Saturday

"Top Ten Worst Pieces of Writing Advice" (and more)

      by Michael Neff

Without Proper Advice Though, No Publication
OUTSIDE OF EXCESS NARCISSISM, BAD ADVICE IS A WRITER'S WORST ENEMY.

If you ever run or attend writer events, you will never cease to hear utterances of bad writing advice, the popular kind that circulates like a ruinous viral meme through the nervous systems of America's aborning fiction and novel writers. And each time you are exposed, you either chuckle or swear, depending on your mood and the circumstance. You might make a daring attempt to kill the meme in its tracks before it can infect someone else, or you might just stare at the writer with a dumbfounded look on your face and ask him, or her, "Where the hell did you hear that?"

Yes, the first question often asked: WHERE THE HELL DID YOU HEAR THAT?

Inevitably, many will point to their writer's group. Ahhhh, of course, you think. Why just recently in an Algonkian event, one of my faculty (a former senior editor at Random House) and I were faced with an individual who adamantly asserted to us both (and at the same time) that using only one point of view to write a novel was mandatory.

No exceptions!

I'm not kidding or exaggerating. I asked, "Where the hell did you hear that?"

She'd learned it from her writer's group. It must therefore be true. No doubt because they had told her this for seven years, and her workshop leader affirmed it, and as further proof the preposterous assertion was correct, a member of her group held an MA from Johns Hopkins! So in the face of this onslaught we displayed the typical dumbfounded reaction, and to our further astonishment, the writer just dug in and continued to resist our many proofs to the absolute contrary. As a matter of fact, one of the novels the writer was supposed to have read before the retreat was HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG. Of course, she didn't read it, but she did at least admit it contained more than one point of view. Uh oh! Moments later though, to bolster the writer group firewall of defensive ignorance, she said, "Well even F. Scott Fitzgerald screwed up once in Gatsby and shifted to a different point of view... So it just goes to show, anyone can screw up like that and use more than one point of view."

Stunned yet again following this mind-blowing comment, the two of us finally recovered to note several more novels that contained multiple POV, from WUTHERING HEIGHTS to THE POISONWOOD BIBLE to THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES to various thrillers and even to Rowling's later Harry Potter books. We figured that somewhere between Emily and J.K. this extremely stubborn person might actually stop and realize that perhaps her writer group had been steering her wrong. Sadly though, I don't believe she ever learned. Perhaps the bond with the group was too strong and the consensus delusion regarding single POV helped maintain their social cohesion. Perhaps her own narcissism disallowed her? Both? Who knows? I just know that the writer never once admitted she was wrong. No sign of epiphany was ever forthcoming. Instead, she lapsed into borderline hysteria, though recovered the final two days and went to work on another novel. I sent her at least 20 examples of multiple POV following the retreat and received only a very terse note in return. All in all, it was the most singular and remarkable act of writer ignorance I've ever witnessed, but one cannot blame the writer out of hand. Bad advice was one of her worst enemies, if not her worst. If you go to a writer's group respecting the leader and your peers and they tell you XYZ nonsense year after year, how can you not believe it? Nevertheless, we workshop leaders and teachers tire of being the target of theatrical repercussions at such time the narcissist writer discovers the world is not flat and the sun doesn't revolve around them.

On the plus side, the exasperating event above prompted me to finally work towards creating a master list of bad writer advice--something I've wanted to do for years. I searched on Google not only to help with my own recollections but to investigate anything I might have missed, and the first article I came across was in Lit Reactor: "The Ten Worst Pieces of Writing Advice You Will Ever Hear."

Lit Reactor seems to be a decent place for newbie writers seeking community and inspiration, but I have to take a few exceptions with the article above. I firmly agree with a lot of it, for example, WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW is really bad advice. How could speculative or historical fiction writers ever pen a page if this were true? But the author goes on to choose other literary adages we've all grown old with and claims that they too are actually very bad advice. One of them is SHOW DON'T TELL. So that's one of the worst pieces of writer advice? Huh? Now, let's pull in the reins for a second. As a writer I've never seen SHOW DON'T TELL as a hard and fast rule that covers all conditions and circumstances. Obviously, one may need to "tell" at such time a certain type of exposition needs to be artfully delivered and dialogue isn't sufficient. Like most writers I've known, I see SHOW DON'T TELL as a helpful guideline, especially for newbies who tend to lump pages of exposition in their opening chapter, or otherwise drone on and on about an important event in the story when they should be depicting in a live-action scene.

