The Tao of Writing

In a weird bit of synchronicity, my friend Amy Rose Davis was talking about the need for a writer to be a reader on the same morning my friend Stina Lindenblatt sent me an email about coloring outside the lines when composing a query. Don’t see the connection? That’s because my brain works in weird ways.

Basically, Amy was saying that everyone encourages writers to be voracious readers, and at the moment she doesn’t have a lot of time to read. She needs to be writing. Stina was talking about mentioning a subplot in her query, even though conventional wisdom says not to. See the connection now? There are a lot of people out there in cyberspace offering advice on how to be successful as a writer. Much of this advice is contradictory. Some of it is wrong. A lot is just plain not for everyone.

I think what’s happening here is that folks are trying to come up with a perfect formula for being successful as a writer. Everyone is sharing their experience, hoping to help others. That’s a great thing. It puts us in touch with the information we might need. But it’s also a huge pit trap lying in the middle of our path to publishing. The fact is, there’s no One Road to success as a writer.

One of my biggest writing challenges has been trying to sort through all the information being thrown at me. It causes incredible angst because I want to weigh every bit of input and see whether it’s the truth, much the way I do when I get feedback from a beta reader or critique partner. Just because something is painful or difficult doesn’t mean it isn’t the right thing to do, and I don’t want to sabotage myself by dismissing something important. But I think I’ve been doing myself more harm than good because this process has made me miserable over the past five years.

As I was commenting on Amy’s blog today, an idea popped into my head. Yes, reading is a good thing for a writer, but that doesn’t mean everyone has to do it constantly. It doesn’t even mean you have to read a lot outside your genre. Maybe that will benefit you, but not doing it won’t mean you can’t be successful. YA author Michael Harmon published several great YA novels having only read two from that genre. Likewise, following the most generally accepted rules of query writing is probably wise, but don’t stress too much over it if you come up with something better. I’ve read many stories where agents requested a manuscript and eventually signed an author because a query broke the rules.

This issue can be addressed by looking at a few principles from Taoism. Some of my long-time followers will remember I touched on this topic a year ago, but I think it bears repeating. The first principle is we wu wei. It means “do without doing”, though here in the west we tend to translate it “go with the flow.” Another is P’u, the Uncarved Block. It states that things are best in their natural state.

We each have our own writing path. Some things that work for others will hold you back or prove so time-consuming and disheartening that they become detrimental. Do not think you have to accept any writing “truth” just because everyone on the Internet is holding it up as one of the 10 Commandments of Writing.  Find what works for you, even if it goes against what the publishing world recommends. This will allow you to work smarter, not harder.

There is no guarantee that anyone will find success as a writer. But your best shot comes from being who you are, tapping into your unique perspective. Don’t let your original voice be snuffed out by all the experts who think they have the answers. They only have their answers. If you want to be successful and happy, you need to go out discover your own.

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42 Responses to The Tao of Writing

  1. Hey Lisa–thanks for the shout-out! And I love this.

    I find it so funny that the traditional writing/publication path encourages us to follow the formulas, do the right thing, play nice, operate within accepted parameters, etc. etc. And yet–the successes we hear about are the ones who didn’t do any of that stuff. I mean, there’s something about the outlier theory and everything, but it’s the folks who take chances and follow their own gut and do what goes against the grain who seem to have the greatest chance of success.

    Of course, they also have the greatest chance at failure… But I’d rather fail in a blaze of glory than have mediocre, middling successes my whole life. Wow, I never thought I’d say that….

    Great post. I love it!


  2. Lisa Nowak says:

    Thanks, Amy. I hate seeing writers getting all angsty about stuff that doesn’t matter. I’m too prone to that myself. Oh, and thanks for the inspiration for this post. I guess your angst served a higher purpose today. 🙂


  3. Good evening, fellow crusader! Y’know, I don’t think there’s a formula for the perfect writer. Why? Because everything is SUBJECTIVE. From the crit partners to the editors to the agents to the publishers and so on so on. We can’t please EVERYONE. *sigh*
    so, what is the perfect formula?

    Doing our bestest says me.

    Great post!!!
    ♥.•*¨ Elizabeth ¨*•.♥


  4. Roxie says:

    There are no hole-shaped pigeons. There are no pigeon-shaped holes. No one can give you the perfect formula for your writing because they – aren’t – you. And even YOU don’t have the perfect formula because you are growing and changing, so the formula that worked last month might not fit this month. I find it less helpful to read about writing, and more useful to spend my time either writing, or reading.

    Geeze – I almost fell off my soapbox there. Just remember, I, too, am entitled to my own silly-ass opinion.


  5. Heya!

    I’m a fellow crusader stopping by to say hi and to follow you 🙂
    (and I’m also following Puddletown Press, which I’m very interested in :-))

    xx Rachel


  6. Lisa Nowak says:

    Hi, Rachel! We’ll post on our blog, Facebook page, and website when we open up to submissions. In the mean time, my partner Susan (a fellow crusader) has some great posts about ebooks on her blog.


  7. Carol Riggs says:

    Hiya, buddy crusader! I’m making the rounds today and checking out your blog. Nice to meet you, and Happy Friday! 🙂

    Artzicarol Ramblings


  8. Lisa Nowak says:

    Hi, Carol. I recognize your name from SCBWI. Small world, eh? Thanks for stopping by.


  9. Making my crusader rounds. Nice to meet you! Now following.



  10. terripatrick says:

    Well this is awesome! I’m so excited for your new adventure! Elizabeth Miles told me to check out Puddleton Publishing Group and let me say, CONGRATS!

