Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Common Writing Advice that I Disagree With

Hello, everyone! I know some of you guys are young writers, and as a young writer myself, one thing I come up against a lot is writing advice. (In fact, I give out a lot of it on this blog). Writing advice can be a good thing when it comes in the form of suggestions or ideas. It helps to get a new perspective, a new lens through which to look at your writing that might help you out, a tip that might make the process easier. I know I've gotten plenty of writing advice during my years of writing that stuck with me and helped me out for years.

On the other hand, a lot of the advice I got did not stick with me. And that's OK. Some things that work marvelously for one writer just won't click with another. What I don't like, however, is advice that suggests that This Is the Only Way, or that it's some sort of hard-and-fast rule. (A lot of this applies to grammar and stylistic choices, annoyingly. I know I'm nitpicky about grammar but not all of it is set in stone).

Unfortunately, it seems like people are going to keep on giving terrible writing advice, and young writers are going to keep feeling bad about their writing because of it- or worse, screw up their writing because of some really bad advice. I realize me blogging about it isn't going to stop that, but it's fun to rant about it. Get ready for a lot of sarcasm...

"Never use 'said.' And certainly don't just NOT use a dialogue tag. You must describe the exact manner in which your character is speaking. Or better yet, just use any word that sounds really big from the thesaurus. Remember: the dialogue isn't important. It's whether the character shrieked, rasped, or titillated."

 UGGGGHHHHH this is my least favorite one. Probably because people say it SO MUCH. Listen to me, right now: you can use "said." In fact, the vast majority of the time, you should only use "said." Actually, the most preferable thing is to not use dialogue tags, and make it clear through your characterization who is saying what. The reasons to use a dialogue tag other than "said" are not: being creative, mixing it up, impressing your reader, or because it's the rule. The only reason to use a dialogue tag other than "said" is if that word is necessary. Yes, it sounds stupid to have a line like this: "'AAAHHH! I'M DYING!' he said." In that case, you can use 'screamed' or the like. But dialogue needs to speak for itself. Dialogue tags are supposed to not even be noticed.
(P.S. I don't think "titillated" is even supposed to be a dialogue tag. But I can just see someone using it as one, and I'm so mad about that hypothetical situation.)

Adverbs are illegal. Prologues are illegal. Dream sequences are illegal, etc.
This advice seems to be more common among publishing circles. It starts from a sort of well-intentioned place. Yes, it's true that a lot of agents/publishers dislike prologues, adverb-muddled writing, etc. Yes, it's true that a lot of the things that people say you should "never do" are often overused and can be written really badly. But in my opinion, nothing is banned from writing. The key is to figure out what works the best for your book. If a prologue is truly necessary and makes your book better and more readable and more appealing, then use a prologue! If your dream sequence is an irreplaceable piece of your plot, then keep it! If the sentence flows beautifully with an adverb, then you can use it! Just be ready for the chance that you're wrong and it's actually not necessary. But don't restrict yourself because of what someone on Twitter said.

Never use cliches.

Julia Byers recently wrote a blog post about this. Like a lot of writing advice that has "never" in it, what it really means is "be careful." Cliches are so easy to fall back on, because they're the way that we know stories: through archetypes and similar themes and plot devices. But, as it says in Julia's post, the reason cliches are bad are not because they're a cliche- it's because they feel cliche. When you read a book, you want it to feel new and fresh and exciting. Even if it's got a Cinderella story and a new girl at school and a vampire boyfriend, if you write it in an original way, your cliche book can be great.

There has to be a reason for that character to be black, Asian, gay, etc. Everyone knows that unlike the real world, the fictional world is populated entirely by white straight abled people and anyone else is the exception.

This advice particularly annoys me because the consequences of someone following it are twofold: one, it makes your writing suck; and two, it continues making media unrepresentative of huge portions of its readership. So let me make this clear: if you want to make your character something other than white, straight, cisgender, able-bodied, neurotypical, American, or anything else that people think is the "default," for WHATEVER REASON, go ahead. (If you're curious what those terms mean, type them into Google and a definition will probably pop up.) There are so many different kinds of people in the real world, and if fantasy worlds were to exist, there would be lots of kinds of people in those worlds as well. Any kind of person can be any kind of character; that's sort of the point of fiction. The media is already not representing tons of groups of people; don't let your book be part of that problem.

You need to be good at grammar and spelling to be a good writer.

Being a good fiction writer is about being good with stories. Being a good nonfiction writer is about being good with stories, sometimes, or with explanations. Being a good poet is about being good with words and ideas. (Obviously this is simplifying all these genres, but I'm trying to make a point here.) None of those things require grammar and spelling knowledge. However. Before submitting stuff for publication or handing it out to critique partners, proofread your work, or if you are terrible at grammar and spelling, get someone else to proofread it. Your work needs to have coherent grammar and spelling so that readers understand it, but you personally can suck at that stuff and still be a great writer.

Don't make your story too weird.

This is like the "don't use cliches" one. It's true that sometimes people weird up their stories so much that you can't even tell there's a plot in there anymore, and it's not enjoyable to read at all. But it's all about knowing what works for your story. If your story works best with an outlandish, super-original plot that is unlike anything you've heard before, go for it. Write a good story and people won't care if it's weird. Also, if your goal is to get published, I'm pretty sure agents and publishers are looking for something they haven't seen before, and there is definitely a large population of readers whose book type can be summed up as "weird stuff."

Don't bother writing if you haven't been dreaming of being an author since day one. Only child prodigies can succeed in this harsh business. Your first words better have been "this 87k young adult contemporary has series potential!" or else you're not a real writer.

This one's the one that annoys me the most, probably because it came from me. I said stuff like this all the time in high school. I guess it just irritated me so much that I had been writing novels since I was eleven, and suddenly people I knew popped up wanting to be writers at age sixteen or seventeen, or worse, twenty-two or thirty or even in their retirement. And they were getting success and attention! I wanted to get some sort of prize for being a writer first. I can excuse myself for having that holier-than-thou attitude when I was fifteen, because, you know, I was fifteen. But when published adult writers say this stuff to their impressionable fans, it's not OK.
I was lucky enough to understand my passion when I was six years old. Not everyone is that lucky. For many people, it's a long journey to find out that they want to write. The age you started writing is not what you're supposed to be proud of. Whether your writing affects people is something to be proud of.
Granted, becoming a good writer takes time, and starting earlier gives you extra time. But some people learn quickly. And it's OK for that time to be ages 23 through 26 instead of ages 10 through 15. Also, we're all still always learning, and sometimes those of us that just started are better than those of us who've been at it for a while. Focus on improving your craft and expressing your stories, not whether you're the right kind of writer.

OK, I think that's enough. I'm sure I can think of others so there may be a "part two" to this someday. If there's any writing advice you hate, feel free to rant about it in the comments. (Which do not work for some people- thanks, Google. You can just throw your comments into the ocean, I guess.) (Don't do that. Pollution is bad.)

Thanks for reading,

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