Friday, June 23, 2017

Advice for New Writers Comes from the Wrong Direction

I recently read an article written by a woman who got married after three dates. If you have been following me for a while, you are probably aware that last year I got out of an emotionally devastating relationship that I’m not entirely sure on why I cared so much about.

The article told her story and then offered up advice to anyone who wanted to remain in a 20 year marriage like she had. One of her top pieces?

“It’s easy to fall in love, but hard to stay in it.”


I fell in love with my ex from afar. One of the things I always told him was I liked him but I despised our relationship. He was smart, interesting, defiant, and sensitive, yet neglectful, apathetic, depressed, and noncommunicative with serious intimacy issues.

I fell in love with him during the dating stages where he made an effort to message me—not as much as I’d like—and seemed genuinely happy to see me—not as much as I’d like. I wrote off our inability to have a fun and casual conversation due to our mutual shyness, assuming it would change once we came out of our shells. I assumed his lack of infatuation was due to it being too soon. I assumed being a non-priority was due to the infancy of our relationship. I assumed all of our problems were temporary and forgivable issues that worrying too much about too soon would be engaging in a defeatist attitude.

I fell in love with him before I knew what it was like to be with him. And once I fell in love, it was nearly impossible to fall out of it.

I don’t fall easy, but I fall hard.

Was what she was saying untrue? Not for her. For some infatuation is as natural as laughing. For others, those like me, it’s impossible. We drag our feet in the acquaintance stages, uninterested in too much socialization and casual bonds, easily but stubbornly resisting crushes and attraction until, one day, the elastic snaps and we go ricocheting into the depths of true devotion.

I hate how I make strangers feel like I dislike them, I hate being inaccessible, and I hate not enjoying, and painfully struggling with, talking to people I don’t know. But on the other hand, I’m about as loyal as you can get.

The point is, people are different. People are drastically different, and when giving advice, it’s important to remember that your biggest flaws and hardships might be the exact opposite of those you’re talking to.

This is the first issue of writing advice. Both writers and readers are very different from each other, which is a good but frequently forgotten thing.

That’s the problem with don’ts.

I read recently a study about how passive people (doormats and people pleasers) tend to grossly overestimate their signs of hostility. A moderate, normal amount of assertiveness (as reported by viewers) is considered by the perpetrator as vastly rude and dickish.

When I see people getting torn to shreds in writers groups, it tends to be those passive people: the kind, quiet ones who tend to respectfully listen. Jackasses are typically pussyfooted around in hopes of keeping the peace until, at one point, someone snaps and breaks the spell.

Yet I guarantee that if one of these quiet, good-natured people turned to an outsider and said, “I can’t stop getting torn apart in critiques,” the advice would be something like, “You need to be less thinned skin and listen to what people are saying,” when in reality they need to stand up for themselves; they need to stop being so open to every single idea and critically evaluate the intention behind it, learning when to tell someone off for being hypercompetitive or tearing them down to build themselves up.

And vice-versa. Instructing someone who is angrily obtuse to criticism that he needs to stand up for himself is going to engrain the issue rather than solve it.

Telling someone who pantses out a mess of a first draft to “never edit as he write,” can be counterproductive because he’s the kind to get stuck when he goes to edit and gets overwhelmed with the workload, but encouraging a perfectionist to go back and read what she made might trap her in a vortex of rewrites of the first page.

Inexperienced writers won’t have the tools to “check the work” of the critic.

There’s a saying, “If you go on a hike, you don’t bring a hair dryer.” It means, “If your story doesn’t need it, then take it out.”

However, I find that saying to be idiotic. Of course you don’t bring a hair dryer on a hike. But do you bring a first-aid kit? Snacks? A book? The important part of the advice is being left out.

What is “necessary” is rarely cut and dried. What’s required for one individual isn’t for the next. The problem with that saying is that it skips the crux of the idea: What is the equivalent of weight in a story? The equivalent of a hair dryer? How do you know something isn’t necessary?

You don’t take a hair dryer on a hike because there’s no electrical outlet and you have to shoulder whatever poundage you pack. But that’s not really as understandable as in a book. Does a book have to be a certain word count? Why or why not? Does an interesting but non-progressive detail need to be removed? Why or why not? When and when not? What’s progressive? Why don’t we just stick to a summary and call it day?

When you’re dealing with a blank slate, they won’t have a lot of experience to understand what they don’t understand. All they know is there’s a section you thought they should cut, and saying, “It’s not necessary,” doesn’t really clarify the issue. What does not necessary even mean?

A lot of advice seems to believe if the writer is obedient, then all is well; eventually they’ll understand through application and make better decisions by themselves. I don’t agree. You learn why the rules are in place fastest and most effectively by experimentation and critical thinking. Over simplification and clever quips take us a step backwards. Obedient writers who are learning the rules for the first time need to discuss when to apply them and how to recognize it more than stubborn cynics and long term creators.

The problem is a lot of “experts” don’t necessarily understand the rules themselves.

