We often hear things like “never use said,” and “always write chronologically.” We often hear the opposite: “always use said,” and “write the ending first.” It is likely, in fact, that if one looked hard enough, he could find every word banished from a writer’s vocabulary by one article or another. Most writing advice comes in an absolute, agreeing with the far end of a spectrum.
Writing well requires balance of many different elements—many of these elements having negative stigmas attached to them. We can’t completely dispose of adverbs, nor would we want to. Refraining from the use of the word said, or limited to it, only complicates matters.
Many times, writing advice is given with the idea that the author is already on one side of a spectrum, (using too many passive-sentences) and thus, by convincing him to crawl towards the polar edge, he will eventually end up in the middle.
Rarely is it correct to be on just one side or the other (though it can be), and many times negative attributes make people believe it’s wrong to work on one side of the scale at all. But limiting an author to certain confines can hurt him far worse than it helps him.
1. Ego versus Insignificance.
When a baby is born, he believes he is the only thinking creature in the world. As he grows, he receives empathy and understanding that there are many who think like him. Aging causes people to begin to recognize their insignificance in the world.
People vary in where they stop on this scale. Some never get passed the baby stage; psychopaths often think they are the only thinking human. Some go far above and beyond the call of duty and understand they are just a blimp in the universe, and some stop snuggly in the middle.
Why it is important:
The ego makes a person believe he is meant to do something great. That allows him to do something great. People who understand that they are one in seven billion—not including all of the generations of the Earth ever in time—Understand the unlikelihood that they will ever be a Stephan King or Shakespeare.
However, those people who truly believe in their own destiny, their own fate to be fantastic, tend to not try. The assumption that either a) luck will led success to me or b) all I need is one opportunity and everyone will realize that I am talented, allows them to never write that book, never try to publish it, never take little opportunities because there is no point.
Most people aren’t on the polar ends, however. The average author lies somewhere between. He will often fluctuate, and he will feel that fluctuation, often taking it hard. Depression is often a byproduct of this understanding of insignificance.
It is important to believe that you can do something great, but still believe that you might fail.
2. The Forest versus the Trees.
There are two types of authors: details and big picture. Everyone starts out leaning on one side of the scale. Detail people often have developed characters and settings, big pictures often have expansive plots and events.
They may or may not be good at what they do, but they have the tendency to write majorly about one subject over the other. Detail people often have calm scenes and a lot of dialogue, big pictures often have huge conflicts with little 2-D ants of a character running around.
See this tandem story as the best example.
Why it is important:
No one wants to watch interesting characters do nothing, and no one wants to watch events happening to boring characters. This is relatively obvious, I suppose.
What is important about this is not the concept (because everyone knows this) but for an author to understand which side he is on. If he knows that he has the tendency to write great characters sitting around talking, then he is aware of exactly what to work on. This is the main problem that most authors face on one side or another, and just by overcoming their tendency to ignore the trees or the forest, they can easily flush out their writing ability.
3. Predictable and Unpredictable.
When I first started making novels, I was fully aware that I should grab people’s attention. What I did was write a scene and not explain what was going on at all, hoping that they’d keep reading until they understood.
A relatively good plan, except that if a person doesn’t understand what he doesn’t understand, he’ll zone out.
Why it is important:
Aristotle defined tension as “doubt to outcome.” In order to have doubt, one has to have some sort of hypothesis.
Take for example this sentence:
“Jessica has a secret.”
It can play off of curiosity, but boundaries are too open. It could be anywhere from she cheated on a test to she’s an alien.
It’s a balance of giving out enough information to allow them to start predicting what would happen, but keeping out enough so that they are still unsure.
“Jessica has a secret about what happened to her father.”
This is more interesting in that we have some guesses as to what it could be: She murdered him, someone’s looking for him and she knows where he is, he was an alien and went home to his planet.
This is why in mystery novels they stick all the possible murders in the room.
4. Reality versus Fiction.
This is by far the hardest balance to keep. Fiction has different expectations than reality. Fiction has different rules to follow. We assume things about a story that we’d never assume in real life, and there are many cases in which something truly realistic in a novel will illicit cries of “ridiculous!”
