Two Pieces Of Writing Advice I Took

In hopes of seasoning their craft, most writers read books on technique. During my own odyssey toward self-improvement, two simple pieces of advice particularly resonated. The first came from the book On Writing by Stephen King, the second from author Wayson Choy.

Image credit: Microsoft Clip Art

Image credit: Microsoft Clip Art

1. Pushing The Envelope

Writers often wonder how far to push boundaries.

–Will our words be offensive?

–Will Grandma cringe when she reads them?

–Will little Timmy hide in shame from his friends?

Questions of this nature plagued my first novel, and I omitted passages as a result. But a side effect of sanitization was deception. I wasn’t being true to my story. Though perhaps not critical in my first book, the issue weighed heavier in my current manuscript where the premise is controversial and divisive.

The following words from King’s book On Writing eased my boundary-crossing:

“If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered, anyway.” (Page 148, paperback)

And:

“As with all other aspects of fiction, the key to writing good dialogue is honesty.” (Page 185)

And:

“The point is to let each character speak freely, without regard to what the Legion of Decency or the Christian Ladies’ Reading Circle may approve of. To do otherwise would be cowardly as well as dishonest, and believe me, writing fiction in America as we enter the twenty-first century is no job for intellectual cowards.” (Page 187)

Though King specifically refers to dialogue (profanity, portraying bigoted characters), the concept applies to all aspects of storytelling.

My take-home message? When we censor ourselves, we stop writing honestly.

Of course, as a writer there are places I’ll never go. I don’t like reading about those places (think torture porn or detailed sexual violence), and I certainly won’t create them. But my current manuscript involves a social theme of which there are strong opinions. As a result, I had to stop worrying about what others would think and just write the dang book.

That comfortable boundary will vary among writers, just as it does for readers. The trick is to decide how much stretching beyond our own confines we can stomach.

Image credit: Microsoft Clip Art

Image credit: Microsoft Clip Art

2. Just Sit That Thing Down!

I put my other favorite piece of advice into action this past summer:

“The only secret to writing is AC: Ass on Chair.”Wayson Choy (and others)

An amazing thing happened when I backed away from social media, turned off my television shows, and worked Monday through Sunday, week after week. I finished my book.

Although some of those writing sessions were about as fun as acupuncture with steak knives, it really was as simple as “Ass on Chair.”*

Any favorite writing advice you’ve taken? Do you have boundaries as a writer or reader?

*Ass on Chair proves more difficult when one has a ‘real’ job. Such was the case with my first book. But even then, one to two hours a night after the kids went to bed paid off. It just took longer.

 

212 Responses to “Two Pieces Of Writing Advice I Took”

  1. Chrystal

    I find myself CONSTANTLY questioning how much I want to share in my writing for fear of hurting someone’s feelings. There are complete topics I won’t broach that I would love to but feel like I would start a World War – or at least a Family War. (Would that be a Civil War? Nah, I don’t think it would be civil.) But, I also have a feeling that if I ever let it go, it would be my most powerful writing to date. Hmmm….what to do, what to do. 🙂

    Like

    • Carrie Rubin

      I think it’s easier to let go in fiction, at least for me (though obviously I still struggle with it, hence, the post–and yes, I just said ‘hence.’) I can’t imagine writing anything that would involve actual people in my life (other than the silly stuff I post about my kids). I’m not sure how people write memoirs. Bet they do some hand-wringing over those!

      Like

  2. Kate is

    I did think something I had written recently was “too much”, but then I decided to keep it in because it was honest. Great reminder. Thank you.

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    • Carrie Rubin

      I’m curious as to whether you will publish a book using your real name or a pen name? That was a tough decision for me, and I finally settled on my real name, because I figured it would be hard enough to get book sales. Why make it harder for people who know me to find the book? But that’s easier now that I’m not practicing, and when I do go back, it will be more behind the scenes in nonclinical work. Just curious how you think you’ll go about it since I know you’re practicing clinically. (Which, by the way, I hope is going well!)

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      • Kate is

        Doing really well and thank you for asking 🙂 Though diagnosis some days is terribly sad. I just can’t get that neutral look on my face. I want to cry right along with them.
        But, good question. I think I would use a pen name for the reason you mentioned. Some of my horror is a little out there and if I ever have it published I might want to separate the two. People might not want a me as their doctor if I write about killing them.

