How to Process Writing Advice, Redux: Diversify Your Sources

Another day, another terrifying number of people showing up to read Tuesday’s post about wasting time as a writer. I think it’s the first thing I’ve ever written on this site that got more views the day after it was posted than it did on the first day.

This means I’m still brooding on the whole writing advice thing, moving from point to point like Pac-Man trying to reach a power pellet, extrapolating outwards from the acknowledgement that I don’t know fuck-all. And I’ve realised a few things I should have put in yesterday’s post about processing advice, but didn’t have the brain-space to consider when I wrote it.


I have a shelf full of how-to-write books that are chock-full of advice. Many of them are really good and I’d heartily recommend them to folks who are looking to develop writing skills, but they’re not the be-all and end-all of figuring this writing thing out.

Advice, by its nature, tends towards the general. It’s someone trying to distil their ideas and their process into something pithy and easy to understand, which hides the fact that process and business are actually enormously complicated.

The most useful books in my collection, in terms of learning about writing, aren’t actually how-to books at all. They’re collections of interviews and biographies and writers talking about their specific process, places where there’s no need to be general. Where the assumption is people are interested in their work, rather than writing in general.

My copy of The Notebooks of Raymond Chandler are among the most well-thumbed pages in my book collection. Not much writing advice there, but there’s so much that can be learned by looking at Chandler’s process up-close, the way he’d think out his glorious metaphors and similies and scrupulously track their usage.

The Art of Neil Gaiman? Fucking awesome book for any creative interested in the fantasy genre, because it’s a writer sitting down and responding to questions about how he does what he does over the course of a whole career. There’s something similar going on in The Writer’s Tale by Russell T. Davies and Benjamin Cook, which is a meandering tour through Davies thought-processes as he scribed his forth season of Doctor Who.

And it’s not something that’s linked to writers, specifically. I’ve picked up great advice from writing by reading interviews with artists and pro-wrestlers, film-makers and actors. Some of my most repeated writing advice comes from conversation with my friend Allan, where we went looking for common ground between what he does and what I do.

The single greatest resource I have, so far as editing (and, weirdly, editing poetry) is The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film, where Michael Ondaatje sits down and talks to the guy who edited films like Apocalypse Now, Ghost, and The English Patient. There’s nothing how-to about it – they basically just talk about whatever shit they find interesting at the time – and because of that it goes into areas you’d never cover if you were putting together a how-to-edit-film thing.


That’s great, when you’re starting out, and the minutia is just going to be a distraction. It’s less great, as you advance through your career and start to master the basics of writing. After a while, the minutia is what keeps you going. You want to fine-tune your craft and you can’t do that with larger, clumsier tools that are designed to cut through great swathes of audience.

We are in a business about ideas and making connections.

If you’re serious about writing – hell, about any art – don’t limit yourself to advice and how-to. Look further afield and diversity the points where you’re getting


I’ve put up links to some of my favourite process books above. It’s not the full breadth of my collection – more a representative example – but it does occur to me that it’s very masculine and very white.

And, now that I’ve actually sat down and formalized my thinking on this, a somewhat smaller collection than I’d like.

So…help me out here. What are your favourite books about art and writing that aren’t necessarily how-to guides? Which bios get you fired up and eager to create? Where have you found strange epiphanies about the way you do things? Send me your recommendations, peeps, and I’ll check ’em out.

How I Process Writing Advice

So, having established that I don’t know shit about writing and publishing, I figure it’s worth talking about filtering the great swathes of writing advice out there. And, more importantly, how to figure out if a particular bit of advice is actually going to be useful to you. I mean, there is a whole bunch of writing advice out there on the internet, and a lot of it is…conflicting.

Or authoritative.

Or great advice, that is utterly useless to you, specifically, even if it works for everyone else.

So how do you process good advice when it comes along?

Honestly, I can’t tell you, but I can offer you the process I work through when I come across something interesting, which may be useful. I read about writing a lot, given my various day-jobs over the years, and my approach to taking things on board is pretty formalised at this point.

It also includes one important rule.


Not getting stuff done trumps everything on this list. Period. The core of your job as a writer is getting new work done, and there is always advice that kills your forward momentum stone dead.

Sometimes it’s because you got the wrong advice, or the right advice at the wrong time. You fixate on a particular idea and it keeps you from writing, or redrafting, or editing. You stare at the blank page, wanting to open with a line of dialogue, and some asshole’s voice is saying “don’t open a story with dialogue, editors hate it” rumbles through your head.

Ignore the voice.

Ignore the advice.

Rule zero: anything that keeps you from writing should be ignored.

That trumps everything else on this list.


