Writing advice

Neil Gaiman (2005)

Neil Gaiman (2005) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So I’ve spent some time recently paying attention to things like book reviews, some writing forums, writing blogs and I’ve started noticing a bizarre phenomena:  writing rules.

Oh, I know, I’ve mentioned writing rules before.  It’s not like I’ve never heard of it.  I’m just looking around and it mesmerises me just how many people read one or two books by someone who tells them How To Write and then take this as gospel.  Worst part is that this is going to lead to a lot of stories that all look alike (oh, wait, come to think of it … that explains a lot when it comes to why I read so little that’s new).

Now some writing advice is fine.  Neil Gaiman‘s 8 rules, for example. Or Lawrence Block‘s Writing the Novel.  Maybe Ray Bradbury‘s Zen in the Art of Writing.  These are advice.  They’re ‘this works for me’, and general musings on the nature of writing, creativity and so forth.  The most any one of them treats as a thou shalt is rather tongue in cheek, Block recommending anyone who wishes to write a novel take some aspirin and have a lie down until the feeling goes away; very sound I should say.

Still there’s others that lay down Rules.

  • Thou shalt not use adverbs
  • Thou shalt not start in media res
  • Thou shalt start in media res
  • Thou shalt show everything
  • Thou shalt show only what’s important
  • Thou shalt not …

It’s insane.  Stephen King wrote, from what I’ve gathered from these discussions, such an “advice” book.  Thing is, if you totally dig King’s writing style and stories, it’s not such a bad job to read the book that things like that.  You’ll, theoretically, end up writing just like him.  I can’t understand why anyone would want to.  Never minding that I don’t like Stephen King’s books, that’s not why I say that, it’s why would anyone want to write just like someone else?!  

You can see the authors who read Kipling as children.  You can see the people who read the people who read Kipling as children.  There’s a certain … something in the way they narrate.  It’s more diluted in that second generation than in the first, so the people who read the people who read the people who read Kipling … the influence is fairly gone.  Still, we all find our own voices, our own styles, our own methods.  Why is it that we can say, in painting, that there are cubists, and abstracts, post modernists, surrealists, realists, and more, all of them paintings, all of them painters, all of them doing good and brilliant work.  No one tells a painter thou shalt anything.  They paint with feces, oils, watercolours, acrylics, spray paint, latex, berry juice, mud, bacon grease … true, some of those beg the question of “is it still painting if it isn’t with paint?” but it’s not argued.  The work is judged on its merits.  Writing, though?  “Oh no!  A ~gasp~ cliché!” (all too often not actually one, I might add … I think I already said something about trope vs cliché) or “How dare they italicise thoughts!” or “Why am I reading the character’s thoughts!?” or … it’s insanity.

Thing is, it’s because so many writers, so many people who want to tell stories, don’t just tell their story, don’t look for their voice, don’t look for their style.  They get a textbook to tell them how to tell their story!

That can’t work.  I can’t tell someone how to tell their story.  No one can tell me how to tell my stories.  It’s fair to say that someone can say “this ought to be a comma, not a semi-colon”, it’s fair to say “this should be the past perfect, not the pluperfect”, it’s fair to say “hey, uhm … on this page, Serena’s a blonde, but over here in the next chapter you say her hair is green … did she dye it or are you an idiot?” Those are fine.

It’s even fine to start questioning things like … well, I’ll pick on Twilight.  I reviewed it on my Indie Fic Reviews site saying how the characterisation was shaky, how Bella was an annoying character, things of this ilk.  Just as people discussing painters might comment on not liking the artists use of red in a piece.  These are discussions of the actual artistic end product.  This is all subjective stuff.  Some people love Bella Swan, some hate her.  Some love Da Vinci, some prefer Michaelangelo.  I don’t like King, but obviously a few million people disagree with me.  I love Terry Pratchett, hard as it is to believe, some people don’t.

That’s the point.  Writing is art.  It’s subjective.  Some like mysteries, some like fantasy, some romance, some blend … the people who sneer at “genre fiction” don’t seem to realise that, in the grand scheme of things all work is in a genre, even theirs.  Genre is simply a way to discuss what the central driving forces of the narrative are.  Some even just give you a background.  Fantasy and SciFi aren’t about any special themes or driving forces, it’s about props and backdrops.  Mysteries and Romances, on the other hand, are very much about themes and driving forces and backdrop is interchangeable — including to be scifi or fantasy.  Genre is a tool for discussion, and a tool for guiding the end result — just as a painter who wants to do a cubist work, might want to consider remembering what a square looks like.

Writing advice can only ever be that.  Advice, yet today it is used as hard and fast rule, even given as such, and people take this with them when they try to review, critique, write, and so forth.  What makes King any more an authority on how to write than Heinlein, Bradbury, Block, or even E Racine.  I pick on him, because he’s one I know people are thumping on like it’s a Bible full of Holy Writ.  There’re certainly other Gods of Writing with their Sacred Scriptures full of thou shalt this, and thou shalt not that.

No.  Don’t go there.  Read stories.  Not just the genre you intend to write, possibly especially not that.  Read, as Bradbury puts it, everything.  Oh, not indiscriminately.  Bad writing can hurt as much as good writing can help.  I mean, only, that you shouldn’t tie yourself down.  In being diverse in your tastes you experience more, you might find inspiration for an SF short story in a Louis L’Amour western.  You might find inspiration for a sappy romance in an action film.  Read philosophy, sure!  But textbooks?  Only if you know that, in the way your brain is wired, you’d never notice the subtleties of when to break paragraphs, when to use quotation marks, when to … technical stuff.  Most of it you’ll learn from observation, if you read, but sometimes we need something explaining bits.

As in all things, if there is any Holy Commandment to life at all, it might be “be yourself”.  Don’t be King, don’t be Tolkien, don’t be Block, don’t be Fitzgerald, don’t be Austin … be you.  Pay homage to those you admire by learning from them and allowing their styles to shape and guide your own — let the fact their legacy be that little hint and whisper of their methods that you take with you and put into your own work, like a genetic marker.  Don’t copy, though.  Don’t let anyone tell you pigs can’t fly, the sun can’t circle the Earth, starships don’t make banking turns, nor that someone can’t say something shyly.  In your world, in your story, in your imagination, they do and, last I checked, it’s your name on the by-line.

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