As in other instances in the Lit Reactor article above, the author isn't necessarily wrong when she counterpoints the age-old literary adage, as I did above, but the difference between us is that she posits SHOW DON'T TELL as an unbreakable rule, and when exceptions are offered up they stand as proof that the adage is actually bad advice. Logic dictates, however, that one can find several conditions to counterpoint the negative examples and then we're even. My point is that the unfortunate act of singling out the SHOW DON'T TELL guideline as bad advice is, in itself, bad advice--my apologies to the author of the article, and she is welcome to debate this here, but seriously, how the heck would you apply the anti-SDT logic to screenplay writers or playwrights when so much more is SHOW DON'T TELL?

Let's recap. We now have three slings of really bad writing advice to list. We'll build the list as we go:
  • Only one point of view per novel
  • Write what you know
  • "Show don't tell" is bad advice
Next. At every Algonkian event, I hear a writer state this to me sooner or later: "Writer's shouldn't use flashbacks in their novels." Yes. Another, Where the hell did you hear that? Of course flashbacks are acceptable, if used artfully. They are just one technique in the fiction writing toolkit, and the types of flashbacks vary from a brief memory to a full chapter, or more. Novels that use a framing device of looking back into the past after having first established a contemporary setting (e.g., A Separate Peace or I Claudius) are themselves one immense act of flashback. But like the first example in the beginning of this post, the writer's group can sometimes be at fault for spreading this unproductive advice, but in all fairness, is the writer group the true source? When questioned about origin, the writer spreading the viral meme regarding flashbacks more often than not says, "I heard it at a writer conference." And then I ask, from whom? And they answer, "Uhh, someone, an agent, um... on a panel."

Trauma time! The soul-searing memories return to haunt me. Years ago, I sat on a panel with five other agents at the San Francisco Writer's Conference listening to a new and incredibly ignorant agent drone on and on about the craft of writing (though she wasn't a writer and had never been an editor--in fact, like so many young agents, her only past experience involved reading query letters and wading the slush-pile), and every other utterance from this person's mouth about fiction writing was just plain wrong. I sat biting my tongue as long as I could, and then attempted to qualify and gently negate her assertions, and succeeded to some degree, but despite this calamity, I learned something. Here before me sat over 200 people, writers in their early stages, looking for good advice. And were they getting it? No, a hundred times NO. Past memories began to gel and I realized that the single biggest source of bad advice for writers might well be the typical American writer conference--and of course, these writers return to their hometown groups to repeat what they've heard, e.g., no flashbacks, show don't tell sucks, don't worry about your title...

Don't worry about your title? Back to a writer conference. I attended a panel at another large writer conference on the west coast in 2014. It was a panel of writers who had recently been published. There were about 75 people in the room. A poor neophyte stood and asked the assembled writers if he had to worry about his title before he was published, and the consensus answer from the panel? No. You don't... I sat there dumbfounded. So basically, these people told this guy that pitching his novel or nonfiction with a crappy, foolish, or hackneyed title was perfectly fine. Not to worry! Call it whatever you want. Must I spend any more space telling you why this was not only not perfectly fine, but perfectly stupid and self-defeating? A bad title is like a warning siren going out ahead of your pitch, whether it be an oral pitch or query letter. It makes a horrible whining sound of warning, and it seems to be saying to those who read or listen: This is a terrible writer, stop listening, stop reading, run screaming!