I learned this one from a seminar delivered by Kevin J Anderson when I was just a baby-writer – whenever someone is giving you advice, consider who they are and what their background is. Publication histories, backgrounds outside of writing, their current approach to particular aspects of the craft or business.

There is a surprising correlation between writers who have done a lot of shit and been successful in their craft, and writers who offer a ton of great advice about writing and publishing. It’s worth considering taking a look at someone’s publication history before you take their advice on board. Why are they an authority on this? Why are you paying attention to them?


Before you take someone’s advice on-board, ask yourself whether you’d actually be interested in replicating this aspect of their career.

This is easy on the craft side of things: taking advice about plotting from writers whose approach to plotting I admire? Total no-brainer. Taking advice on author platform and social media from an author who has a monster profile? A much harder choice, even if the person offering the advice is great at blogging or tweeting.

Different genres will offer different approaches to building a career. Indie and traditional will require different approaches. Business models impact on the advice you’re paying attention to. Consider: a self-published writer putting together a novel series and building an ongoing readership is generally working with a business model that is completely at odds with the needs of a writer producing unconnected, one-off volumes for small press.

Writing advice is not one size fits all. It looks that way on the surface, but generally speaking writers have built up habits and techniques that play to particular strengths and weakness, different goals and means of making money. Take this into account before you take something on-board.


Let’s be honest – the vast majority of writing advice offered on the internet largely comes with with a side-order of please by my books in the subtext. That’s cool. I’m willing to roll with that and consider it the price of admission, especially when I’m under no obligation to do so.

On the other hand, if I can’t figure out why the advice is being offered – or if it’s really closely attached to a service with a high price-tag – I start getting twitchy. I want a lot of corroboration before I take that sort of stuff on-board.

When someone presents themselves as an authority or talks about the one true way to do things, it throws up all manner of red flags for me.

No-one offers advice without some form of agenda, and figuring out where the advice is coming from and why they’re sharing it can often be as illuminating than the advice itself.


Advice you don’t use just exists to make you feel better. There’s nothing wrong with that – I have a host of books on my bookshelf who exist as the equivalent of comfort food. I read them when I’m having a bad day, and think if only I implemented this approach to plotting, everything will be fine.

Then I put the book down and go back to going what I always do.

Nothing wrong with that.

But advice you’re actually going to implement?

Advice you actually use should be taken on-board with the goal of actually doing something better, or faster, or more effectively. I want to make sure I know why I’m about to implement a particular piece of advice, and what I’m hoping to achieve by doing so, before I put it into practice.

Knowing that means I know what success looks like. It means I have a way of measuring whether things are actually useful, or just the writing equivalent of a placebo.

Lets Be Clear: I Know Fuck All About Writing and Publishing

A whole bunch of people showed up to read yesterday’s post. Like, four times as many people than would ordinarily read this blog. More of you this morning.

This makes me very happy, but also extraordinarily nervous.

Because, here’s the thing: I know fuck all about writing and publishing.

I mean, I know some stuff, but in terms of the writing and publishing world, I am an utter bantamweight. I am thoroughly not ready for prime time. I am three steps into a journey of a billion god-damn steps. The fact that I have a job where I talk about these things and people listen to me like I’m an expert? Fucking terrifying. The fact that you’re here, paying attention as I blather on? Equally terrifying. Every instinct I have says shut the fuck up, send people elsewhere, let them pick this up from people who actually know their shit.

When you are trusting me as a reliable source, you are trusting a man who thought this was a good idea:

Paper Bag Hat!

The gulf between what I’ve actually picked up about the topic, over the years, and what I’d need to know in order to actually feel comfortable talking about it? Massive. Immense. Deep as the Marianas Trench.

I know fuck all about writing and publishing.

I acknowledge that, openly, without any real sense of shame, because knowing you know nothing is an incredible source of strength. It means that you don’t take the handful of shit you do know – ’cause we all know a little – and use it to blind yourself to your own limitations. It means you don’t assume that just because you’ve got some knowledge about one particular corner of a field, you’re ready to rumble in every aspect of that field.

It means, when you come up against shit you’re not sure about, you go looking for resources and good, diverse sources of information rather than trusting your untrained gut.

I love knowing fuck all. It means I get to go and figure things out. This blog is frequently me figuring things out in public, pressure-testing my ideas amongst a group of readers that include, among other things, a whole damn lot of writers who know far more than me. Folks with very different strengths and experiences who will weigh in when I’m acting like a dumb-ass.

*takes a deep breath*


So…two weeks back, Lifehacker published a really unfortunate article about how to finish and publish your first novel. And when I say unfortunate, I mean egregiously bad.

