I write a lot.
(Well, that’s relative. But let’s roll with it.)
And when I’m not using my writing time for writing, I’m often using it to browse writers’ websites or writing hashtags on Twitter. In that endeavor, I read a lot of writing advice. On Twitter especially, I read a lot of responses to said writing advice. And there’s a movement, particularly visible on writer Twitter (but present everywhere), that says all advice on writing is BS. Do what you want, write how you want, whatever you’re writing is all good and a-okay.
And maybe that’s appealing to a certain sort, I can see that. In our post-truth world, authority and expertise are dead, and the opinion of any schmuck with a cell phone and a Twitter handle can gain as much traction as that of a Pulitzer-prize winning, New York Times Bestselling author. And the thought that anybody can do whatever they want, be whatever they want, is certainly in vogue right now.
It feels good to flip the middle finger at the people telling you all the things you can’t do.
And I’ve certainly been guilty of a bit of that middle-finger-flipping myself from time to time. Heck, it’s a core belief of mine that nobody knows what the hell they’re doing, that we’re all making it up as we go. Sure, we pretend to be experts. But none of us really knows anything. Just ask any parent. Nobody knows a damned thing. We’re all stitching our own parachutes as the ground rushes up to meet us.
But when it comes to craft? Sometimes the people who have been there actually know what they’re talking about.
I know. Hard to believe. And not very millenial-mindset of me. But it has to be worth considering — doesn’t it? — that the people with publishing credits, to say nothing of accolades, to their names might, maybe, if viewed in a certain light, know what they’re talking about?
Take the perennial conversation around adverbs. Popularized, possibly immortalized, by none less than Stephen King:
Bloody avoid them, in other words. But this admonition is the source of endless strife in the writing community. Why? Because we love our adverbs. Tenderly, gently, softly, the way perhaps we love a pastrami-on-rye late at night. Look at that, three adverbs in a single sentence! Use all the adverbs you want, says the anti-advice crowd. Who the hell is Stephen King to tell you how to write your masterpiece?
Well, among other things, he’s a literary giant with scores of books and dozens of film credits to his name. Is he right? Is he wrong? Bugger all if I know, but he seems to be doing something right.
No prologues, says another writing “rule”. Why? Because a prologue introduces actions and locations and whatever else that may not be central to the story you plan to tell. Prologues are a distraction, a diversion, a spinning of the wheels when what we really want is to dive right into the story world.
Hell with that, crows the anti-advice mob. Write all the prologues you want to. Hell, have two prologues. Have a prologue to the prologue, why the hell not? It’s your story, do it your way.
This is massively empowering to the author just starting out. Especially, if I may say it, if they are of a mind to include a prologue in their work. Or gobs and gobs of adverbs.
Oxford comma, yay or nay? Which POV is best? Write every day or only when the mood strikes you? Outline the entire work or make it up as you go? There are as many rules and variations on rules as there are writers, and when you combine all the permutations — this one does it this way in this situation, that way in this other situation — then the variations of what “works” might as well be endless.
And for as much as the writing community argues for one way over another, you’ll find as many outspoken critics arguing the other way.
There are no rules. Write your story your way.
It’s all so alluring, innit? Taken to its rational conclusion, whether you follow every rule to the letter or you throw every rule out the window and blaze your own trail through the fire and flames, you’re a winner.
And on the one hand, I’m very much for that. If you have a story to tell, then by science, tell that bloody story.
If your stories are to be anything more than your own musings into the void — your own pile of electric documents moldering on your own hard drive — then I humbly suggest that you take the voices of the dissenters, of the eff the rules, do it your way crowd, with a grain of salt.
But Pav, I hear you cry, if we adhere mindlessly to the roles set down by our forebears, how shall we innovate? How shall we craft our own paths?
A fair question.
Consider driving, for those of you who drive.
When you got your license, you started with that little booklet that contained all the rules of the road. All the variations of traffic lights and traffic signs, all the on-the-road situations that might come up. You studied them, internalized them, took a test, and forgot all about them. These days, you know what’s safe, you know what will get you legally from point A to point B, and you know how to bend the rules when your situation calls for it.
But you wouldn’t throw that manual out the window. You wouldn’t just decide, flip what my forebears said, I’m driving on the left side of the road from now on because that’s how I choose to do it. I mean, I guess you could. But you’d be arrested or dead very, very soon.
And you break the “rules” of writing at your own peril. Death may not be on the line, but readability certainly is.
Does this mean we must subscribe to the tyranny of what the masses cry for, what the gatekeepers demand?
Well, if we want our work to reach people, to find success? It kinda does.
It doesn’t mean we have to like it. Fifty Shades of Grey was a bestseller. That doesn’t mean we have to hold it up as the gold standard of literature. But we have to recognize that, maybe, it did something right. Ditto for Twilight or Divergent or whatever other series you think was hacky and awful. Fact is, something in those works appealed to the masses. Was it right that they were appealing in whatever way? Who knows? Who cares? It is what it is.
This is where we bump up against the real world the way everything does eventually. Incidentally, this is why we get frustrated politically, and religiously, and any other -ly you can think of. Writers get frustrated because the world we live in perhaps isn’t the world we feel it should be. Vampire fanfiction shouldn’t, we feel, top the NYT bestseller list. And maybe in a cosmic sense, it shouldn’t!
But it did. We live in a universe where some truly awful writing reaches the pinnacles of success.
Does that mean that we shouldn’t write our own stories based on whatever rules we want?
Of course not! You want to write your story using an adverb in every single sentence, then you write that story. Prologues? Write five of them. Flashbacks? Have one every single time a character opens their mouth. Oxford comma? Use them at random. Throw the rule books out the window, but not before you’ve torn them to pieces, thrown the pieces into an oven, and detonated the oven in a supervolcano as a meteor strikes from the heavens.
You are a beautiful snowflake, and so is your story. And if telling that story means breaking every rule in the book, then by all means, break the rules. Every single one of them. Commit your own personal holocaust on all the so-called rules of writing.
But don’t expect anybody to read or enjoy your story.
We have the right, as storytellers, to tell our stories however the hell we want to. Rules and preconceived notions about storytelling be damned.
But our audiences are under no obligation to accept those stories, and we would do well to remember that.
Rules are there for breaking, no doubt. But the fact is, we have to understand the way the rules work together, we have to know what it is we’re rebelling against if we want to rebel effectively.
TL;DR, we have to think. Creatively, critically. If we’re going to break these “rules”, we need to be doing it for a good reason, and not just for the sake of breaking rules.
Authority and expertise may be dead, but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from them.
Go forth and write your stories. But maybe assimilate a little bit of knowledge from the people who have gone before you along the way.
5 thoughts on “On Writing Advice and Whether It’s Bulls***”
Did somebody say ORIGINAL writing advice?
What if the main character were – get this – a WRITER?
And how’s about we spell out that accent phonetically?
Most important of all though: strictly one culture per alien planet.
Anything more is just showing off.
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Main character a writer?
Have you somehow read my (still unpublished) first novel???
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No but I’ll be the first lining up to read a copy when it is published.
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Some of the greatest literary achievements of all time have come from that “certain sort” who say forget the rules. Ezra Pound, T.S. Elliot, H.D, basically everyone involved in the Modernist movement; they all flipped the middle finger at the rules.
If there wasn’t a “certain sort” saying fuck the rules, we’d never see any great artistic movements. Great art comes from breaking with tradition.
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Agreed! But I think it takes knowing the rules to break them properly… breaking the rules without a blueprint for how and a good reason for why is a recipe for disaster.