Now, time to add three more to the list:
  • Avoid flashbacks in your fiction
  • Don't worry about your title
  • Any writer conference is helpful
Pitching the MFA
Though I don't hear it as much as I used to, I nevertheless hear it from young writers who have been conditioned to falsely believe that they will never write well or be taken seriously as writers unless and until they possess an MFA. My response to this: nothing could be a bigger lie. I'm sorry, I can't mince words or dance around the reality for the sake of anyone. This isn't to say that the right student can't benefit from the right MFA program (e.g., at Florida State)--they can, of course. I'm addressing the members of the Literary Academic Complex (LAC), also known as the Literary Industrial Complex (LIC), who relentlessly promote the marketing myth that the odds are you'll never amount to much as a writer without an MFA. Yes, no fooling. Just click to the article at WE regarding the MFA, and when you arrive, click on the link to an MFA writer poll and you will see Gary Shteyngart quacking forth on this very subject ("You have to get an MFA"). No conflict of interest here? Gary has an MFA, and how could this smiling goofy guy be steering us wrong? Thanks, Gary, for doing your part to convince America's youth to incur millions in debt to obtain MFA degrees of highly dubious worth. However, if we could overhear Gary talking in whispers at one of his terribly boring academic cocktail parties, you would get the real skinny, and it would sound something like this:
"Look, we all know there are only a handful of MFA programs in the country that are worth a shit, but you know, when you're interviewed you have to dumb it down so you won't piss anyone off."
One of the fatal flaws of MFA programs consists of using a writer group of fellow students (who know as little or less than you) to critique your work for the purpose of improving it, which brings me around to another bit of really bad advice: JOIN A WRITER GROUP. I wrote an  article here at WE that pretty much sums up why being in a writer group for critique and guidance can be a train wreck in any number of ways. Again, like the MFA, you're supposing that people who know as little or less than you (otherwise why would they be there?) are capable of providing constructive advice, but since you aren't knowledgeable enough to know one way or another whether or not the advice is good, you should never take it without follow-up investigation--and if you're going to be constantly reality-checking what you hear, why stay in the group at all?... Yes, it's a social fest, it can be fun, or it can be oppressive and even ugly.

Did you know, THE ELEMENTS OF WRITING GOOD FICTION CANNOT BE TAUGHT? I didn't know it either until Isabella Allende told me so. She believes, as I do, that great authors are self-made, not baked from a workshop recipe, but she goes on further to say that students of novel writing are only capable of learning a limited subset of craft. Why? I'm not sure. She's not as extreme as the Iowa mantra that states "Writing Cannot be Taught, only talent developed," but she's closing in on it. From the video below (final 30%):
"I have twenty students working on a novel, but only one might create a good novel... I can teach them a few things about the writing, but I cannot teach suspense, tension, tone... how to play with the imagination of the reader, what is the highlight of the story..." 
Hmmm, why not? We teach it effectively in Algonkian workshops and in online programs--quite effectively I might add. Tension and suspense derive from a number of sources, and all these are knowable, and examples can be displayed. We can't fold on our teaching methods because Isabella Allende believes otherwise. To each his own. Btw, I love her writing.


Finally, we come around to our number ten on the list: Don't plan or outline your novel, let the character write the novel, or even more simply, "Just start writing." How many times have I heard that? And guess where? At a writer conference, of course. A certain type of author is asked whether or not they plot or outline ahead of time. They smile and say something like, "I've been asked this question before, and I have to say no, I don't outline. It just all comes to me, the character inhabits me..." or some such drivel.

But let's be logical.

If you understand the primary foundations for writing a novel you know your plot line must develop certain points as it moves forward, and you know also that you must write separate scenes in the novel to perform certain tasks relevant to the plot line, as well as to the character arcs, etc. It's a complex undertaking, and one that demands a certain amount of planning. If you are some kind of genius and can keep it all in your head, more power to you, but if you are like me, you need to organize and place ideas on paper (or on the computer). Also, logic dictates that if your novel plot lines are a series of circumstances, reversals, and events that tie together, it only makes sense that you better know how point A gets to point M before you will know how point M gets to point Z.

Consider, do screenplay writers or playwrights just start writing without any planning? Of course not. So why should the novel be different? And we're not talking about Beckett or Joycean flights of fancy, we're talking about the vast bulk of commercial novels, whether they be upmarket or genre.

