Monday, August 11, 2008

Please don't tell me how to write better

One of the writers' e-mail loops I used to follow closely has become such an annoyance that in the past couple of weeks I've been deleting nearly all of the messages unread. What's the problem? Too much advice on the craft of writing.

The group welcomes both published and unpublished novelists, not just romance writers, so we have a good mix of people for sharing encouragement and industry tips. But I've grown weary of these and other endlessly repeated one-size-fits-all writing rules:

Using italics is a sign of weak writing.

Long sentences make readers lose interest.

Adverbs should be used sparingly, but they should never be used in dialogue tags (she said forcefully).

Strive for a good balance between narrative and dialogue.

Semicolons have no place in novels.

Because "said" is invisible to readers, it's the only dialogue tag that should ever be used.

As the title of this blog suggests, I tend to scoff at writing rules. But in recent weeks I've been bombarded with the above bits of "writerly wisdom," some of the advice from people who haven't yet managed to sell their first novels and some from published novelists whose writing styles I don't admire and have no desire to emulate. I've noticed that the writers I do admire (and of course I'm talking about art, not personalities) don't tend to go around spouting rules.

I'm not saying my writing is any better than that of my eager advisers. I am a competent writer, but not an insanely talented one. While I'm still attempting to hone my craft, I have no illusions that I will ever be a great writer or even a bestselling one--and the truth is that I don't even dream about those things. But over the past couple of weeks I've decided that I don't want free writing advice from other writers. I want to read more, and when I find a technique I admire, I want to examine it and figure out how it works and see if I can find a way to make it work for me.

Before selling my first novel, I never took a class, read a how-to book, or submitted pages for anyone to critique. I just read a lot of good books. I stole a few ideas, adapted a style here and there, and found a way of writing that felt right to me. I use adverbs and italics with abandon, and I believe semicolons are darn useful. I think a long sentence can be the juiciest part of a paragraph, and I usually end up with way more narrative than dialogue. And I just don't agree that "said" is invisible to readers, so I use other dialogue tags to keep things interesting.

You may have different opinions on all of those things, and that's fine with me. Just understand, please, that before I take advice from another writer, I'm going to insist on seeing some examples of your work. Your being a contest judge or a writers' workshop presenter or "multi-published" or a New York Times bestseller or a Pulitzer Prize winner won't make you an authority in my eyes unless I love the way you write. And even then, your style might not work for the kind of books I like to write.

But as I said, the really great writers don't often post writing rules like "never use semicolons" on writers' message loops. So I guess I'm still on my own.


Carol A. Spradling said...

Amen and Hallelujah!!!!

Anonymous said...

You go girl! I'm with you.

Chad Aaron Sayban said...

I agree with you 100%. "And another thing," I said brashly; and then moved on... ;-)
Seriously, each time I read an absolute rule, I end up finding some great author who has sold a billion books doing all these things that the 'experts' say is wrong. The most important part to me is to have an engaging story. Good writing technique is important, but I'm more inclined to keep reading a great story that has a few grammar issues than some technically perfect prose that puts me to sleep. In the end, if it doesn't entertain it might as well be stereo instructions.

Douglas Cootey said...

That whole "invisible said" thing really bugs me. I find said, said, said, terribly boring after a while. I like language and want to see it used creatively, so if somebody says something menacingly, I don't mind that being part of the dialog tag along with thoughtfully, cheekily, affectionately, sarcastically, etc.

I'm not published yet, but I've started to bump into things people claim I shouldn't have in my writing because there are these RULES out there. I'm willing to admit that my writing is not perfect, but when I inquire why a certain rule is in place I am more often than not told "It's just not done." I follow with "why" and they look at me like I'm a newbie who just fell off the turnip truck, but they offer no explanations.

I believe that there are two sets of rules out ther. One set (rigid and inflexible) applies to the unpublished writers, and the other set (which is open, malleable, and changed on a whim) belongs to the published writers. I wonder if some people compensate for being unpublished by passing around sagacious rules. ;) However, I have discovered there is one very good reason for unpublished writers to heed the Rules: slush pile readers look for rules violations to make their job easier.

This means all my characters say "said" more often than not, even though it bores me.

Amy Jane (Untangling Tales) said...

I find I am very susceptible to "rules."

My mind is one of those that is a net for minutia, and as long as the rule came with a reason attached I tend to accept it on its own terms.

The difficulty comes when I sit down to write (or revise) and find the rules create a very fine mesh to filter through everything I try to put on the page.

I can still make word count on a good night, but afterward (or especially in that moment trying to organize) pitting what I "know" against what I would feel sloppy to try... sort of squeezes the joy out.

Add to that my current "stuck" of feeling like I'm writing the wrong story... (and all my advisers are telling me to finish it anyway). I've been rather avoiding my work lately.


I guess admitting that finally means I'll be pecking at it tonight.

Brenda Coulter said...

New writers are often told their best chance of publication is to follow the rules. But editors always say they're looking for "fresh" voices and "unique" storytelling. I've yet to hear an editor tell an unpublished writer to follow the conventions. It's always other writers giving that advice.

Kristin said...

I a point. But when unpublished writers *are* being turned down because of 'editing' issues or 'grammar' issues, could it possibly be these are the reasons why? And how do you then determine which parts of your book to fix if you aren't supposed to listen to these 'rules'?

Where do you cut off the advice and NOT take it to heart? You can't create in a vacuum and hope to find success based on your determination alone.

Taking advice, incorporating what you see as valuable...that is how you grow as a writer. So I could point out just the opposite...that taking NO advice will limit your growth as a writer.

I must say, after working with an editor, I have found that, yes, some of those 'rules' are valid. As for why other authors 'get away with it,' I am sure most of them are not first-time writers with a debut novel.

Brenda Coulter said...

But when unpublished writers *are* being turned down because of 'editing' issues or 'grammar' issues....

I don't agree that those are the reasons works by unpublished authors are rejected. Those things are fixable. Good voice and good story are just about everything. If a writer uses Swifties ("she said mysteriously"), those can be cut. And bad grammar can be corrected.

My point wasn't that rules are bad, but that many writers are zeroing in on silly little things like the use of semicolons, italics, and adverbs and losing sight of the fact that writing a good novel begins with voice and story. If you don't have those, it doesn't matter how "clean" your manuscript is, you won't sell it.

And I'm not suggesting that writers just do their own thing and never look to others for new ideas and techniques. I'm saying they should carefully chose whom they emulate. Swallowing everything you're taught at a writing workshop given by a "multi-published"* author is foolish if you are unfamiliar with or not a fan of that person's novels.

* How I detest that term! I think I'll blog about it this week.