A Piece of Advice…Or Not

When you decide to take on the life of a writer, you come across all sorts of advice from all sorts of people on how to live it: Want to develop a good plot? Follow these steps, I always do. Need some better characterization? Use this graph, always works for me. Publishers’ rejections getting you down? Here’s how to craft a query letter. Sometimes these nuggets of wisdom are helpful. Sometimes they aren’t. The difference can be dependent on whether or not the method advised works for you, or on the sage’s level of experience with the writing industry.

Take this for example (and I paraphrase heavily): “Your first novel is going to be crap. It’s meant to be a learning experience, and it will read like one. It will still be valuable because of that, but for no other reason. Always take your first novel and throw it in the trash.”

Often I’ll read things and carry them with me for a bit, mull them over, see what I think of it. This little comment stuck with me and I knew it was something I didn’t like, but I couldn’t quite figure out why I didn’t like it. I figured out why this morning.

It’s a load of crap.

Why is it a load of crap? Because you will take away nothing valuable, learn absolutely nothing, if you go into something knowing it’s just going to go in the garbage. You will learn nothing because you won’t try; you’ll never give the project your 100% best effort unless you’re actually aiming for the highest height you can reach. I always like to say, “If you aim for the Moon, you may only make Earth orbit. But if you aim only for Earth orbit, you’ll never leave the stratosphere.” The analogy may not be physically true, but the sentiment is: unless you actually try and succeed on your first time out, you’re definitely going to fail.

And you learn from everything you write. Every story, every essay, every novel you work on or plan to work on, teaches you something about itself. How you approach different characters, different plots, and different fictional worlds. You’ll learn how to express different ideas in different ways, probably even learn a new word or three. The road to success doesn’t start with your second novel, it starts the first time you sit down to put a story on paper…and continues with each and every story you write thereafter, including the first one you publish.

Now the person who gave the aforementioned “advice” was not a professional writer by any means. But that’s not what makes the advice so crappy. After all, we amateurs should be encouraging one another and sharing our discoveries about the writing process, or at least about our individual writing processes. And since I’m an amateur whose about to dispense his own advice, I’d like to think it counts for something:

Throw away nothing that you write. Hide it if you really aren’t proud of it, but don’t throw it away. You can always look at it and see where you went wrong, and you’ll know how to avoid it in the future. And maybe one day in five years or ten years, you’ll find it again and realize that it wasn’t necessarily that bad—maybe you’ll even find something you can use in that masterpiece you’re writing now. That’s how you learn from your writing.

And when you’re writing your masterpiece (whether it’s your first or your twenty-first), think of it as a masterpiece. Because if you do you’ll revise and edit and rewrite and slave over that manuscript until it really does become something worth reading. You’ll have put the effort in, and it won’t be wasted.

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