In reality, (modern reality) we often think that it is ridiculous when a person sacrifices her life to get married, but in fiction we don’t bat an eye when she flings herself off a cliff for a man she met three days ago. (Well, we might, if we actually stop to consider that it was three days ago, Juliet.)
There are certain rules in fiction that, when broken, make up a weird story, such as plot structure, having a resolution, having a huge character revelation, etc. When we tell our gossip stories, however, often times there is no end, climax, inciting event, and no one every learns their lessons.
Why this is important?
If an author writes something incredibly realistic, no one will believe it (truth is stranger than fiction), but if he writes something that plays by these fiction rules it will be, well, stupid.
A writer can break any damn rule he wants to, it’s his book, but he must look like he knows what he’s doing enough to make it look like he’s breaking the rule on purpose. Otherwise, people are likely to write it off as bad writing.
5. Self-Assessment versus Outside Advice
I tend to believe that the majority considers outside (critical) opinions more useful than the author’s, so, honestly, I have a backlash against this idea.
However, this is about balance, and is probably safe to assume that balancing author versus critic’s opinion is the best possible option.
Either way, I’m going to explain it like this: Most people (I assume) tend to believe that when an artist pitches a fit, it is because he is wrong, a child, and egotistical. I argue that there is just as much likelihood that the critic is wrong, a child, and egotistical.
Why it is important:
The author is the only one who knows his tastes, goals, biases, and motivations. He is not aware of the critic’s inner thoughts. What that means is that Roger has no idea why Shirley is telling him he has too many characters.
The author is, however, aware of the story he was intending to tell, has a personal investment in it (which makes it more interesting for), know more about it (which makes it less interesting for him), and, as much as I hate the term, is too close to it to know what it looks like to a fresh eye.
A critic can lie, be wrong, be in a bad mood, or be uninformed.
An author can be wrong, be in a bad mood, or be tunnel-visioned. (I suppose he might be able to lie to himself as well.)
It is important to take other people’s advice, but trust your own instincts as well. It is not better to just do what someone else tells you, and it is not a good thing to ignore all outside help.
6. Depth versus Superficial.
The number one autobiographical advice I give people is to not ignore the superficial aspects of a story. Yes, we don’t want to just be another love story that ends happily ever after with the main characters running off together into the moonlight. However, after we massacre them, dragging their innards across the battlefield, the book may be less typical, but it also less enjoyable.
This is an extreme example, of course, and what I’m really referencing is more about little things, such as having a love story mingled in, paying off the reader’s desire for vengeance, and giving the reader to want something.
When I say superficial aspects, I mean anything that would be the center plot in something on the New York Times Best Sellers list. A guilty pleasure plot, if you will.
Why it is important:
I remember when I was younger thinking that putting in these “superficial” elements was a form of selling out. I didn’t actually use that term, that would make me judgmental or something. But I did believe that trying to pander to what the audience clearly wants (the characters ending up together, for example) was shallow.
However, if I really was trying to write an intellectual book for other reasons than just to look smart (which I swear I was), then there is no reason not to add in a couple of theme unoriented romances and fights.
A book without a few “get ‘em reading” qualities is boring, and usually dishonest. I don’t read A Clockwork Orange, I read Howl’s Moving Castle. I like romance and silly things that I’d be embarrassed to admit, and by not embracing that, I’m screwing myself because I simply want to look good.
This is a balance list, which means, balance. Writing a guilty pleasure novel just because that’s what you like to read is not necessarily the way to go (unless that’s what you want to do.) It’s about including the guilty pleasure elements inside the intellectual plot that makes a great story.
Twilight sold for a reason.
7. Morality versus Goals.
It is customary to believe that to go against morals for the sake of achieving something is “bad.” The problem with that theory is that few of us believe in our morals 100%, or care about them that much, really.
When I say morals, the first thing that comes to my mind is “don’t murder” and “don’t have sex before marriage,” but ideals can go beyond that. They can be very simple, very tiny, very subtle, and are filed under the word “opinions.”
Here are a few of my opinions (for fear of humanizing myself): Animal abuse is wrong. College needs to be completely revamped. Fart jokes are stupid. I hate one word titles. I’m not a fan of ebooks.