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  3. Anne Chia

    Yup definitely something that worries me too; pushing the envelope. But sometimes we are too pre-occupied with what society will think of us or say, that as you mentioned, we are not true to ourselves. I guess the difficulty is in finding a balance really between the truth in our tales, and propriety and decorum, especially if we are concerned about people that we love?

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    • Carrie Rubin

      Yes, finding that balance. As I’m going through my manuscript for its fourth draft, reading it out loud, I’m better able to find some things that I feel may be more gratuitous and unnecessary for my novel (namely profanity), so I’ve taken them out. But there’s still more profanity than I’d normally use, but one of my characters is a bullied, fifteen-year-old boy, and any teenager, at least in America, will tell you the language can be pretty colorful in schools. Thank goodness all I have to deal with from my own teenage boys is potty talk. They know better than to swear in front of their mother or in public!

      Like

  4. iRuniBreathe

    I very much enjoy Wayson Choy as a writer, and always found his AC comment valid. How else will you get it done unless you just (sit and) do it? Sounds like it’s paid off — I’m looking forward to reading the new volume. Congrats on the progress.

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    • Carrie Rubin

      Thank you. I’ve actually never read any of Wayson Choy’s works. Given I’m spouting his quote around, maybe I should!

      Like

  5. PinotNinja

    Who wants to be a member of polite society anyway? Life is way too interesting to be constrained like that.

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  6. Lori D

    Ha! AC reminds me of an episode from my favorite TV show. It’s about women taking too long to get ready to go out. Everybody Love Raymond, AIS – As In Seat. 🙂 Well, I can’t seem to write love/sex scenes. So, I pretty much fade to black. This is my first novel I’m working on. The one I have in mind for my second will also have a more social conscience, and will need opinions that may offend people. Thanks for sharing this, Carrie.

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    • Carrie Rubin

      I avoid writing sex scenes, too. I use the excuse that I write thrillers, and including them would slow down the pace. Yeah, that’s it…

      It’s ironic that I just read your comment, because I’m about to head to my treadmill with my iPad and read more of your book. I read the first story and loved it. Your grandma is one tough cookie putting that finger back in place on her own. Ouch! Am really enjoying it. Takes me back to when I visited Italy. 🙂

      Like

      • Lori D

        Wow, Carrie, I’m honored that you’re reading my memoir anthology. Back in the day when my Grandma walked in the room with the naked guy, society would’ve been a little more shocked. Today, anything goes. Thanks for your interest in the book. I’m glad you’re enjoying it.

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        • Carrie Rubin

          Oh, I really am. I just finished the second and third segments. They really took me back, both in the way you had to learn how to cook as an adult (same here, and now I love it, but I knew nothing when I first got married; wasn’t till I had kids I taught myself) and the Tiger Beat magazine. Only my crush was Parker Stevenson and Shawn Cassidy. 🙂

          I look forward to reading the last chapter tomorrow. What a pleasant treat to find something to which I so much relate. 🙂

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  7. Lucky Wreck

    Wow! I can really relate to the questions about pushing the envelope! Although I have not yet written a book, the slightest notion that someone might possibly read my blog causes me to fret for days over those questions.

    Thanks for sharing this advice. It’s definitely valuable stuff!

    Congratulations on finishing your book, too! 🙂

    Like

    • Carrie Rubin

      Thank you! Pushing the boundaries definitely relates to blog posts, too. I don’t venture too far out on those. I’m a wimp. I leave that for others… 😉

      Like

  8. daniheart21

    I wholeheartedly agree. I have a chapter in the novel I am working on, and it just makes me uncomfortable, but I know in order to stay true to the character it has to go in. I haven’t worked on my novel in so long now, but one day I will pick it up again, and whether or not I rewrite that chapter it will go in. 🙂 Yes.. and AC is tougher for some of us to achieve than others. lol Great post.

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    • Carrie Rubin

      There is a killer in my novel, and though I tried to portray the acts from his viewpoint and minimize any gratuitous violence, those scenes were still difficult to write.

