Beware Writing Rules #3.
Read, read, read.
This is another standard you see everywhere. Editors and agents say it. Writing teachers and authors say. All the time. It would be hard to throw an e-pebble at the internet’s pages on writing without hitting that one several times. It’s become almost a litany.
But what does it really mean?
What do these Read-sayers say it means? They say that in order to write well, you need to not only be widely read, but you need to have read everything in your genre.
One of them declared openly in print that if he met you, and you were an aspiring sci-fi/fantasy author who’d never read any of his books, he would turn his back on you and walk away from you, because you wouldn’t be worth talking to!
So, this means a writer is supposed to spend vast quantities of their time reading, reading, reading new books all the time. New books are released by the hundreds all the time, and so your job would be to keep on top of them. Millions of books have been published already. It would be your job to read them. Doesn’t this sound like an agent’s job, not a writers?
Is it really a writer’s job to know what’s been written before you?
A sci-fi author in my area tells a great story of how he met a young man who’d just sold his first novel as a three book deal to a major NY publishing house. When the young writer described his story setting and concept, the more established author immediately thought to himself, thank goodness this guy never went to any writers or critique groups, or we would have told him that his idea was long played out and would never sell. But it did sell, and got a high print run to boot. This goes to prove that we writers have to be careful about being too well-read and so well-informed that we outsmart ourselves out of getting published.
What happens when you’ve read all the vampire novels you can get your hands on? You either get stuck in a rut and your concept of a vampire becomes an amalgam of all the commonalities of the vampires you’ve read. Or you put your own spin on them. But it’s the same if you’re a novice. If you haven’t heard many vampire stories, your tale will either draw directly on what you’ve little you have heard, or you’ll come with a fresh, unique take. So is it the knowledge of the undead that makes the crucial difference here, or how the writers applies that knowledge? Is it how much they’ve read, or what they do with what they’ve read?
Some writers become great from heavy application to their genre, and others from coming onto the scene without the limiting preconceptions of it.
Writers do need to wear multiple hats. They need to have a wider skill set than some other professions. You have to span the creative and the practical, imagination and reality, be artist and business person. You do need to read, and you need to write. And you need to study craft. And you need to learn to rewrite and edit. And you need to learn about the publishing industry. And how to market. And how to make your readers happy. You need to know how to run a home-based business and all that that involves. You need to know how to sign a good contract. Give a good reading. Reach your audience. Etc. It’s a herculean endeavor. So ask yourself, do you then also need to read, read, read?
Chances are, you became a reader before you became a writer, and your love of reading is what sat you down to try out this whole writing idea in the first place, so maybe instead of feeling like you have to read to become a living card catalog, read for the love of reading you’ve always had.
Poor adjectives and adverbs! To be so constantly slandered. It’s not their fault. So I’m standing up for them before they decide they’ve had enough and abandon us altogether.
The Rule of not using adjectives and adverbs is so popular, you see it everywhere. And because you see it everywhere, it must be true, right?
Without descriptive words, writing would be dull indeed!
Personally, I find writing with almost no descriptive words dry, unimaginative and non-evocative. I usually don’t enjoy it, and therefore I often don’t read authors who write that way. They may tell a story, but it’s not a story that engages me. But then I like color, and light, and textures, and scents, and am greatly struck by ambient visuals. As are many people, which is why we flock to the computer, the television and to movie theaters – we like to see where we are in a story, and who we’re with. Books require less because our imagination fills in so much for us, but the author still needs to direct the imagination with description. Generally a noir detective novel is going to want less description than a high-fantasy novel, and that’s more about how the writing compliments the world and the tone than about the good and badness of descriptive words.
What’s valuable about the idea of monitoring your use of adjectives and adverbs?
Randomly assigning qualities to things for the sole purpose of creating description will muddle rather than enhance the reading experience. Descriptive words are best when they join other elements in writing to build a picture, not when they are relied on solely to do the job. And as in life, we focus on some things and skim over the rest – constant description can then come to feel false and be distracting, unless it’s intentionally used in a scene where the senses are highly engaged in a moment-by-moment basis.
Description in general gets a lot of the same prejudice as adjectives and adverbs, so I want to offer a counterpoint to the maligning there as well.
Description does not equate with purple prose, and even purple prose isn’t a dirty word – despite the way it’s used these days.
The more something is already familiar to the reader, the less description is needed. We all know what a rose looks like, so you only need to describe what’s contradictory to expectations, if anything, or just a little detail to quickly evoke the rose to mind. On the other hand, there can be a great satisfaction in reading someone else’s description of something well known, because we have the satisfying experience of feeling like we’re connected to and understood by others. And the more you want a story to transport your reader away from their couch, bathroom or seat on the bus, the more you want to make sure their mind is engaged with your world, and description is that lovely reminder that hey, we’re somewhere else entirely.