One reason rule followers tend to lose credibility with me is because they are often using clich├ęs as a crutch, avoiding any actual analytical thinking on their own. Experienced writers are more inclined to put things in their own words and have personal stories to back up their reasons. The bossier and more simplistic someone is, the less they understand their opinions aren’t universal, the less prepared they are with informed alternative ideas. That tends to mean they haven’t questioned what they’re saying and genuinely don’t understand why they’re doing it.

If you can’t speculate what the opposition thinks, you haven’t really tried to understand the truth.

There’s also the issue of “I’m the exception and you’re not.” You can find people criticizing other authors in the same breath they defend themselves for the identical actions. Last year I followed a self-publisher who trashed talked other indies for writing their books in two weeks. He believed his self-published book was monetarily worth more than theirs because his work was professionally edited. However, even as this proved to be false by his own admission, his statuses evolving from glowing praise to irate complaints as he realized the vast number of errors that still existed, he didn’t change the price.

Some people do not practice what they preach, making it difficult for them to self-identify issues with their advice. Combine the new writers inability to check their work with this and you can see how some philosophies on writing are not only not useful, but can actually be damaging.

They solve the symptoms and not the problems.

Good dialogue tags do not create good dialogue. Neither does realism, a lack of grammar, or sentence fragments. Not necessarily, anyway.

Emotion creates good dialogue. Motivation. Personality. Attitude. Subtext. Telling a narrative instead of accurately depicting how two people in real life would tend to introduce themselves.

I mean, sure, you might decide the entire point of your book is to emulate real life in a way that most fiction doesn’t, and that’s a perfectly valid choice. But that’s kind of the point. How realistic, stylized, simple, or formal you are is about the voice you want. And yet, if you read most tips on how to improve dialogue, they talk about stylistic decisions and not the real reason your dialogue isn’t satisfying.

Every blog I’ve read about how to improve your dialogue starts with what tags you should use. Said? Asked? Smiled? Ejaculated?

My opinion? Shut the fuck up about dialogue tags. It is so down on the list that by the time you get to it, the problem will have already been solved without you neurotically fretting about them. No one is going to go from an awful writer to even a mediocre one if that’s their priority. Maybe mediocre to good, but that’s really only if they’re actually already decent at dialogue and they keep messing it up with bad descriptions—which is pretty uncommon in my experience.

You have bad dialogue? Don’t worry about how often you should use said or its synonyms. Do what feels right, tweak it as you go, and put your focus on the actual issue. Most importantly, by figuring out what the actual issue actually is.

This goes for most of the advice I hear. I find that people fixate on criticism that’s easy to give, not what’s relevant. Mostly because what’s relevant is complicated, subjective, and arguable. “You used an adverb.” You either did or you didn’t. That’s not much you can say to fight it, so that’s what they focus on. “The character is unlikable.” Well, does she need to be likeable? Does everyone find her not likable? There’s a lot more to be discussed.

Show don’t tell. Write what you know. Kill your darlings. Easy to remember. Sounds smart. Can quote a credible source. And, in many cases, it has a basis in truth that is hard to go wrong with.

But it’s not the important part. Why do we show and not tell? What is showing and what is telling? Why did the writer have the compulsion to tell, when does it apply and is there a way to ‘tell’ a good story?

You’ll note that you can take two people who adamantly fight for the same thing only to find that they completely disagree on the above questions. This is a good thing and helps us better understand the use of the advice, but it is important information that is often concealed by the adviser trying to be succinct and assertive.

Improving your writing is about asking the hard questions first, and not everyone knows how to do that.

I’ve found the vast majority of advice has some truth to it, but fails when people try to side-step the journey in favor of instantaneous answers. Who, what, when, where, why, and how are good questions to wonder about whenever anyone tells you how to improve yourself.

Who is this person who found this to be true?

Their history, their flaws, their talents, their tastes, and their relationship with you all factor in to the validity of the advice and the context in which it applies.

What do they actually intend by what they’re saying?

Follow their train of thought, consider their motives, make sure they mean what you heard.

When does this not apply?

No one believes a masterpiece comes from rule following, so why is it that this doesn’t always apply and how do you know?

Where do I apply it?

Most advice is useful in pieces, not whole. “Don’t ever write dialogue in full sentences” is incorrect. “Dialogue isn’t always in full sentences or with proper grammar” is accurate. So where do you chose to not have full sentences?

Why is this true?

Why do people prefer showing over telling? Why do people not like adverbs? What does a ‘said’ tag do that a synonym can’t?

How should I implement it?

You can cut characters, but which ones? You can kill your darlings, but what is a darling and what is an excellent piece of writing? Just because you agree with an idea, how you execute it is a separate question in itself.

Contrary to my rant, I am not saying writing rules are a bad thing, and there are many cases in which fixing a passage could be made easy just by abiding to these quick tips. But the conversation needs to go further than this, and no writer should get neurotically obsessed with obedience or even rebellion if they want to get a good job.

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