      When I saw your comment, I had to check your blog to make sure I hadn’t missed a post. Glad to see I haven’t. You’re just using your time for more valuable things, no doubt. 🙂

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      • daniheart21

        Starting a greeting card business. Very exciting. But there is so much to do. I have been neglecting my writing though, even blog posts and poetry. sighs… not enough hours in the day. Good for you for staying true to your character. I know I would have trouble writing that so my hats off to you. 🙂

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        • Carrie Rubin

          Ooh, I wish you the best of luck with it! How exciting. Be sure to let us know when you’ve got things up and running. I have great admiration for people who build something up from scratch. Lots of hard work involved that others don’t see.

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  9. talesfromthemotherland

    In pushing my boundaries with my first novel… I realized that I’m pretty good at writing sex. I can’t say anything about research, but the writing flowed. 😉 I work really hard to make my characters as authentic as possible; and, dialogue is critical. As for walking away from social media… you’ve got a good point. I should follow it.

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    • Carrie Rubin

      Ooh, so you like writing those sex scenes, huh? 😉

      I avoid drafting sex scenes like the plague (I’d rather write about the plague…), but I do have some nasty dialogue in my manuscript given I have some nasty antagonists. But you’re right–if we want to make our characters authentic and have realistic dialogue, we need to be real.

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  10. Jilanne Hoffmann

    Yes, I’ve always had trouble with honesty. I was raised in a household where the the motto was the standard “If you can’t say anything nice…” Very difficult to break out of that trap.

    As far as AIC is concerned, I’ve been neglecting the media and doing the work that will move my other writing forward.

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    • Carrie Rubin

      “‘If you can’t say anything nice…’ Very difficult to break out of that trap.”—Yes! That’s exactly it, isn’t it? I say that to my kids all the time, and here I am, trying to go against what’s been ingrained in me for years. I have to remind myself, I’m not dissing anyone. It’s my mean antagonists that are dishing out the dirt.

      Glad to hear your writing is moving forward. I wish you well. Thanks for taking a break from it to read and comment. 🙂

      Like

  11. jeanjames

    Great advice and I loved everything about King’s book On Writing. When I worked as cook in a professional kitchen there was the saying, “Don’t be a hack.” It was a reminder never to slack off, I think this saying goes just as aptly with writing.

    Like

    • Carrie Rubin

      Yep, slacking off doesn’t get us too far. Wish I could make my kids see that in relation to their less-than-clean bedrooms…

      Like

  12. IGJ

    You have taught me a lot about a writing project. As a senior, I believe what you shared with us fits into our individual lives. Its very thought provoking to be reminded of the need for honesty, in our own words.

    Like

    • Carrie Rubin

      Good point, because if we’re not honest with ourselves, then how can we expect to be honest with others? Now, if only our politicians in Washington would get that…

      Like

  13. La La

    Putting down social media is difficult….and probably the main reason I am stuck. I still go back and forth in my head about whether or not I want to publish something, anyway. Thanks for the advice!

    Like

    • Carrie Rubin

      Well, then we’re even, because your posts always inspire me. 🙂

      Walking at a snail’s pace on my treadmill while I write has been the best means of avoiding back pain which I get if I sit too long. Either that or propping my footstool up on my kitchen island and resting my laptop on it so I can stand and work. Much cheaper than a treadmill desk on both counts (my treadmill shelf was only $39). It’s interesting to hear that office workers are starting to improvise their workstations so they can be upright more. I bet we’ll continue to see more of that in the future.

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        • Carrie Rubin

          Well, I’m quite sure your lake is much prettier than my wall! If I could stroll around it and still get my work done, I’d be there. Maybe I need a little shelf with a strap around my neck like the people who sell concessions at the ball game have…

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  14. butimbeautiful

    I don’t think I’ve ever read a book on writing..well maybe one, it was Why We Write (I think) by George Orwell, and it had a lot to say about truth. Arse on chair – totally agree. You have to make a big time commitment, and you have to push other things aside, you can’t run ten things at once. That’s why the little house on the fjord idea appeals to me..

    Like

    • Carrie Rubin

      Yes! I was jealous of your writer-character’s secluded house in ‘Deeper.’ But not his fate… 😉

      I have so many projects that need my attention, but as you mention, I had to push them aside. Once I send the manuscript off, I’ll try to start ticking them off. But for now it’s been editing, marketing the first one, social media, and taking care of my family. Well, and keeping up with my medical stuff. That goes without saying.

