some of the worst writing advice: Quotas

I always remember the great writing advice I’ve received and I mention them as often as I can. James Alan Gardner (by way of Susan Forest) described Point-Of-View (POV) as “there is no description, there is only POV.” It made me realize there was nothing *but* POV. Everything the character sees, says or does has been done through the operation system of the protagonist’s personality and their emotional state at the time.

But I’ve heard some really bad advice too. Despite On Writing being called a Memoir of Craft and the first half of the book being dedicated to the use of craft and its importance, the only piece of advice I usually hear being quoted from it is the writing quota King gives himself. He does all his writing before noon and he writes every day.

If there’s one piece of advice that can do the most amount of damage to underpublished writers, it is writing two thousand words a day is the ideal. It’s the ideal of writers who can produce 2300 words worth of plot into those 2000 words day in, day out, day in. The advice is like asking the average engineer a question. They will answer it, but it won’t be the solution. That many words a day times five days a week produces a 100k in approximately twelve weeks, allowing for two full weeks off in the process.

But if the writer doesn’t know how to plot as fast as they can type, though, those 100k could have the plot that a novella-length work would tell the best version of it.

From the slushpile on, that work will be competing with professionals who took their time to do it the best way they could before sending the work on submission. How long a novel took to write is only a question writers who sell novels to a large enough audience are asked.

Without the plot necessary to carry a 100k novel, all of that effort and dedication the writer invests most often creates a 30/70 novel. These are novels that have 30% progression and 70% what I’m now calling lateral story movement. I used to call it filler, but that was the wrong word. Work that describes what a character does without having what they are doing impacting the plot is a lateral movement to its progression. All work requires progression or the meaningful lack of it.

And there’s still nothing wrong with a 30/70 first draft novel if the author is committed to making it a 70/30 novel in the second draft and a 80/20 split in the final. Every first draft is perfect. Every second draft is worth the effort to improve it.

Do quotas work for some writers even when they’re starting out?

Absolutely. No writing is bad writing as long as it isn’t stressful to the writer. Writing 2000 words for a specific purpose is difficult when it’s done daily. Writing 1000 words because you have to write 1000 words today is so much harder.

Do I think writers shouldn’t just put their butts in seats and bang words out?

John Green says first drafts are the purified clay to make the thing. Any way the first draft goes from a work-in-progress to a work-in-revision is fine. The only thing you can’t fix in a rewrite is not having anything to rewrite.

Writers — quota or not but especially quota writers — should be aware in the rewrite stage of how much of the story is filled with characters doing mundane tasks while discussing the story-building aspects of the tale. This is the kind of writing only ever asks the reader to picture characters talking and remember what they said because some of it might be important. The reader isn’t asked to witness something independent of the character’s understanding at the moment and attach their own significance to it.

Neil Gaiman says only amateur writers wait for inspiration, so checkmate.

Most underpublished writers are amateurs. A writer who waits to feel inspired at least knows what inspired writing feels like. The goal of a professional writer is to make their daily output feel inspired even it was carefully constructed.

But inspiration isn’t something that can only be hunted and gathered. A writer who learns how to capture lightning in a bottle can learn to automate the process. A writer who learned to write without feeling inspiration has a harder time trying to learn how to capture lightning in a bottle as DLC.

So what’s the solution?

First drafts get you to the final draft. How the writer writes that first draft is entirely up to them. Draftwork is an intentional, analytical process that requires even more creativity than writing the first draft.

For the average writer in general, no work should be one, done and polish unless it is truly inspired work. Moving to a more intentional mindset does not mean fully formed stories stop emerging from their author’s skull.

It just means all the rest of the stories the writer produces can still fool readers into believing they had emerged from the writer’s skull as a complete form, too.

It’s the I can’t believe it’s not inspired!” method of learning how to write.

The skill of learning to pace a novel is far more useful than writing for quotas. Knowing what needs to happen next in the story is far more motivating than aiming to write a specific number of words, though both may produce 2000 words a day.

Lawrence Block says in “Telling Lies for Fun and Profit” a chapter is as long as it takes for something to change overall, but this book was published in 1994. I think in 2022, the expectation should be every scene must change something or the lack of change must be meaningful. If written to that expectation, there’s no room for lateral movement.


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