Category Archives: My Thoughts

Good Advice/Bad Advice

Most people will tell you there are two kinds of writing advice: Good Advice and Bad Advice. I’m here to tell you they’re the same thing.

Allow me to explain.

Let’s start with that ol’ “Kill Your Adverbs” chestnut. This is Good Advice. Adverbs, more often than not, are redundant. You don’t need to tell me the monkey screamed loudly. Screaming is, by its very nature, loud. Just let the monkey scream. We’ll cover our ears. Adverbs also tend to be evidence of lazy writing. If your context doesn’t reveal the protagonist’s anxiety, simply stating that he’s “pacing anxiously” because that’s what you want readers to imagine him doing will invariably feel like a cheat. “Kill Your Adverbs” is also Bad Advice. Some adverbs are actually quite pleasant, mannered and eager to please. Some writers (maybe you?) know how to wield adverbs in smart, clever ways. If you indiscriminately cut every word ending in “ly” out of adverbial fear, you might just kill your writing voice along with them (not to mention unintentional victims, such as the appropriately ironic, “ally”).

Surely “Show, Don’t Tell” is Good Advice. Right? Absolutely. Showing gives the reader a role to play in the story. Showing makes detectives of readers, providing them with contextual clues that lead them to discovery. There’s nothing more satisfying to a reader than discovery. When you engage readers in the space between the words, you tease them into an intimate relationship with the story. This is a Very Good Thing. Telling, on the other hand, steals the process of discovery. And stealing is a Very Bad Thing. Then again, “Show, Don’t Tell” is also Bad Advice. Simply stated – sometimes telling is exactly what’s needed on the page. It may be a matter of style, or a matter of voice. Perhaps telling is the best way to bring readers up to speed with a character or plot element. Telling isn’t inherently evil, and if you suddenly believe it is because someone on a blog somewhere said so in ALL CAPS, your writing might just suffer.

Let’s talk about prologues. Ugh. “Prologues Are Totally Unnecessary.” They are. You don’t need to tell me what you’re going to say. You don’t need to tell me what happened a hundred years ago. Just get to it. Throw the reader into the middle of the action. (And you can forget the “Famous Author Uses Prologues” argument. Famous Author is already published. You’re not Famous Author.) Besides, we all know that most agents hate prologues. Why shoot yourself in the foot before you even get one in the door? “Prologues Are Totally Unnecessary” is also Bad Advice. Your novel may be ten times better because of a prologue. A prologue might provide exactly the sort of tease or historical context to make the rest of the story shine. If your novel suffers without it, you need one. Cutting it simply because someone told you prologues are bad is a bad idea.

I could go on (even “Love Your Readers” can be bad advice), but I’m sure you get the point. Sometimes good advice is good, sometimes good advice is bad. So how do you know the difference? Well, that’s the trick, isn’t it. Here’s a clue – if your primary goal is to be published, you’re in a precarious position. You’ll be tempted to follow any ALL CAPS advice that claims to increase your chances of publication, whether or not your writing benefits. However, if your primary goal is to become a better writer, you won’t feel quite so much pressure to follow that advice, because you’re still discovering your voice, you’re still sorting through who you are on the page. This takes time, by the way. There may be shortcuts to publication (hey, it happens), but there are no shortcuts to becoming a better writer. There is just writing.

I suppose I should close this post with some kind of summary. Fine. Let’s play with the original statement a bit. Feel free to put this on a t-shirt:

There are two kinds of writing advice: the kind that works for you and the kind that doesn’t. Listen to the former.

Welcome to the Club

Sometimes I watch the Twitter-stream and think the New Digital World is a beautiful place. A place of generosity. A place of kindness. In the Sometimes you can almost hear people listening, nodding, patiently waiting their turn to add to the chorus. In the Sometimes, the digital shell dissolves and we’re in a small room together, face to face.

You mention a book. I say I know that book. You say isn’t it the best? I say it’s brilliant.

I sip my orange juice (it’s morning here). You sip your wine (it’s evening there).

How’s that novel of yours coming along? you ask. Slowly, I answer.

Loved your last blog post, I say. I needed to hear that today, you say.

I sip my orange juice. You sip your wine.

We quietly slip back into our lives.

And then there are the Othertimes. In the Othertimes the New Digital World is an ugly place. A place of easy exclusion. A place of selfishness. In the Othertimes I hear silent pronouncements, judgments, snide asides. In the Othertimes the digital shell becomes a wall and we’re only in a room together if I qualify.

You haven’t read Faulkner? Exluded.

You’ve read Twilight? Really? Excluded.

You don’t have an MFA? Excluded.

You don’t have a book deal? I mean a real book deal? Excluded.

It’s pledge week and you weren’t invited. It’s high school and you aren’t cool enough. It’s junior high and you buy your jeans at WalMart.

Oh, there is a cursory kindness. And there are moments when the wall comes down – but instead of a small room it often reveals a stage and they’re on it and you’re not.

In the Othertimes, an excluded novelist (blogger, agent, editor) smiles politely, accepts the Otherness and continues on. But there remains an ache. We don’t want to examine it for fear it’s stamped “jealousy,” but it’s there. Instead, we wave it off as nothing or employ a familiar safety protocol: cognitive dissonance.

