Friday, August 09, 2013

Please don't tell me how to write

(This "golden oldie" NRJW post was originally published on August 11, 2008.)

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The group welcomes both published and unpublished novelists, not just romance writers, so we have a good mix of people for sharing encouragement and industry tips.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.


JoAnn Durgin said...

Brenda, I actually applauded and said, "Yes!" (notice the exclamation mark) a few times while reading this post. Honestly (adverb!), I could have written it myself. This explains a number of the emotions I've experienced in the last few years. Like you, I sold my first novel without knowing all the writing "rules," and I learned enough the first few months of being in a national writing organization to understand I needed to correct some POV issues. I protested the adverb embargo and disagree that "said" and the occasional "asked" are all that's needed for dialogue tags (and yes, I spell it dialogue, not dialog, because the latter just seems weird). Like you, I don't consider myself the best writer in the world. Far from it. I'm not writing for other writers. But we're writing with a view of Jesus in mind, and I know we're touching lives with the love and hope to be found in a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, and that's what it's all about. I know you share my view, so I hope you'll keep plugging away, and I will, too. I think we're doing a lot right, even if it doesn't follow someone else's "rules." Blessings, Brenda, and let's keep writing for His glory!

Brenda Coulter said...

Thanks for chiming in, JoAnn, and thank you for the encouragement.