Monday, February 16, 2015

Three pieces of writing advice I choose to ignore



                                                                                 (photo credit)

A post by Jonathan 


If you’re anything like me, when it comes to writing you want to know that you’re doing things right. This usually means seeking out as much advice as you possibly can, from anyone you can. In my quest for writing knowledge, I've come across three pieces of advice (dare I say, gospel…) that are either so overdone or so unrealistic I choose to ignore them altogether. You officially have my permission to do the same. 

Write What You Know

Really? Sure this might fly when it comes to non-fiction, memoirs, and some other genres, but for most of us –we Sci-Fi/Fantasy writers for instance— this is a little hard to do. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never piloted a spaceship, visited an alien planet, fought a Minotaur, or cast a spell. If we stuck to this rule, the only people who would be writing Sci-Fi would be astronauts, and something tells me they have more important things to do. And Fantasy would be reserved for psych ward residents and perhaps a flower child or two who went on a few too many LSD benders back in the 60's. Sure, if you have some expertise, by all means leverage it. But don’t feel like you can’t write about a certain topic or in a particular genre if you don’t have credentials in that area. That’s just impossible for some of us. I prefer to say, “Write what you can imagine,” and leave it at that. You can figure the rest out later.

Write Every Day

Okay, how realistic is that? Apart from sleeping and breathing – and perhaps taking a shower – I don’t think it’s fair to ask anyone to do something e-v-e-r-y d-a-y. I mean, what if you get in a car accident or your dog dies? Are you seriously going to want to sit down at the keyboard and bang out 1,000 words? I blame this one on Stephen King. He made the mistake of saying “write every day” in his writing advice novel/memoir, On Writing,  and authors have been going crazy over it ever since. I think his point was, if you want to be a serious writer then take your writing seriously. But there are some days, weeks, even months that you won’t be able to write. AND I FOR ONE AM NOT GOING TO FEEL GUILTY ANYMORE, MR. KING! All right, mini-tirade over. Just ignore this gem. If you’re a writer you will write. If you’re not, you won’t. Simple as that.

Show Don’t Tell

We’ve all heard this one before. And it’s not so bad, the first 300 times you hear it… But after that it gets a little old. Make that a lot old. I wish writers, bloggers and other advice-givers would start providing a “Show Don’t Tell Alert” like people do with spoiler alerts when reviewing movies or TV shows. That way those of us who have heard it 300 times before could skip to the more advanced parts of the article, piece, what-have-you. I’m not saying ignore it altogether, because it is good advice. But after a while, it’s like the friggin' Chinese water torture of advice! Drip, drip, drip. Everyone has their own take on what it means too, so in the end it’s up to you to interpret. If you’ve done your fair share of reading good books, you should be able to pick up on the difference. If not, I'm sure someone will "tell" you about it sometime, if they haven't already. 

So, remember, if you come across any of this advice on the internet, in your critique group, or at a writers conference, feel free to ignore it. And while you're at it, feel free to ignore that advice too. In fact, that might be the best piece of writing advice anyone can give you: give yourself permission to ignore writing advice. Or don't. Totally up to you. That is all!


17 comments:

  1. OMG. Amen to all of these. Sometimes you just need to tell.

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  2. great post! If we "showed" every single thing our novels would be a thousand pages long! the only thing I absolutely must do is write every single day, but for me it's more a personality trait than a writing rule, since I need the structure or I'll fall out of it for too long haha. And I never understood write what you know. It would get pretty boring if I did that, since I only really know Long Island, TV and cats haha

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    1. There's your next book- a reality show that follows the competitive cat show circuit w/a character from Long Island. You can thank me later when it's a best seller. ;)

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    2. hehe! I smell New York Times bestseller list!!

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    3. Ok, I'd totally read that... And Beth, I feel you on "showing" equaling thousand page novels. I actually blame the Show Don't Tell rule for leaving me with a much too long Middle Grade novel, which I need to pair down a lot, with a bunch more telling.

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  3. Bravo! Astronauts too busy... *snort-laugh* And I personally would not want to read any pysch ward fiction. =) I have been writing every day since the new year, b/c it keeps my forward momentum going. Not b/c I feel like I'll be less of a writer if I don't. Like you said, writers write. Great post!

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    1. Tee hee hee. Astronauts... *wink wink* Oh, for some good psych ward fiction, see our very own Stephen Kozeniewski... *double wink wink* That's awesome that you've been writing everyday! Maybe if I hadn't ignored that rule, it wouldn't have taken me ten years to finish my book... *triple wink wink... goes to the medicine cabinet to find the visine...*

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  4. So true! The problem really comes in when people take this advice to extremes -- especially advice like showing, not telling. A book I read recently mentioned every time someone in the dinner scene took a bite of their sandwich. It got, well, more than a little old, and very distracting!

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    1. Thanks for stopping by, Caryn! I totally feel you on the overuse of showing. If you've ever read the Divergent series you will see that Veronica Roth uses eyebrows to express nearly every single emotion in the book, in an effort not to "tell" how the characters are feeling. Pretty soon I felt like, in addition to Abnegation, Dauntless, etc. there needed to be who other faction called Eye Brows. And in James Dashner's Maze Runner, the guy uses crying to express sadness so much that his characters come out looking like a bunch of babies. Anyway, great point about going to extremes!

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  5. Love it! I do think the last one can be a difficult balance. As a reader I don't usually care too much one way or the other, as long as the story is flowing and I'm engaged. I'm actually reading a book right now that I wish did do a LOT more showing than telling.... I don't usually want to give up on a book, but I've thought about it a few times on this one and I'm not even to the 40% mark. I wish I could dump books like some people, but it would bug me more to not finish than to suffer through - so I just end up skimming parts that are too wordy.

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    1. Thanks, Carrie! I apparently need to learn how to tell more because my current WIP is a little too long, and I think it's from a lack of summarization. But only time will "tell." I'll be here all night folks... Oh, and I wouldn't feel bad about dumping a book that doesn't grab your attention (esp. by the 40% mark). There's not enough time in this world to waste it on boring books. That's just my advice;)

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  6. The write every day one irks me to death. lol I will not feel guilty, either! Some days I write 2,000 words. Some days I delete one. Some days I don't even open my laptop.

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    1. Thank you, Debra! Apparently we're a little outnumbered... Seriously though, I think the advice was well intended, but I tend to be a pretty literal guy, so if someone tells me I need to write every day to be a writer, I'm going to take that as "every single day", no exceptions. To Mr. King's credit, he did say that we could give ourselves one day a week off. Well thank you, Mr. King! Can we put another coal on the fire while we're at it? Tee hee hee. Just keep on the keepin' on!

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  7. "The best books are about something the writer never knew when the story was being written." Not my own thought or quote, it is from Carlos Fuentes. It is the best advice I ever read. When I write about something that I know well it becomes sterile, boring, but it will be in perfect form.
    Show- also can mean communicate with the reader- tell them all about your character, I ignore that too. When I first started, I wrote the fears of the characters into the story, and it always gave away the ending. So I took anything that allowed the reader to presume an ending,
    Word counts, I write when it is time, and keep going to until I'm done with the thought. I never follow a strict -words per day rule.
    AJJ

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