People are going to get themselves ripped by by scam-artists bad.

I hope to god that link no longer works, ’cause in any sane world you’d pull it down due to the potential for shit to go wrong, bad.

And its the perfect illustration why you need to get comfortable with the fact that you know nothing, ’cause even when people started pointing out the problems with the business model advocated, the author doubled-down with “no, you don’t understand, my situation is different.”

Well, yeah.


I’ll be clear: it may be that the writer in question wasn’t scammed in this particular instance. They are, at this point, perfectly happy with their experience

Whether they’ll still be happy with their experience in a few years is up in the air, since you can basically mark off the checklist of things you’ll get warned about on sites like Writer Beware. Their article literally reads like the the advocacy pages that appear on vanity publishing scams as they try to convince you they’re not vanity publishing.

It’s made worse, I suspect, because I’m pretty sure the title got rewritten by Lifehacker editorial, which subtly changed the tone of the article by giving it even more authority.


Assume you don’t know enough. Assume you need to find out more. When you think you know shit, your opinion is set in stone. You extrapolate big things from very little knowledge. You stop focusing on the mountain and start focusing on the difficulties of the path you’re currently following.

Writing is a place where lots of people extrapolate very little into a whole bunch of authority.

Should I ever do that, shoot me.

‘Cause I know fuck all about writing and publishing. I can – maybe – hold my own on a handful of topics, with the caveat that I should be one of a diverse range of opinions people study. It’s the barest sliver of what I should know, given my current day-job gig and my tendency to write about writing.

I try to be cool with that. I work to fill the gaps. The nice part of my job is that I get to do things like GenreCon, where the program is essentially two days of me testing ideas by putting three or four writers much smarter and more successful than me onto panels where they talk out a topic.

I get to sit down with writer and editors and agents and ask questions that fill the gaps in my knowledge.

I get to talk to folks who self-publish and learn what’s working for them (and what’s not).

And even with all that, it’s futile. ‘Cause I will never know all I need to know.

That’s the nature of actually trying to know stuff – you just become more aware of the gaps.

Yes, You Are Wasting Your Time As A Writer

Occasionally I get this request, either sent through to my email or from someone I just met:

Hey, can you take a look at my story/book and tell me if I’m wasting my time as a writer?

And, man, my heart aches every time I see that. I remember that stage of my career so fucking well, and it was hard.

I made the decision to become a writer when I was fifteen or so. I stuck with it long past the point where it was sane, living on the kind of money that made my parents wince well into my late twenties. I took bad jobs, ’cause it meant I could work very little and write a whole lot. I wasn’t getting paid anywhere near enough from my writing to make that worthwhile, and the number of times I seriously thought about quitting…


It happened a lot.

There were points where it was a god-damn weekly occurrence. I’d work at stories or poems or novels and I’d peer into the future and I could literally see no way that all the effort would pay off.

The uncertainty was terrifying. There were all sorts of piss-poor decisions made ’cause I was literally working blind and trusting that somehow, somewhere, there would be a career for me if I just kept plugging along.

And there were successes. Publications, even. But that didn’t help. The sheer amount of crushing shame I felt for devoting all my time and energy to this thing that seemed like a god-damn lottery…

Wait. I’m getting distracted.

My point, oh brothers and sisters of the keyboard: I know your fucking pain. I do.

But I cannot read your work and tell you if you’re wasting your time, ’cause I can’t actually do that. Your current work? It’s just a snapshot. A picture of where you are right here, right now, as a writer.

It’s got absolutely no bearing of where you end up.

I may read it and go, well, yes, this sucks, but that’s completely okay. Everyone sucks, at some point. There is this myth that if you’re a writer, you have some kind of natural talent. That there will be some spark of genius in the heart of your work that other writers/editors/publishers will look at and go, well, yes, I can see it in there, if you just keep working…


That spark doesn’t exist.

For example: I spent my first year at university failing every writing assignment I was given. Repetitively. Regardless of topic and form. Which culminated in a particularly crushing one-two punch from a lecturer, who gave me a 3/10 for a script assignment and then pointed out this is derivative, callow slapstick, and not particularly good examples of either.

No-one who saw my work in that first year was expecting anything from me, as a writer. I was young and I was bad, and I was derivative as all get out. If I’d asked any of those people who were reading my work if, perhaps, I was wasting my time, I expect the answer would have been an dead certain, “fuck yes.”

I can still remember the hollow terror in my gut that accompanied every mark that year. I’d always assumed I could be a writer, and now it turned out that I sucked.

