I Know Nothing: Why I Call It That

Nick Mamatas, a wise man, has written of the tiresome advice that writers write for other writers. I am guilty of, in the distant past, writing about these. That’s why I’ve backed off nowadays, declared that I Know Nothing, and am now writing about what I actually have experienced as a writer (a really young writer) or have analyzed through other people’s works.

The “Show Don’t Tell” item is particularly amusing to me, as the authors of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers had to, in their second edition, go back over when to show and when to tell, because people took their initial advice way too strictly. People who claim “show don’t tell” as a strict principle do worse than my own outing in 2008 exploring description and show/tell in a Sherlock Holmes story. And as I know nothing (I was, after all, relying on my own analysis of a story written by someone better than me), while they know things, that’s really saying something.

I’m guessing if a writer has something to say about writing, they should illustrate the point rather than throwing it out there with little context. And through illustrating the point, they can, I kinda hope, figure out whether it applies personally or globally, or whether the point they’re trying to make is actually another point. For instance, “write every day” is actually “practice a lot even when you don’t feel like it”. The terms of practicing are up to the individual temperament and skills of a writer. “Revise, revise, revise” is actually “if your internal and/or external feedback says that you suck, then suck it up and revise, or throw it out and do something else.”

It’s just easier to wrap everything in soundbites, isn’t it, especially the more complex and nuanced something is, and writing is complex and nuanced. I’ve never thought of writing as a “spooky art” before but that particular sound bite fits.

I really… really quite like, possibly to unwise degrees, the admonition that “aiming for the top” isn’t the key to happiness as a writer. You’re better off aiming for what you want. This and other points remind me of Keffy’s post about targeting specific markets rather than aiming at what is likely to be rejection. Working out what you really want is harder. For instance, I have a strong desire for my work to outlast my life because I will leave no descendents on this earth except for the imaginary ones, and traditional publishing is not necessarily compatible with this ideal.

As for most redundant aphorism, “Don’t Give Up” gets my vote. Because the people who won’t give up pretty much won’t give up, because we are insane, and you can’t smack sense into insanity. I should know. I came back to writing even though it eats into my free time outside of a day job that makes me money.

Some young writer somewhere will say, “But then what can I give advice on?”

And I guess the only answer is to admit you know nothing and go on from there.

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2 thoughts on “I Know Nothing: Why I Call It That

  1. Your take on “revise, revise, revise” reminds me of art class. Because in art class also, we are encouraged to revise/erase/redraw, because we’re not very good artists at the beginning and mostly our work needs a lot of improvement. But one of the things you have to learn, that gets talked about less, is when a piece is as good as you can get it. At that point you need to stop and declare it officially done—even though it’s not perfect—because anything more you do will just degrade it.

    That’s a judgement call, though, and I bet the reason “Revise!” gets so emphasized is in reaction to those people who insist their very bad writing is already perfect.

    • At that point you need to stop and declare it officially done—even though it’s not perfect—because anything more you do will just degrade it.

      It’s very much a judgement call. I know that Tolkien revised for years and out came The Lord of the Rings. Eventually.

      That’s a judgement call, though, and I bet the reason “Revise!” gets so emphasized is in reaction to those people who insist their very bad writing is already perfect.

      Yeah. A lot of these little aphorisms seem originally made in response to people who are obstinate on the point of hopelessness. And then they get parroted by the inexperienced until they become this weird set of strict rules that people measure their work by.

      For instance, a better piece of advice than “revise” is “when do you revise”? It’s better to tell people they have the option to both show and tell, and let them know the kinds of situations one is better than the other in.

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