Authors who are just starting out need to learn the craft. We humans find it easy to remember simple sayings, little proverbs, if you will.
The commonly bandied proverbs of writing are meant to encourage us to write lean, descriptive prose and craft engaging conversations. These sayings exist because the craft of writing involves learning the rules of grammar, developing a broader vocabulary, developing characters, building worlds, etc., etc.
The truth is, we can’t know everything about the craft just by learning a few common proverbs. They help, but we could spend a lifetime studying the craft and never learn all there is to know about the subject.
Taken too seriously, simple mantras of writing advice are dangerous. This is because they can be taken to extremes by novice authors armed with little actual knowledge. An author with too rigid a view of these sayings will not be a good reviewer or beta reader. They won’t be able to see beyond the rules that imprison them and limit their creative existence.
- Remove all adverbs.
This advice is complete crap. Use common sense, and don’t use unnecessary adverbs.
- Don’t use speech tags.
What? Who said that, and why are there no speech tags in this drivel?
- Show, Don’t Tell. Don’t Ever Don’t do it!
Nothing is more ordinary than a story where a person’s facial expressions take center stage, hollow displays of emotion with no substance. Lips stretch into smiles, but the musculature of the face is only a part of the signals that reveal the character’s interior emotions.
Then, there are the stories where the author leans too heavily on the internal. Creased foreheads are replaced with stomach-churning, gut-wrenching shock or wide-eyed trembling of hands.
And don’t forget the recurring moments of weak-kneed nausea.
For me, the most challenging part of writing the final draft of any novel is balancing the visual indicators of emotion with the more profound, internal clues.
- Write what you know.
Please, use your imagination. Did Tolkien actually go to Middle Earth and visit a volcano? No, but he did serve in WWI and lived and worked in Oxford, which is not notable for abounding in elves, hobbits, or orcs.
So yes, Tolkien understood senseless conflicts and total warfare—because he had experienced it. His books detail his view of the utter devastation of war but are set in a fantasy environment. Your life experiences shape your writing, but your imagination is the story’s fuel and source.
- If you’re bored with your story, your reader will be too.
That’s not true. You have spent months immersed in that story, years even. You know it inside and out, but your reader doesn’t.
Commonly discussed writing proverbs go on and on.
- Kill your darlings.
Indeed, we shouldn’t be married to our favorite prose or characters. Sometimes we must cut a paragraph, a chapter, or even a character we love because it no longer fits the story. But have a care – people read for pleasure. Perhaps that phrase does belong there. Maybe that arrangement of words really was the best part of that paragraph.
- Cut all exposition.
A story must be about the characters, the conflict, and the resolution. So, why are we in this handbasket? And where are we going? If we’re plucked from our comfy lives and dropped into the Handbasket to Hell, we want to know why.
The timing of when we insert the exposition into the narrative is crucial. The reader needs to know what the characters know. But they only require that knowledge at the moment it becomes necessary. The reader wants to understand the narrative but doesn’t want information dumped on them.
Bad advice is good advice taken to an extreme. The internet and social media allow us to make connections with other writers from all over the world. We gather in virtual groups and share what we have learned about the craft. Some of us become evangelical, born-again believers that the words of those great writers who have gone before us are the only truths we need to know.
While that isn’t so, we must remember that all writing advice has roots in truth.
- Overuse of adverbs fluffs up the prose and ruins the taste of an author’s work.
- Too many speech tags, especially odd and bizarre ones, can stop the eye. When the characters are snorting, hissing, and ejaculating their dialogue, I will put the book down and never pick it up again. My favorite authors seem to stick to common tags like said and replied.
- Too much telling takes the adventure out of the reading experience. Too much showing is tedious and can be disgusting. It takes effort to find that happy medium, but writing is work.
- Know what you are writing about. Research your subject and, if necessary, interview people in that profession. Readers often know more than you do about certain things.
Handy, commonly debated mantras become engraved in stone because proverbs are how we educate ourselves. Unless an author is fortunate enough to have a formal education in the subject, we must rely on the internet and handy self-help guides to learn the many nuances of the writing craft.
That is what I have done. I buy books about the craft of writing modern, 21st-century genre fiction and rely on the advice offered by the literary giants of the past. I seek a rounded view of crafting prose and look for other tools that I can use to improve my writing. I think this makes me a better, more informed reader. (My ego speaking.)
But sometimes online writer’s forums are a little – shall we say dicey? We come into contact with people armed with a bit of knowledge, a large ego, and a loud voice. Be careful, and don’t share your work with any group until you have seen how they treat each other.
Some writers are fearful of what others might say. They bludgeon their work to death, desperately trying to fit it into narratives defined by absolute limits.
In the process, every bit of creativity is shaved off the corners, and a story with immense potential becomes boring and difficult to read. As an avid reader and reviewer, I see this all too often.
I study the craft of writing because I love it, and I apply the proverbs and rules of advice gently. Whether my work is good or bad—I don’t know. But I write the stories I want to read, so I am writing for a niche audience of one: me.
However, I read two or three books a week. I love books where the authors clearly know the rules but break them when necessary.
So, my friends—go forth, and write. Now, more than ever, the world needs more novels.