Btw, here we have a bunch of freelance editors confirming this awful advice. Interesting, yes, but if you look closely you'll see they are trying to sell you their editorial services. Perhaps the less you plan your novel, the more work they'll have to do?

Now for the summary.

The Writer's Edge top ten worst pieces of writing advice:
  • Only one point of view per novel
  • Write what you know 
  • "Show don't tell" is bad advice (OMG!)
  • Avoid flashbacks in your fiction
  • Don't worry about your title (someone else will)
  • Any writer conference is helpful (beware--all events are not created equal)
  • You need to get an MFA (or you wont' be taken seriously)
  • Join a writer group (to improve your writing and get good feedback)
  • The art of fiction can't be taught (and "writing can't be taught")
  • Don't outline or plan your novel (let it happen)

18 comments:

  1. Sage advice on all 10 counts. What I've discovered that is if you take everything at face value you'll find yourself repeating the same mistakes or wonder why you aren't making progress. I'm in a writers group, but we focus on craft. Not a panacea. I went to the NYC Pitch Conference. New information. I joined Author Salon. More information. Then the big one ... I completed the Novel Writing Program (twice because I needed it). Read books on writing. Learn from people like Michael who've been there and done that. Read books by great writers (Cormac McCarthy, Robert Penn Warren, William Faulkner, to name a few). Want to learn how to prepare to write a novel, Author Salon shows you how. Read Elizabeth George's WRITE AWAY, a great guide to walk you through the steps to take before your write your novel. And the most important - that "bum glue." Sit your ass down and write. Then learn how to edit yourself. There is no easy path to be published. Hard work, persistence and perseverance. And understanding and recognizing bad advice. So take what I've written in these comments with a grain of salt. Do your homework. Check it out. Make your own decision. Advice is only good if it works. So ... does this work? Good luck.

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  2. Great article and a must read for all new, struggling, or confused writers out there. It is nice to know that even those who we think are writing and publishing experts, don't always know what they are talking about. One more piece of advice that I might add to the "bad" column is this.

    "Your endings need to have a neat resolution." I disagree. I think endings for some books need to make the reader think and offer a resonance that lingers. If it is a crime novel or a thriller, yes we need to know who done it. But other stories will stay with us longer if it leaves the reader with something to ponder.

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    1. The analysis of proper endings needs to be divided by genre. Each genre has its special biases and needs, for endings and other matters. But if you're Camus you are not expected to end a novel like J.K. Rowling, that is unless you have been contracted to write a new Harry Potter.

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  3. I've been in five different writers groups, and it was a horrendous ride in three of them. Only in the last one have I found some bit of sensible help, but now I'm double checking on everything. You just can't accept what you hear from amateurs. I agree with the Writer's Edge article on this subject.

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    1. I was in a group in Virginia many years ago that was stopped dead in its tracks one evening by a single group member. I'll call her Member X. Anyway, a young writer had written her first short story. It was a predictable mess of mixed storylines and sets, however, there was one really interesting and provocative story circumstance in the bunch. I simply noted this to her and suggested that if she fleshed that one out she would have a marketable short story. Upon saying this, Member X interjected: "That's all well and fine, but she can't do that now because it's your idea, not hers."

      That was the end. All commentary from then on out was reduced to near useless superficiality. The group moderator was afraid of Member X and never challenged her domination or her gavel pounding judgments.

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  4. My first novel was just published in the last couple of weeks and I just finished writing my second one. They were vastly different experiences. Here is what I have learned about each of the points you listed:

    I have several points of view in both novels, which I find more interesting because I get to know more of my characters that way.

    I am guilty of having written what I know quite a bit. But on the second one, I challenged myself to dig deep and write from an evil character’s perspective. That was a major challenge but enlightening as well, making me realize I need to step outside my comfort zone to make the story more compelling.

    I do a lot of “showing” and scene-setting in my first novel but on the second one, I have figured out that I needed to actually let my characters tell and drive the story instead of me “narrating” it for them.

    My first novel is set in two different eras so I had to use some flashback – whether it was effective or not I guess remains to be seen.