The first on is a moral stance of mine. The rest are opinions. Would I fight with a cowriter over a fart joke? Yes. Would I fight with an editor? Maybe. Would I allow my book to be sold under a one word title? Not if I could help it. If it was the difference between being published or chucked in a slush pile? Hell yes.
Why it is important:
We can’t fight every battle. Being argumentative over unimportant things gives a reputation of being hard to work with. Opinions and morals are hard to sort through, and often times, we aren’t really sure how much we care. We might very well just be arguing over a change because we’re defensive.
Just as criticism, it is important to stand for our morals even when that may mean being rejected. But it is just as equally important to not botch your chances. In order to be successful, we must make a few sacrifices, and it is up to the author to balance integrity with triumph.
8. Number of Readers versus Dedication.
Having a fan base is like juggling; we can have a lot of readers we hold loosely or grip a few tightly.
Subject matter is the number one thing to cut down on audiences.
Broad subjects are things like settings in modern day America, action movies, romance movies, realistic plots, etc. The vaguer in the details, the broader an audience.
Of course, any choice removes some potential fans. Most men won’t see romance, many women won’t see action, I won’t see anything set in modern day (almost.) These subjects, however, will not deride the most number of people, i.e. they are the common denominator. The problem is that no one cares very much because they can see this anywhere.
The more decisive decisions an author makes, the more a person wants to see it, but the less people want to.
Take for instance if I were to make take a typical romance script set in modern day with pretty generic characters. It is the sort of movie I might see if nothing better was on. Now let’s say we make one decisive decision and make those generic characters two gay men (or women.) We’ve cut a good chunk of the people who might have seen it, but now many people are coming there to specifically see that movie.
Why it is important:
Every decision made affects the number of people who will see it and the number of people will love it. Cult classics are created from this.
I make a romance movie, I cut out 50% of my population, and there is nothing to stop the other 50% from seeing any other romance movie.
I make it a supernatural romance movie, I cut out all those people who are not into supernatural, but I convince those left to come see mine over the others.
I make it a comedic supernatural romance movie, I remove everyone into dramas, but it convinces people who like humor to see mine over Twilight.
Balancing these two affects income, fan-base, and duration of loyalty. If I am extremely generic, I appeal to everyone, but no one cares enough to buy. If I am extremely weird, I appeal to one person and only made eight bucks.
9. Good Criticism versus Bad Criticism.
When someone actually reads your work, there is rarely enough time to really talk about it as much as you’d like. In certain cases, the feedback is regulated in that a person can only say specific things at a specific times. What it means though, is that the author will often try to get the bad things out as quickly he can, skipping over the question, “What was your favorite part?”
Why it is important:
Most people try to give positive feedback. This is not about the critic’s doing, but the author’s.
If we don’t receive reward for our work, we will stop doing it. It is a natural human reflex since birth. Some see reward as the accomplishment of finishing and need nothing more. Some can just be proud of themselves, but most of us require some praise.
Balance out the negative feedback, and tell them what you need. I always say to someone reading my work, “Be nice, but thorough.” Too much positive feedback will either be taken insincerely or give a big head. Too much negativity will only lead to surrender.
It is up to the author to find people who will adequately balance these elements.
10. Time Experiencing versus Time Writing.
I always hated this saying, mostly because I feel attacked by those who choose to say it, but being able to write requires a lot of attention to life.
We need to experience things to relate to the people who spend all their time experiencing things. Writing occupies a lot of energy, and often we feel guilty when we go out to the movies, go on vacation, read a book, etc. but all of them can help make a book a better work.
My favorite piece of advice is from the author of Jig the Dragon Slayer, in which he talked about how he wrote a book about a hospital, but until he actually spent some time in one, he had no idea why it was getting rejected.
Why it’s important.
Life, people, books, movies, and other media are things to study. If we never visit them, we forget what we’re doing; however, if we also spend too much time dinking around, we never write the book at all.
Balancing life with the chore of creating art is a hard thing to do because one tends to absorb the other. They are like siblings and are constantly at battle. I am either engrossed in my work, or I am engrossed in what I’m doing, and it is hard to break free from one to do the other.
I’ve written 10 pages today, and that only makes me want to continue when I could just as easily be downstairs talking to my veteran father about the time he road across country on his motorcycle.