      Welcome back! I’m sure it felt great to sleep in your own bed.

      Like

  15. 4amWriter

    I enjoyed King’s book, On Writing, mainly because it wasn’t chock full of rules. He’s most definitely an example of an author who has bucked the system and gotten away with it. Authors have to make the decision first to be true to themselves and their stories before they begin their writing journeys. Otherwise, they end up questioning their ability to write the darn thing. Sometimes I think that’s one of the reasons we revise endlessly.

    I absolutely agree that we have to be proactive as writers, meaning ass in chair. Thinking about our books while washing dishes will certainly help stir up the ideas, but books don’t write themselves.

    Social media has become that necessary evil in an author’s life, however. It also becomes a lovely excuse to explain why we aren’t progressing enough with our books. But that’s not social media’s fault — we allow it to happen.

    Glad you got your ass in the chair!

    Like

    • Carrie Rubin

      Me too!

      The more I learn about writing technique, the more I spot the rule-breaking by established authors. King does indeed break the rules. For example, I’m currently reading Doctor Sleep, his latest. Despite the 3rd-person POV narration, he frequently tosses out the word ‘you,’ and I don’t just mean in dialogue. He also head hops, and I’m not convinced he’s writing from the omniscient POV. And though his text is past-tense, he often uses present-tense words like now, this, tonight, etc. But if I hadn’t read about the rules would I note any of this? No. I’d simply enjoy the story. Which is indeed what I’m doing. 🙂

      Like

  16. battlewagon13

    I find that the censorship thing is the hardest part to overcome – phrasing your words in one way or the other so as not to offend one person in your circle of friends and things like that. I’ve also stopped worrying about my grammar as much as I used to. People complain about it at times, but I would rather put into words what I’m thinking – and believe me – I don’t think correctly 🙂

    Looking forward to reading more of your work.

    Like

    • Carrie Rubin

      It’s interesting how the ‘rules’ of writing seem to become much more fluid for the best-selling authors. 😉 In terms of censorship, I imagine well-established authors no longer worry too much about offending; they’ve learned they have to tell their stories honestly. But it can be difficult to reach that point. I found it easier with my second novel, and hopefully I’ll continue to make the transition.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

      Like

  17. ellamedler

    You hit it, girl! The two most important nails in the scaffolding to get that novel built. I’m about two slivers of rust away from breaking links with social media. In my case, it’s turning out to be more of a curse than a blessing. We’ll see what happens. 🙂

    And congratulations on finishing the book. You rock!

    Like

    • Carrie Rubin

      Thanks, Ella. 🙂

      In a publishing world where the marketing onus is on the author, social media can indeed be the curse that keeps us from producing product. Plus, you do editing and other writing services, so I imagine you see computer screens in your sleep. I’m still not sure how you do it all!

      Like

  18. Perfecting Motherhood

    Stephen King has so much good advice in his book, I’ll have to read it again before I get serious on writing anything for myself. As for the honesty of the content, think about all the people who like reading the trash in Fifty Shades of Grey and you don’t have to worry about your own content offending anyone!
    I think my best motivational quote is Nike’s Just Do It. Anytime I have some doubts or excuses, I remind myself it.

    Like

    • Carrie Rubin

      That’s pretty much what I did with this one. When I started on the first draft, I told myself just to go for it. Now that I’m in the fourth edit and reading it aloud, I’ve found a few things I can tame down (mostly profanity) without taking away from the honesty of the characters. And you’re right, after the Fifty Shades stuff, what do the rest of us have to worry about?… 🙂

      Like

      • Perfecting Motherhood

        I have no problem with the swearing, especially when it fits the context. I’m always amazed when I watch a movie and see something really bad happening and the person just says, oh, bummer… That is the opposite of realistic and it makes the character lose credibility.

        Like

    • Carrie Rubin

      Quite simply might be the most brilliant self-imposed boundary ever. At least you always know your confines. Of course, in terms of content, anything goes, right?…

      Like

      • List of X

        Ummm, not anything…. It has to be related to the current events.
        Actually, I can write anything I want, but if it’s not a list of 10 about current events, I have to find people who would want it as a guest post, or leave it in my archives forever.

        Like

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