    My title was the first thing I wrote and I have loved it ever since. A senior editor from Random House told me at the Algonkian Pitch Conference that he loved the title and told me that if I ever wanted to relinquish it, to give him a call. He didn’t want to publish the entire book, though, so I never called!!

    Never thought about getting an MFA (I have a college degree in English and I’m not even sure that is useful beyond the opportunity it gave me to read some really great and really bad literature), never been to a writer conference or been part of a writer group.

    I did attend the Algonkian Pitch Conference a few years ago and even a year after the conference, I continued tweaking my pitch and started getting some publishers to notice, or at least request the manuscript based on the pitch. When they were rejecting the manuscript, I realized that the pitch was working but the manuscript wasn’t, and revamped parts of it.

    As for teaching the art of fiction, I used to be a newspaper editor and my philosophy when hiring writers was that if they had slightly above average writing skills, I could teach them the rest, if they were willing. The key is that they (and we) have to be willing to listen. I also think that reading a wide variety – fiction, non-fiction, newspapers, etc. – is a great teacher for writing. Having been an editor for 25 years also has helped me identify issues that I see in other people’s work that I need to correct in mine.

    I had a basic outline for the first one; for the second one, I just had an opening scene/chapter and just wrote free-flow. Now, I have a lot of editing to complete on it to make sure everything is in sequential order and makes sense. Even with the outline for the first one, I still fret about the order of things and if it all makes logical sense.

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  5. Good article, but I've had a few contrary experiences on some of these.

    I have been to writer's conventions where highly established agents have stated that, while they are willing to look at manuscripts with more than one point of view, they are much less likely to consider them.

    Their reasoning was that most writers can't justify it, and reviewing these manuscripts requires more reading on her part (narrator one might be beautiful prose, while narrator 2 might be deadly dull, so she's spent twice as much time on a bad manuscript).

    I've also heard agents say that they won't look at anything with a prologue, which is probably where the "no flashbacks" warning comes from. (I could name the agents who've made these statements btw, but for confidentiality reasons I won't.)

    This kind of blanket advice gets frustrating, because it's rarely clear whether we're hearing an industry-wide mantra, or just the preferences of that particular agent.

    The counterpoints you've made here, while I agree with them, are almost always met with statements like "X writer is an exception because their bestseller status lets them could get away with these techniques" or "The industry's changed. Just because writers did it in the past doesn't mean they should do it now." So it's not just writer's groups passing on this kind of advice.

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    1. I'm so glad you posted because this makes the point perfectly. "Mantra" can often be a myth, e.g., a couple of agents I know tell writers never to pitch a series to an agent or editor even if they're planning one. Since this never made sense to me, I have broached this warning several times with various acquisition editors at the NYC pitch over the past ten years, and each of them denied this and said they wanted to know up front whether or not the writer had a series in mind. I've also been witness countless times to these editors and many others asking the writer if they were planning a series. Bottom line, I was in the fortunate position of being able to nullify this bit of really bad advice I'd heard.

      The agent community has their own viral memes that circulate. Keep in mind that a huge portion of agents are very young or new to the business (because so many drop out). The majority do not have a background in literary editing, either for a commercial house or indie press, or even for a college journal. They do not have a background in developmental editing for a publisher, TV or film producer or studio, etc. They have never written a word of fiction in their lives, or they tried and failed at it. A few are attorneys who one day decided to become agents for whatever reason, but most came up through the intern ranks by working for free, pouring the coffee, and reading slush and query letters. They believe this qualifies them to go to conferences and pontificate on what a writer needs to do to write a good story, but it doesn't, not by a long shot.

      What you heard re point of view was bad advice, very bad advice, and delivered in a juvenile manner. Again, all one has to do is examine the great heaving load of successful novels of varying genres that are written with multiple POV, and continue to be written. If the agent in question grew up reading only YA paranormal romance, she might be falsely led to believe first person is the exclusive way to go, but this condition simply adds fuel to the bad advice fire.

