I’m going to preface this post by stating the obvious:
I probably have no right to be claiming that any kind of writing advice – especially the kind that comes from successful, well-established authors – is equivalent to a bull’s fecal matter. I am, after all, not much more than an amateur novelist, with two self-published books and a meager number of sales to my name. How, then, can I claim to really know what is and isn’t “good” writing advice, right?
Well that’s the first bit of BS right there. Just because I’m not a runaway success, boasting hundreds of thousands of books sold, doesn’t mean I don’t know crap advice when I see it. So screw anyone who says otherwise! I’m going to share with you, right now, five pieces of writing advice that I say are total BS.
1. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
Let’s start with simple one. Many “expert” authors will attempt to convince you that words such as “shouted”, “cried”, “sighed”, and “groaned” are somehow intrusive, and that they have no place in describing lines of dialogue. These writers will tell you that “said” is the only word that should ever be used to follow a character speaking.
“Blah blah,” she said. “Blah blah blah,” he said.
How goddamn boring is that?
I honestly have no idea where the logic behind this particular bit of advice comes from. I can agree that the use of certain, overly-pretentious words can be distracting to a reader and should absolutely be avoided. Saying “he aforementioned”, for instance, leaves the average reader thinking, “What in the seven hells does ‘aforementioned’ mean?” and takes them out of the story. But what in those same seven hells is so “intrusive” about saying “she cried”?
To further my point, I’ll point out that the giver of this particular piece of advice clearly doesn’t write creative fiction with any sort of emotion to it. Be honest now, young readers and writers: if you’ve got a character who’s just been beaten to the ground and is reaching out in agony as a shadowy stranger strides off into the darkness carrying her baby…are you going to be expecting her to “say” something or to “scream” something? If you’ve got a pair of characters who are making hot, passionate love to one another, is it going to keep you in the mood if one of them “says” something, or would you be more apt to hear them “moan” something?
Using “said” for every single line of dialogue is ridiculously restrictive and demolishes an author’s ability to create mood and emotion within the conversation. Convince me otherwise, I dare you. Write a heart-wrenching, terrifying, or action-packed scene jammed with dialogue that only uses the word “said”, and try to make it anything less than boring. If you can pull that off, you are a king among peasants within the writing world.
2. Never use prologues or dream sequences, ever.
This one, I believe, comes from an era of writers who believe that anything that makes storytelling a little easier is some kind of cop-out, like a kid cheating on a test. These are the writers who believe that a piece of writing cannot be good unless the author has suffered in order to write it.
I’m definitely not saying that we should all be taking the easy way out whenever possible, but flat-out denying the use of any particular method of storytelling is defeatist foolishness. For certain, a prologue for the sake of just having a prologue is pointless, and a dream sequence designed with no other purpose than to easily reveal information that the author would rather not have to think too much about is lazy. But that doesn’t mean that a well-written prologue that delicately eases a reader into the world of the story can’t be well-received. And it doesn’t mean that a dream sequence that gives a bit of an insider look into the psyche of a character can’t work wonders for building a reader’s affection of that character. Every tool has a place and can be used well if the writer knows what they’re doing with it. To discount such tools with a scoff and a pretentious wave of the hand is foolishness of the highest order.
And while we’re at, there’s nothing write with adverbs, when used properly and sparingly!
3. Ignore your internal editor because every first draft is crap and editing shouldn’t even be on the plate until you have a complete first draft.
Let’s clear something up right away with this one: every writer has their own method. Some people plan every scene and write detailed character sheets before they even consider writing the first line of a story. Others just start writing without half an idea as to what they intend to accomplish. Some people write from start to finish, taking a rod-straight line right through their work. Others bounce from scene to scene, chapter to chapter, and everything in between, as the inspiration hits them.
And while some people close their eyes, bite their tongues, ignore every plot hole and grievous typo, and just slam out that first draft without a second thought to what it will look like when it’s finished, other people can’t move forward without fixing the problems that pop up as they come.
I’ll admit that the best way to slam out as many words as possible in a short amount of time (such as when one is participating in National Novel Writing Month) is to throttle that internal editor and throw him/her in a dark closet until that first draft is complete. However, some people just can’t work that way. It gnaws at them, niggles in the back of their minds, and drives them mad, making the writing process insufferable, and if the process is insufferable, we’re much more likely to give up on it all together.
In conclusion: everyone has their own methods, and as long as that method ultimately results in a book, who cares if it’s the “proper” method?
4. Write what you know.
No one ever expanded their mind by sticking to only what they already know. This advice is right up there with “never try anything new and you’ll never get hurt/embarrassed/etc”.
There is absolutely something to be said for writing what you know. Imbuing your own knowledge, experience, and emotion into a novel can be the spark that truly gives it life. If you’ve experienced loss, you’re going to know how it feels when it comes down to writing about a character’s loss. If you’ve actually been rock climbing you’re going to have a much easier time describing the ins and outs when your character is doing it. If you’ve watched hundreds of horror movies you’re going to have a much easier time writing a story about devils and demons than someone who only ever watches action flicks.
But if you only ever write what you know, you’re putting yourself in a box, unable to grow, unable to expand, unable to flesh out your stories in new and exciting ways. If you’ve never researched a topic that you knew absolutely nil about so that you could incorporate that topic into a story, you’ve delegated yourself to living in a five mile radius when there are hundreds of thousands of miles of unexplored terrain splayed out before you in every direction.
Writing what you know is easy and makes for realistic storytelling. Writing what you don’t know is hard and time-consuming, and it makes you a better writer in the long run.
5. Write every day.
Here we are at the big one. The mother of all writing advice.
Write. Every. Day.
This one actually seems, on the surface, like excellent advice. Writers have to write! They have to write a lot! Therefore, they should write every day! It only makes sense!
Again we find ourselves looking at that fact that advice-givers love to ignore: Every. Person. Is. Different.
As much as we would like to imagine our writers as these dedicated souls who wake up in the morning, plunk themselves down at their desk, and compose from dawn til’ dusk, that is simply not the case for the overwhelming majority. Most writers, no matter how dedicated they are, no matter how determined, can’t simply sit down and spend all day every day plucking out words on a keyboard or scribbling in a notebook. There was once a time when the novelist would be akin to a hermit, sequestering himself away in a room, day after day, until the work was complete, but that simply isn’t the way of things anymore.
Writers are adults with day jobs and responsibilities. Writers are children still struggling away in school. Writers are single mothers with half a dozen kids, and they’re fathers working two jobs just to pay the bills. Writers are plying their craft in the middle of war zones, and they’re struggling to write in a language that is not their first.
Writers are not simply writers. They’re people, with lives that entail a million and one other things that aren’t writing. To some “classic” writers this is blasphemy, but from one 21st century writer to the next: we aren’t playing by those rules any more, and we cannot and will not beat ourselves up if we’re unwilling or unable to force ourselves to WRITE EVERY DAY.
So I’m officially re-writing this particular bit of advice and making it work for the present-day writer who is constantly beating themselves up for every day that passes without words hitting paper.
WRITE WHENEVER YOU CAN.
Writers have to write. We know this. So write whatever you can, whenever you can, and work as hard as you can without destroying the rest of your life in the process.
That’s MY advice. Feel free to call it BS if you like. ^_~