Myths have accompanied us as a species since the dawn of time.
Even if it might seem strange, given that evolution hasn’t wiped them off our DNA pool, they must provide us with some kind of benefit.
However, this doesn’t mean all myths are always and necessarily useful or constructive.
For example, sometimes myths about writing grow out of stereotypes and biases. And tend to radicate with uncanny ease in the minds of people, even if at a closer look many of such myths are in stark contradiction the one with the other.
Here I present a list of some of the most widespread myths about writing. And examine them in detail to shed a bit of light on what is true and what is not.
Myths about writing
1 True writers are magic beings who happen to write flawless prose every time they sit down to create.
Well, maybe for some writers writing comes as easily as breathing–for sure, Isaac Asimov was a prolific author and one whose first drafts went into print with minimal changes.
So, a minority of lucky individuals might indeed look like magic beings endowed with supernatural powers. But you should bear in mind that, as a rule, Asimov wrote sixteen hours a day. Every day. I believe most writers working that much, year after year, would end up writing almost flawless first drafts as Asimov did.
You can also refer to Jack London. He wrote 50 books in his short career. And he too worked endless hours.
So, I would say that more than magic, the ability to come up with neat first draft is a byproduct of sweat and hustle.
Sure, these days many gurus keep telling you should work less, but in a smarter way. But the truth is that consistent practice is, though not sufficient by itself, necessary to attain mastery in any domain.
2 In creative writing, the difficult part is to come up with a good idea.
This notion is simply ludicrous. Any serious writer can tell you that.
Waiting for an idea, or for inspiration to strike, is the surest way to write nothing. At the very least, the best way to never finish a book.
Again, just have a look at what Jack London had to say about it: “You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.”
Also Faulkner expressed a similar thought. “I only write when I am inspired. Fortunately I am inspired at 9 o’clock every morning.”
In reality, ideas are everywhere, and writers, in general, have far too many of them.
In fact, more often than not, they don’t have the time or the energy to translate them all into stories. This is also why they have to choose the best ones, the most promising.
This doesn’t mean writers must choose the best ideas from an absolute or idealistic point of view–on the contrary.
They have to take into account their inclinations and skills–what they really want to say. Only in this way motivation will be enough to push them on to finish what they have started.
3 Once you have an idea, writing is just a mechanical process.
Well, a great idea can help a story. Of course it can. After all, we listen to stories all the time. Friends, colleagues, and spouses all tell stories. And if a story is spicy, outrageous, or quirk we listen to whoever is telling it, no mater how good the telling is.
But when we read a story from a writer, our expectations change. They are higher. Because we want a great story narrated in a style that makes it justice.
Sure, writing is a somewhat mechanical process (once you’ve mastered the nuances of language), but this doesn’t mean it is a simple one, or that you can work on autopilot.
The reason is simple. Also pole vaulting is a mechanical process: you run with a pole in your hands and then, at a certain distance from the bar, you dig the pole in the ground and use it to propel yourself up in the air and beyond the bar.
Simple, isn’t it?
Yet, how many people are able to jump over three meter–a measure that’s less than half the world record?
Of course, once you’re a champion you can jump with ease 5 meters. But the closer you get to the world record the heavier you have to rely on all your resources to make a successful jump.
By the same token, if you write on autopilot you’re going to come up with a style that is as flat and satisfying as an open can of beer after three days. In fact, writing fast has nothing to do with writing on autopilot.
4 Genre fiction is inferior to literary fiction.
This is an old and yet evergreen debate. For examples of the different positions about it, you can have a look at the essays Lev Grossman and Arthur Krystal wrote on the differences between genre and literary fiction.
In short, genre fiction and literary fiction are artificial and useless divisions. They are just labels. Often even claustrophobic labels. The truth is that writing, in any genre, can be great, lame, uplifting, refreshing, boring and so on.
So you’d better write the story you want to write and forget about what is more or less literary. If you write well and have an idea you care deeply about, you have the means to come up with a story with literary merits.
Some so-called literary works I read, bored me to death and didn’t teach anything in the process. Some work of genre have instead thrilled me, both with their stories and the insights into human nature they offered.
Really, with millions of books to choose from, the notion of a canon has no longer (if it ever had), any literary meaning.
5 Reading a lot is necessary to become a good writer.
This is an easy one, and it isn’t a myth at all. You should just bear in mind a caveat.
In fact, even if reading a lot is important, to maximize your learning you should read in many different genres. You should also read with a critical stance, analyzing what you read from the point of view of the author. This to better understand the inner mechanics making up a story.
6 Very intelligent people don’t need any training to write well.
To start with, what IQ measures is controversial at best. In fact, some researchers says it merely measures the ability to perform well on other IQ tests.
Indeed, considering some authors boast IQ scores in the neighborhood of 160 while some others stop at 110–and this variation has nothing to do with their literary output– you can conclude that IQ isn’t a good predictor of one’s ability to write a great novel.
So, you’d better focus on something more useful and less contradictory.
7 It’s all a matter of luck.
Luck can be an important factor for any writer. But, paraphrasing Samuel Goldwyn, the harder you work, the luckier you get. In fact, you can surely help luck to find you.
Just think about the opposite. You don’t go out at night during a storm, to take a walk on dark road and wearing only black clothes. You don’t go because you know the chances of a car knocking you down are way higher than they would under different circumstances.
So, if you work so hard to prevent bad luck from singling you out, why shouldn’t you do the same when it comes instead to inviting good luck to give you a kiss?
8 It’s all about who you know.
If you know someone you might, once in a blue moon, get some editors, or agents to read your work. But even in that case, if the book isn’t good enough to stand on its own legs nobody is going to offer you a contract.
Because even if hype and marketing can fool a small part of readers–and so turn them into potentially angry reviewers–the success of a book depends only on its ability to make the people who read it fall in love with the story.
It’s just that.
And in fact every year a certain number of films and books turn into bestsellers only thanks to word-of-mouth and nothing else.
9 Writing is a thing of the past. Multimedia and movies and virtual reality. That’s where the future is.
The future can go anywhere. But without stories there are no movies, no series, no videogames. Nothing at all.
A story is able to turn apparently unrelated sounds, images and pretty much anything else into a coherent and explosive cocktails. That’s why writing is going to grow and evolve but isn’t going to die anytime soon.
10 Writing for the market is the only way to be successful.
Simply put, no. Not at all. Writing for the market is only a personal choice.
Writing for the market can offer you some advantages in terms of potential interest for your book. But this is so only if you write fast, at least three or four books a year.
Because the fact that a genre is particularly trendy now doesn’t mean it will still be trendy one year (or more) from now. Readers can change their preferences quite unexpectedly.
Another important aspect to consider is whether or not you enjoy writing in a genre you don’t like. Because, in general, if you lack of authentic passion while writing, it will show from a mile away in your book.
For these reasons you are most likely to be better off writing a story that matters to you, and in a genre you love and know perfectly well.
11 Books, workshops, and courses can teach you everything.
They can be useful. They can offer you an initial guidance, and ideas to try out. But you have always to choose on a case-by-case basis.
For example, well organized workshops can put you in contact with interesting and like-minded people. Other workshops, not as well organized, could instead present a discomforting high percentage of trolls or Pollyannas among their ranks.
In any case, remember that in creative writing all advice is always meant as a suggestion. What worked wonders for you could be anathema for someone else. As a writer you have both the right and the duty to find your own path. This can be frustrating at times, but it’s also a lot more rewarding.