      Counterpoints counterpointed or no, the tie breaker is literary history, success in the marketplace by scores of authors using tried and true literary techniques. Don't mistake bad taste and ignorance for solid advice.

      As for prologues, this isn't related to the flashback advice. Most prologues are not needed, they're overused, so many agents see the prologue as a red flag for a bad novel in wait, but they often kneejerk without seeing it in context simply because they rarely read the novel submission. They walk into a theater, watch for one minute, then make a sweeping judgment about the entire movie and dismiss it.

      It's ridiculous.

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    2. And btw, if an agent, any agent, is biased out of ignorance towards multiple viewpoint, then they will reject out of hand any submission with multiple pov. They can't possibly know if the story "justifies" the character POVs unless and until they actually READ the novel. Most likely, they tried to read badly written slush with multiple POV and this trauma became their basis for the bias.

      How could you possibly be biased if you had spent a decade or more of your reading life consuming novels written with many POVs? btw, one of my favorite multiple POV fantasy books and bestseller:

      The Alchemyst: The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel

      But I suppose this would have been rejected by those "agents"... Alas.

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  6. I've never understood the whole process of pantsers...I've always been a plotter. I agree with the ten points listed here, especially the one about writers groups. I have one more piece of bad advice to add. It's the trend now that writers must be more productive, putting out a novel every 3-6 months. "Hurry up and write fast." I've read some books by writers following this advice, and frankly, I've already forgotten the books and the authors. I even threw one book away after the first chapter. You can't rush quality. For writing to have a lasting impact, as great novels do, it's just going to take time. I'm willing to wait a couple or three years for a sequel if the first novel is phenomenal. I'd like to praise the authors who take the time to craft masterpieces of writing.

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  7. Great article, and a really valuable read. I think every writer in whatever sage of their craft they're in, could benefit from being reminded of these misconceptions. Some of these I've heard since I can remember first starting writing over 20 years ago. "Show don't, Tell" and "Write What You Know," particularly stick out. I've been trying to rack my brain for other piece of bad advice or misconceived belief... I'll have to keep thinking. This seems to be a pretty comprehensive list!

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  8. Bad advice when it comes to your novel, "Your first thought is always the best." No, your rewritten thoughts are always the best. Don't be afraid of revisions. After all, that's where you'll find the gold.

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    1. There are no great writers, only great rewriters.

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    2. Great advice! "There are no great writers, only great rewriters". So we never need be intimidated by this image of an ideal writer typing out the best story (without planning of course!) and getting it published without ever changing a single word.

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  9. I've heard nine out of the ten. I never heard the "only one POV" rule before. Thinking back just over the novels I've read in the past year, I'm amazed that the notion every got any traction at all. But I think the most damaging on the list is that you don't need to plan or outline. I belong to an online writers forum where most of the prominent members passionately believe it, backed up with quotes from their favorite authors who swear they don't plan a thing, that it's best to "write in the moment", etc. Nonsense. I'll be at the June Pitch Conference and the historical novel I'll be pitching took two 5-subject notebooks, 3 timeline charts and one genealogy chart worth of planning. I couldn't have done it any other way.

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    1. You're right, Ed, this is certainly one of the worst, if not the worst. Whether you are a fiction writer, playwright, or screenwriter, how can you possibly layout and execute a scene in your story with zero planning? How would you even know to write that scene in the first place unless and until you knew ahead of time that it a played a certain role in the novel?

      What is this forum, btw? Tell me when you see me. My advice is to run screaming.

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  10. Another piece of advice I would offer is don't write a piece solely for the purpose of entering it into a contest. Also, if you find yourself writing something you don't enjoy working on,stop. If you must write it, maybe for a college class, start over with a new approach. And I agree 100% about writing groups. I'm leery of workshops because I don't like the idea of formulaic writing, but am giving the Algonkian workshop a shot.

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  11. If you think of “Write What You Know” as a rule, then all we would write would be memoirs. So I consider it more as an admonition. Don’t write about anything unless you know it. Before you introduce a character from Topeka, find out about the city to make sure it’s a match. Maybe Kalamazoo would be a better fit. Once you know it, you can write about it.

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