Writing tips we love to hate

Via the Passive Voice blog, this post: Five Writing Tips We Love to Hate.

That’s a perennial post topic. Everyone has strong opinions about this, right? This post picked out some common writing tips that I do in fact hate. I grant, there’s one I feel iffy about.

It’s just five, so that’s easy to list:

1) Write every day

2) Show, don’t tell

3) Don’t use prologues

4) Avoid adverbs

5) Write what you know

You can click through to see what the linked post says about all these. It’s a brief post, but some of the comments about these items are good.

I think four of those belong together on one list — they are “big things” — whereas the fifth item is not like the others because it’s a “little thing.” That’s “avoid adverbs,” of course. That’s a detail of craft. I mean, I agree with this post — it’s unwise to contort yourself trying to avoid adverbs (or adjectives, or “to be” verbs, or whatever). The linked post says exactly what you’d expect, “Adverbs are fine but don’t overuse them” — which is all very well, but sooooo standard I am almost as bored by hearing that tip as by hearing proscriptive advice not to use adverbs.

The other four are bigger things.

I’m not sure anyone takes (1) Write every day all that seriously. I mean, perhaps, briefly. Then something unexpected interferes. The kids are all home with chicken pox or your mother suddenly needs to go to the hospital or you trip over nothing and break your very own wrist and poof! Suddenly it is clear that this advice is unrealistic.

I was never so deluded as to think that advice was practical.

Much more practical — the linked post doesn’t break this down — but here: top five ways to make this advice work:

  1. Try to write every day when you are working hard to finish a project.
  2. Try to write every day when a deadline is bearing down on you.
  3. Make a habit of carving out a specific time to write every day and train your family to respect that time.
  4. Write just a thousand words a day (or whatever) for a month or so and see whether the new project looks like its going to go somewhere.
  5. Get up early and write every day before anything else is going on.

I often do write nearly every day. This year, that’ll probably be true all year, barring unforeseen complications. In past years, I have often taken weeks or months off and not even touched the laptop for that whole period. I don’t feel guilty about it, either.

(2) Show, don’t tell. That’s more interesting. The linked post provides brief comments and then another link to a post where this is laid out more clearly.

SHOWING is ACTIVE. TELLING is PASSIVE. That’s true. Sometimes telling is lazy writing. But sometimes it’s not. You can’t “show” everything. Painting a word picture in every paragraph turns your novel into a tome.

When is it okay to tell?

  • when you need faster pacing
  • to show a minimal moment
  • as a way to move your story forward
  • if you don’t want your book to finish at 350,000 words

When should you show?

  • when you want to evoke emotion in your reader
  • during a crucial moment or traumatic event
  • to point out a turning point in the story
  • if you want to show a change in relationships or circumstances
  • to highlight important information or a big decision

I think this is good advice. That whole post is good. Lots of brief, specific examples.

I will add, another unrelated reason you may move into telling rather than showing is: the story is first person and the narrator, not the author, is telling the reader what’s going on. With verve and style, or at least with the right kind of emotional context to appeal to the reader.

Oh, and there’s yet another time to tell rather than show: the story is third person omniscient and the omniscient narrator is telling the reader about the characters or situation. Let’s see. This may be most common in historicals, or maybe that’s just my feeling because that’s what I thought of first:

She was stronger alone; and her own good sense so well supported her, that her firmness was as unshaken, her appearance of cheerfulness as invariable, as, with regrets so poignant and so fresh, it was possible for them to be.

That’s from Sense and Sensibility.

You see the same type of thing in Georgette Heyer:

The Marquis believed himself to be hardened against flattery. He thought that he had experienced every variety, but he discovered that he was mistaken: the blatantly worshipful look in the eyes of a twelve-year-old, anxiously raised to his, was new to him, and it pierced his defences.

That’s from Frederica.

Anyway, telling is fine, showing is fine, you ought to use both depending on what that scene or paragraph or sentence is trying to do.

Moving on,

(5) Write what you know.

This has always struck me as peculiarly stupid advice.

I mean, you’re a person. You’ve lived around other people. You have some general notion of how people behave and why. Go write a novel about people doing things for whatever reasons and there you go, you’re writing what you know.

That’s why it’s possible to write fantasy novels. Obviously. No one is writing about dragons because they know so much about dragons. Fill in for every other genre.

Granted, I prefer when authors get stuff about horses right, stuff about wolves right, stuff about other animals right.

I don’t care that much if authors get stuff about swords wrong, but I hear a lot of readers care about that A LOT. Speaking of which, I’ve heard good things about this book. I haven’t looked at it (yet), but Eric Lowe writes great Quora answers about swords and swordfighting and so on.

Other things that do often matter to fantasy authors: a basic knowledge of history and how other people have lived in other cultures. A very basic awareness of geography and ecology, so that you don’t have people eating rice in a region climactically like Siberia or looking at a raven in a jungle setting. A basic awareness of the fantasy genre and what other people have been writing. But other than that, I think “write what you know” is advice that can be almost entirely disregarded. And has to be, if you plan to write anything other than contemporary fiction. Or, for that matter, memoir.