I’d like to say that I took that as a reason to up my game, but I did not. I wallowed. I blew off classes and basically hung out with my friends and figured…well, I’m screwed. That career I thought I could fluke my way into against all odds, it’s gone now. Time to figure out plan B.

But I didn’t.

I tried, don’t get me wrong, but I screwed up plan B just as impressively as I was screwing up plan A. In the end, I stuck with my writing course because I couldn’t think of anything else I really wanted to do and I’d also failed the pre-requisites for 95% of the other majors that appealed to me.

So I kept reading. And I kept writing. And, over time, I got better. Still not as good as I wanted to be, or enough to make it feel like the effort was going to pay off, but good enough to suggest that maybe, one day, it would all come together. By the end of my second year, I’d figured out enough to get pretty good marks. By the end of my third year, I was doing well enough that they started talking about me coming back and doing post-grad work one day.

I started selling work – not a lot, but enough, and moderately regularly. And I still felt like a failure, wondering if I was wasting my time as a writer.

I’m not alone in this. Every writer I know has an equivalent story. Sometimes, in their stories, the evil prick who used words like derivative, callow slapstick is me. Sometimes I’ve said shit like dude, you need to learn how to structure a sentence. Sometimes, I’m the mother-fucker who says, if I have to read another word of this shit, I will fucking cut you. My vengeance will be swift and terrible. This shit is causing me pain. 

I’ve been the guy who dug a melon baller into the heart of someone’s dreams and gutted it. Never intentionally, but I get grumpy when I read people’s work. It’s one of the reasons I so rarely do it, unless it’s a favour for an actual, honest-to-god friend who will not take it personally when I give them feedback.

But the truth is this: you are wasting your time.

Right up until you’re not.

If you find yourself wondering which side of the divide you’re on, there are far more effective things you can do with your time than asking a grumpy writer (and all writers a grumpy) for feedback.

The list goes like this:

One: Develop your craft. If your gut is telling you that you’re not good enough yet, go figure out how to get good. Work at it systematically. Move forward.


What got me over the hump – the terrible, aching wondering – wasn’t the quality of my work. The feedback I was getting actually suggested I had some future in this writing thing, even if the actual publications weren’t reflecting that. Good feedback alone wasn’t enough to cut through the despair of seeing no future in this industry.

What got me through was actually sitting down and putting together a plan, treating my business like a fucking business, instead of just spitting creative work into the wind and hoping like hell I’d get lucky.

It was thinking: well, the five book theory, that’s a thing I can actually work towards, and then thinking, wait, if I need to get five books published, I’m going to need to produce work faster than I am at the moment. And figuring, even if it was wrong, I’d at least have five books to shop around instead of one.

It was about learning to finish shit and send it out and move on to the next thing, and learning not to sweat it if one story didn’t actually take off ’cause, yo, I have more stories to tell. The list of novels I’d like to write one day number is well into double-digits. The number of short-stories I need finish is into the triple digits and growing daily.

I haven’t made it any way that feels like making it yet, but I’m closer than I was. And the number of times where I feel like quitting is pretty much zero, these days, ’cause I know what I’m doing and what I’m working towards and I very rarely feel lost. I do my best to avoid wasting time. I can see the mountain and keep figuring out ways to get there, and even if I don’t ever make it, I feel pretty good about getting to the foothills.

Despair creeps into the places where knowledge runs out.

Most writers develop their craft intentionally and assume that the business side of things will work out. That’s the rhetoric, after all: you unleash your genius upon the world and you get discovered. All you need is confirmation that you have genius and everything will be okay.

But that’s not how it works.

That’s the bad news.

The good news is that the industry knowledge is there, when you start looking, and it gives you the sense of progress that spitting into the dark never will. It gives you a measure of control, if you study it.

Embrace that. Nurture it. Give yourself a plan. Be like a fucking shark and keep moving forward.

It will do more for that feeling of of uncertainty than one writer’s feedback ever will.

Three Random Things


I stayed up and watched all of Jessica Jones in one hit on Friday night.Turns out, and I’m still paying for that – no matter how many times all-nighters kick me in the arse, I just can’t wrap my head around the fact that they’re no longer an option.

Still, totally worth it. I regret nothing.

The Netflix/Marvel shows are…well, not really shows. They’re more like thirteen hour movies and this is far more prevalent with Jessica Jones than it was in Daredevil. The arc here is distinct and heavily focused – where Daredevil‘s arc genuflected in the direction of episodic television, taking its time building up to the revelation of a big-bad being behind everything, Jessica Jones goes straight for the throat. When it comes to bad guys, it’s all David Tennant, all the time, and the story is driven by Jessica’s reaction to his arrival.

Let me just say: the plotting in this is exquisite. Little, throw-away things prove to be the foundation upon which big things are built. No character is wasted.