So there’s no real right and wrong here, it’s more about knowing when and how to use your tools.
'Show, Don't Tell' is truly golden.
It's one of the most useful directions for evaluating your own writing out there. Making certain your story is alive with strong, active, in-the-moment plot motion and character activity is part of what makes really good writing when that writing is storytelling. Why tell when showing will be more alive and engaging? Showing brings the reader into the moment and makes them forget they are anywhere else but in the story because multiple senses are engaged or called upon at once, and the mind is too busy processing all the elements of the story to have attention for where you and your butt are sitting at that moment. It's part of what allows the Escape.
But 'Don't Tell' is not a rule.
What it is – it's the current trend in fiction writing. It has been taken to it's extreme to become 'show, never-ever tell.' Telling has become a dirty word. When you see rules like that, which say one thing is always right and the opposite always wrong, that's a good time to Beware.
If you stop for a moment and look at writing beyond the moment, you see telling everywhere.
Through-out the history of fiction and storytelling, telling is a time honored and much loved element. It is one of many great tools in the writer's tool-belt. Sometimes it's done through the voice of a narrator, sometime it's the direct mouthpiece of the author, and sometimes it's just a neutral part of the story – an artifact of storytelling we all know and understand, because we all know we are readers being told a story in writing as we read it. Currently the trend is to excise the author from the story entirely, as if the story magically has a life all its own and was not labored into life by a human being for your pleasure/edification. In the past, the author took pride in bringing you their story, and they weren't afraid to be seen.
Homer, Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Charles DIckens, the Brontë sisters, to name just a very few – who's writing is considered top-notch, and who themselves are honored as great writers – tell. They tell you things directly in their stories. And we love them for it. Even today, novels become best sellers full of wonderful telling (like William Goldman's The Princess Bride with its delightful narrator guiding us through the story with a witty, firm hand; like the Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events series of books where the author's identity is effectively replaced with the narrator and the Mr. Snicket's character gets many of the best, most quotable lines). Telling is golden, too.
Telling is strong in that it is direct. The writer can reach right over to the reader and say what needs to be said in a few words and move the story along like a swift moving current, sweeping the reader off into the heart of the story. The pace of a story is about the satisfactory balance between ebb and flow. It needs to dwell and linger, and then it needs to move on. Telling helps the story move on. "What with one thing and another, five years past,' says the Dad reading S. Morgenstern's 'The Princess Bride' to his son in Goldman's The Princess Bride. Brilliant. Nine words and we're off to the rest of the story, no dinking around, no wasted energy. It's why the collary of 'show, don't tell' in Hollywood, which is that screenplays should never have a voice-over narrator, is just about as bogus, when you count how many movies and mini-series are made with voice-over narration. It's used because it works. And works well.
Some recent examples would be the opening of The Fellowship of the Ring, Zombieland, The Men Who Stare at Goats, the Underworld movies, The Rum Diaries, again just to name a few of the many, many.
So, yes, use 'Show, Don't Tell' as an editing tool to identify what needs to be shown, and to weed out those placeholders where you 'told' a part of the story in the draft and now are ready to really get in there and make it come alive. And then, go look at where telling is appropriate and make the most of that tool as well, as it fits the tone and genre of your story.
Be wary of them, at least. Rules offer reassurance to someone new, or someone looking for a guarantee of success. They are convenient for someone who wants to be seen as an expert, people who confuse their personal taste in writing with whether something is good or not, or someone trying to sell you something – like their book, their system, their hundreds of dollars workshop.
Everywhere you go in the writing world you'll be bombarded with rules of writing. There are places with endless lists of famous writers and their rules of writing. Those rules are bandied about on forums as if divine words rivaling the Ten Commandments. Member of writers and critique groups will tell you what you've written and how you've written your story are wrong, based on what someone else they held as an authority once told them was right. Go to Amazon and in the search box type in 'writing' in the book section and be prepared for a vast and dizzying array of titles to come up, containing hundreds of books filled with writing rules.
The writing world can be cannibalistic. There are so many people trying to make a living from writing, and so few can, that many turn to profiting off of the needs and desperation of new and unpublished writers to make their money. Teaching is an honorable tradition. Selling you a patented system with follow-my-rules and you'll be a success – that really only sets you up to slavishly follow a set of ideas without the flexibility and awareness to establish your own voice and your own style – may be something of a crime. And someone in authority getting an ego fix by telling people their writing doesn't work because they don't like it and because they have the personality to speak with confidence and clarity, is unavoidable in this business.
Be open to learning, but cautious about who you choose to learn from, and trust yourself as much as what you hear professionals say.