    I just posted on my blog about an author panel I attended last Saturday. Check it out…

    Jessa Slade was very clear with her 3rd novel due out in April that if she knew then what she knows now, she would have gone the epub route four years ago. She’s contracted for another book in her series but doubts she’ll go the print way after that. Author royalties, after you earn out your advance, are only $.64 per book. The percentage is much better in eland.

    You might also be interested in Delle Jacobs and her 10 year career as an ebup author with a stellar backlist. Amazon chose one of her novels for a Free Read choice in October and sales of all Delle’s books skyrocketed.

    I’m planning the self-pub route for my memoir (just hired an editor) and the epub route for my fiction. Success comes down to the same two things, whether print or e: a stellar product, good marketing. Everything else is just business. 🙂


    • Lisa Nowak says:

      Terri, there are a lot of successful authors leaving their publishers over the ebook issue. It just doesn’t make good business sense for them to stay. Changes are definitely in the works.


  11. katharine says:

    Hey- I’m in your crusade group. LOVE this post. Exactly what I needed to hear today. You are so right: many people are looking for the perfect formula. I think people are well-intentioned, but I also think following all the rules is boring!


  12. Margo Benson says:

    Another crusader dropping by and following! Interesting post.


  13. Tanya Reimer says:

    This post made me think about when I had kids. Yes, my mind is set weird too, but hear me out. With my first pregnancy, I read EVERYTHING there was to read about being a mother, about being pregnant, hell, I even read things about being a father.
    My second pregnancy I couldn’t even look at those books, articles, and told everyone to shove their advice. Not that I was an expect, I’d just taken in everything, and I was ready to do things my way. Like it or not, right or wrong.

    When a writer can say, I have the tools, the skill, the practice, now I just need to do it my way, then, and only then will they find success, because no one will doubt, they’ve earned it, because they’re confident, and passionate. I’m thirty four, I’ve written 11 books. I’ve read EVERYTHING I could. I am ready to be a writer. Finally.


  14. It can be hard to separate advice in general from advice you should follow. I guess go with your gut is really part of an author’s life. Just popped on over to introduce myself as a fellow crusader and new follower. I’m off to try challenge # 1 now!


  15. Lisa Nowak says:

    Raquel, I think going with your gut is important in a lot of areas of our lives. Thanks for stopping by.


  16. Joy says:

    Over the years, I’ve learned to use what works for me in every aspect of my writing. As to reading, I’ve often wondered where some writers find so much time to read. Since I’ve started writing, my reading time has sadly dwindled to the time I sit on buses to and from work.


  17. Margo Kelly says:

    Fellow crusader and new follower. Nice to meet you.


  18. Whoa! Great, great, great post! I love this. One of the best things any one can do–even writers–is to have self integrity. Being honest with yourself and doing what feels right to our souls is the way to go. Thank you for your words of encouragement!

    Btw, thank you for following my blog, my fellow crusader!! ❤

    ♥.•*¨ Elizabeth ¨*•.♥


    • Lisa Nowak says:

      Yes, being true to yourself, and your characters and story, is a big thing. Its too easy to get distracted by all the voices saying what we should or shouldn’t do. Thanks, Elisabeth.


  19. Gina Blechman says:

    Thank you so much for this post. Everywhere I look, especially since joining the crusade, I feel like everyone is throwing advice at me. I’m following all sorts of agents and editors and writers, and everyone has something to say. It’s nice to remember that sometimes one just has to relax and choose his or her own path.

    ❤ Gina Blechman


    • Lisa Nowak says:

      Gina, it can be so discouraging, reading all that advice. And so much of it is conflicting. If it gets to be too much, you have to give yourself permission to ignore it.


  20. Zan Marie says:

    Oh, well, I don’t always color in the lines. ; ) I’m following you now. See you around the Crusade.


  21. Hey Lisa, great post, and very thought-provoking! I so agree with you, you need to find the pieces of advice/rules/wisdom that work for you, and not struggle to apply every little rule that’s out there.

    Hope you’re having a great Crusade so far 🙂




  22. Alison says:

    Agreed. There’s a LOT of advice out there and it’s so easy to get lost in it. I just have to ignore it and just write.

    Fellow crusader. Nice to meet you!


  23. Barb says:

    Hey Lisa, Well, I tend to agree with Amy Rose. If you want to write well, you have to read, read, read. I don’t mean read books about writing. I mean read books that are written well. Because there are so many ways to craft character, structure a plot and create movement, we need to constantly expose ourselves to technique.

    We are lifelong learners.


    • Lisa Nowak says:

      Barb, while it’s true that we learn by seeing how it’s done correctly, that doesn’t mean that we have to spend “X” amount of time reading throughout our careers. There are times to read and times to write. I think any advice, no matter how good it is, becomes detrimental when it overwhelms you and detracts from your current goals.


  24. Tony Benson says:

    Hi there fellow crusader. Thank you for saying what needed to be said. There’s way too much contradictory advice out there and plenty of advice that wouldn’t work for me. It’s good to have some validation that being a little independent is a good thing when so many people are saying the opposite.

    I’m off to subscribe to your rss feed. It’s good to meet you.


  25. Orice Klaas says:

    The less writing rules, the better. Whether I can/should read as a writer is one I can do without. Thankfully. Thanks for your thoughts on the matter.


    • Lisa Nowak says:

      Orice, many writers have created wonderful books without following the rules. I’m not saying there isn’t a time for learning, but if the process becomes overwhelming, it’s time to do something differently. We all need the freedom to create our own art in our own way.


  26. Margo Kelly says:

    Great post! Thanks. 🙂


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