HORNcover_600px-220x300News from Twelfth Planet Press – both Horn and Bleed are now for sale via the Amazon kindle store. Which is awesome, ’cause I’ve got a folder full of emails from people all, like, yo, why can’t I get this on kindle? and now the answer is yo, you can and they can be all yo, that’s awesome, while I ponder this sudden proliferation of the word yo in our dialect.


I’m not saying this movie seems like it would appeal to a number of people that I know, but lets break this down:

First: Gun-slingers.

Second: Zombies.

Third: Gunslingers +  Zombies + two young Queensland film-makers putting together their first feature film.

There is no world that exists where that combination doesn’t appeal to a huge swathe of my friends. It certainly appeals to me, and I’m quietly excited for the film’s release.

Eight Topics I’m Obsessed With At the Moment

The things I am most obsessed about tend to influence the content on this blog in strange ways. I never set out to blog about them specifically, but they colour every interaction I have with other people, and it is frequently a question or idea that someone else puts out there that sparks a moment of confluence and, lo, a blog post appears.

With that in mind, I figured I’d put this out there: a list of the current obsessions that are guiding my work over the next few months. The list is constantly evolving – some are long-term obsessions that lie at the very heart of my identity, while others are brief flings – but they all shape my method of engaging with the world in strange ways.


We’ve spent centuries telling people that art isn’t commerce and that’s filtered down into every aspect of the way we talk about art, writing, and creativity. For someone who intermittently teaches writing, in addition to blogging about it, this presents an enormous problem: the amount of stuff you need to undo, before you can talk about smart ways of building a career in the arts, is incredibly large and deeply ingrained.


An obsession that works in concert with the first. One of the great things about the explosion of indie publishing on the internet is the rise of a group of writers who talk about the business of what they do. This occasionally gets them into trouble when talking to people outside their particular tribe, since we’re so hard-wired to think that the art comes first that it’s easy to recoil from anything else, but I’m intrigued by the growing culture of talking about income and writing and how the two mesh.


Aliens. The Doom movie. Starship Troopers and Resident Evil and a handful of others  beside. There is a little-used branch of sci-fi in which a bunch of heavily-armed soldiers are sent into the metaphorical equivalent of a haunted house and get wiped out by something nasty, and they’ve been an obsession of mine for years. This interest lies at the very heart of my current writing project, and I may have banged on about them a good deal on the twitters in recent weeks.


Least exciting obsession ever, but it dominates a whole bunch of my reading since a) I now have to manage other people at work a lot more; b) I have an increasingly varied number of projects that need to be kept moving in both the day-job and my writing; and c) I don’t like being bad at things I have to do all the time. My to-do lists are getting increasingly detailed and I spend a lot of time unpicking why I move some projects instead of others, trying to figure out how I can make it all work.


I am not, by nature, the kind of person who engages in deep research for my writing. Which is weird, ’cause I know all manner of writers who go all-out in their approach, delving into topics and places in order to really flesh out their knowledge and experiences. There is some strange alchemy that goes on in their heads where things are transformed into stories, and I don’t truly understand it as well as I’d like. Which is problematic, since I’m starting to come up with project ideas that need a whole lot more research than ten minutes on wikipedia will provide.


There have always been superheroes on TV and in movies, but it’s only in the last decade or so that the primacy of the comic book has been seriously challenged as the medium in which ongoing, long-term storytelling of superheroes heroes takes place. For someone whose been reading comics since they were eight, this is incredible – part of the appeal of comics has always been the complexity of the medium as an ongoing platform, and to see them play out on TV and Movies and look at the techniques they keep (and discard)…well, If you’re as nerdy about narrative as I am, it’s like being a kid in a candy store.


To say my diet went to hell when the apnea started getting bad is an understatement. I was always carb-and-meat heavy in my food choices, but as exhaustion started to creep up on me around 2012 I started substituting pizza for pasta and frozen pies instead of steak. I ordered in a whole lot, particularly as the take-out joints around me started offering better options than McDonalds.

Still, this is not the diet of a man who is making sound life-choices.

Also, not a diet that is easy to break. The habits and psychology surrounding food is incredible – almost as interesting as the habits and psychology we build up about creativity – so I’ve been going down the rabbit hole of looking at why we make the choices we make with regards to diet.


The science of hit. How to do it better. What should be changing in relation to your habits. The apenea means I spend a lot of time reading up on sleep and it’s effects, since it’s become so central to my life.


Those are my current obsessions. Now, how about you? What’s occupying your attention and research time at present? What do you find yourself getting incredibly passionate about when talking to others?