I saved (3) Don’t use Prologues for last because, well, sometimes it’s good advice? We’ve been here before, a dozen times probably, with all sorts of posts on what-kind-of-prologue-works and what-kinds-of-prologues-I-hate and more-about-prologues here and, yep, lots of posts about this already.

Basically, I’d say, if you can make a prologue work and your prologue doesn’t bore your reader to tears before they get to chapter one, then fine, use a prologue. If you can make your prologue essential, so that the reader both needs it for context AND is drawn into chapter one, then your prologue is excellent.

If your prologue is a history lesson about your world, I will probably not reach chapter one. But IF you can make your prologue really compelling even though it’s a history lesson, good for you, go right ahead.

I always have to pause and think, but I believe I’ve only written two prologues: One in the third Griffin Mage book and one in Winter of Ice and Iron. The opening bit of Timou’s first chapter in The City in the Lake serves as a prologue, in a way. But it’s not the first chapter in the book, so that is disguised. I’m talking about the bit where Timou appears as a baby and then grows up in about three pages so that her part of the story can start. I read one specific scene in The Sorceress and the Cygnet over and over while writing those pages in City, figuring out how to compress time. I don’t think I’ve ever tried to compress time that much again, but I do think it worked fine in City.

So, anyway, I can’t come down too hard on the Yay Prologues or Never Use Prologues side of this argument — even though in general, I don’t much like prologues.

For the fifth item on this list, the author should have come up with something big, not something detail-oriented. What should that have been? Writing advice that is common, that is wrong or at least should not be followed blindly, and that is big.

5) Think of the worst thing that could happen to your character and then do that.

I mean, it’s kind of good advice? I sort of did this, to a limited extent, in both Tuyo and Tarashana. And I will again in Tasmakat, by the way. But this certainly not advice to follow blindly. I mean, the worst thing, really? Because I could easily come up with much worse things than I actually put in the story.

I guess I’d say that this advice makes me wonder about the imagination of the person who suggests it. The worst thing I can come up with is way more terrible than anything I’d want to write — or read.

Also, sometimes you want to write or read a nice story about deepening friendships and then this advice is just totally off base. By the way, if anyone notices when the direct sequel to The Hands of the Emperor comes out, if you think of mentioning that here, that would be great. I do check periodically because I know Goddard said she was working on that, but I’ll likely miss it when it’s actually released.

So what’s another idea for bad writing advice?

Oh, I’ve got it:

5) Kill your darlings.

There. That’s the worst big advice ever given to writers. I mean, I get that it’s supposed to mean, “Take out nonessential stuff even if you personally really like it,” or a better translation would be, “If something is actually wrong for the story, take it out, even if you personally really like it.” But if that’s what you mean, SAY THAT. This “kill your darlings” phrase is thrown around like it makes sense as it stands, and it does not.

Agree, disagree, or offer a different suggestion for

5) Bad Writing Advice

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5 thoughts on “Writing tips we love to hate”

  1. The problem with prologues is not so much aesthetic as commercial. There are people who automatically skip prologues, and if it’s actually important, they will not appreciate the rest of the book as they could have.

  2. “Kill your darlings” almost killed my writing. It made me delete literally everything I liked, so all that was left was the objectively bad stuff.

    I’m writing mostly fanfic now, and shamelessly indulging my darlings.

  3. Ouch, Irina. It’s amazingly bad advice when it causes someone to do something like that.

    The entire Tuyo series is practically nothing but darlings from beginning to end. I mean, not quite, of course. It’s got transition scenes and necessary introspection and whatever. But if I took a red pencil to it and cut the parts I love most, there wouldn’t be a lot left. Best of all, the parts I love the best are the parts some of you — most of you — point to as the scenes you go back to. That makes me very happy.

    So … yeah. Objectively TERRIBLE advice.

    Mary, yes, though people are trained to skip prologues because so many are terrible, so if ninety percent of prologues were good, then that wouldn’t happen. Even though I’ve written prologues and even though I appreciate a good prologue, *I* sometimes skip over a prologue — or see a prologue and put down the book right then, unread.

    If the prologue’s VERY FIRST sentence grabs me, that’s different. But if it’s all some fantasy version of “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God,” then I’m almost always done. I DO NOT WANT a world mythology or history textbook inserted as a prologue. A giant I DON’T CARE sign lights up behind my eyes every time I see that. I tolerated it in Anne Bishop’s Others series, until other things about the way she developed that series pushed me away, but I didn’t read it.

  4. I prefer for #5, ‘think of the worst thing’ this variant: Think of the worst thing your character can survive and grow from’ . Because as originally phrased it leads only dark places.

  5. And there are some stories that can’t be described as ‘the worst thing’ in any way. It’s hard to fit, say your HOUSE duo into that, for example.

    So it’s a limiting piece of advice.

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