked it and wrote Shovel Ready, a non-light non-satire that’s not at all about the media. Instead, it’s about a near-future dystopian New York, in which the main character is a garbageman-turned-hitman hired to kill the daughter of a famous evangelist. And it turns out that a lot of things I know — about hardboiled stories, about the social dynamics of New York, about religious mythology and its lingering effects, both good and ill — bubbled up into this book. But if you’d asked me before I started to make a list of “What I Know,” none of those things would have been on that list. In the end, I wrote what I knew. I just didn’t know that I knew it.

GIVEAWAY: Adam is excited to give away a free copy of his novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (UPDATE: burrowswrite won.)

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This guest column is a supplement to the
"Breaking In" (debut authors) feature of this author
in Writer's Digest magazine. Are you a subscriber
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