We didn’t like that club anyway. They’re snobs. They’re elitists.

They’re successful.

Okay, maybe we do like that club.

A little.

Or a lot.

Maybe we wish we were invited to their literary soirees and their Seurat picnics and their balconies overlooking the sunset Seine. Or maybe we just wish we could sit in a small room and talk face to face. Have you read The Last Letter From Your Lover by Jojo Moyes? you might ask, and you wouldn’t change your opinion no matter what they said; you would say how much you loved it.

They would sip their champagne. You would sip their champagne.

No. You don’t like champagne.

You would sip your tea.

And you would feel better. Cooler.

Accepted.

Would you?

Or you could forget about the Othertimes. Ignore them. Glide right through them. Perhaps you could stop, look around, and realize you’re already in a pretty good club. A club that matters.

Do you write? You qualify. Do you edit? You qualify. Are you an agent? A blogger? You’re in.

Have a seat. We talk about books here. Books and writing and publishing. And chocolate.

We don’t care how many followers you have or where you live or what you’re wearing. You can even use adverbs and sentence fragments here. Freely.

Sometimes the New Digital World is a beautiful place.

Like right now.

So…how’s that novel of yours coming along?

The Worst Book Ever. Or Not.

“Coldplay sucks!”

I had my car window open (as required between blizzards by Colorado law). Mylo Xyloto was playing on a recently-purchased stereo that had doubled* the value of my 2000 Jetta.

I didn’t see who shouted it. Probably not the elderly woman on the sidewalk who was attached by a taut pink leash to a matching taut pink poodle. And surely not the five-year-old doing donuts on his Big Wheel in the driveway across the street.

It’s a pretty safe bet the Chris Martin hate came from someone in the huddle of teenagers admiring their generation’s ironic muscle car, a tricked out Scion tC.

I ignored the shout and passed through the Norman Rockwell scene with a vehicular shrug. (The Jetta’s suspension needs work.) But a block later I turned the volume down from 25 to 18. I told myself this was because I didn’t want to cause [further] damage to my eardrums. I even imagined calling over my shoulder, “Thanks, random hoodie-wearing teenager. I will embrace your astute observation as free healthcare.”

There’s no such thing as free healthcare. And I wasn’t concerned about my eardrums.

like listening to Mylo Xyloto with the volume at 25. Yet after hearing “Coldplay sucks!” apparently I felt 28 percent less confident of this.

I have friends who love the Twilight books. If the Twilight books were people, these friends would marry them. Or at least stalk them obsessively. Now let’s face it, you don’t have to drive down many streets before hearing shouts of “Twilight sucks!” This makes me wonder, do people who like the Twilight books** ever turn down the volume because of the shouting? What if the shout comes from a trusted friend? Or a trusted stranger who goes by the pretentious nom de plume, “noveldoctor”?

I haven’t yelled “Twilight sucks!” on this blog, but I might have made an oblique reference or two about my lack of personal love for Bella and Ed’s Excellent Adventure. (Like that, for instance.) If I’ve caused any of you to turn down the volume, I apologize. I believe strongly in value of literary (and musical) criticism, but yelling “Twilight sucks!” is not criticism. That’s just being rude.

My taste in music and books is different from yours. I’m okay with that. In fact, I celebrate it. If everyone loved the things I loved, you’d all be my soulmates. I live in a small apartment. I only have room for one soulmate. (I know she’s out there somewhere, though the restraining order remains an obstacle.)

I can’t always tell you why I don’t like something. Maybe it’s repetitive themes. Or predictable chord progressions. Maybe it’s paper thin characters or a reed thin voice. Given ample time and motivation I think I could wear the tweed jacket and smoke the tobaccoed pipe of a reasonably skilled critic and explain in more detail. But I don’t look good in tweed.

can tell you why I like Coldplay. Or books by Alice Hoffman. Or the color and smell and mystery of actual twilight, if not the book. I like these things because they remind me of a secret language I only remember when someone leads me to it. I like them because they break me into pieces or put me back together. I like them for the space between the words and for the unresolved chords.

I like these things because they linger.

That doesn’t make me a good judge of what you should or shouldn’t like. It just makes me…me.

There’s only one opinion that matters when you read, listen, watch. Yours. If you enjoy artful criticism, go ahead and soak up all you want. Then heed it or don’t.

But when you find something you love, keep the volume at 25. Don’t let someone make you feel “less” just because they don’t agree with you.

And then be thankful for the guy who can’t get enough of ABBA. Don’t shout “ABBA sucks!” Let him play it at 25.

Because honestly, do you really want that guy to be your soulmate?

 

*The stereo cost under $200. You do the math.

**I’m not just talking about Twilight. You did know that, right?


A Word, Please

Think of a word you don’t like - one that makes you squirm. Sure, it could be a common word like “moist” or “chalky,” but choose something edgier – something you almost never say in real life.

Got it? Okay, have a seat. Your word would like to have a word with you.

Word: Hey.

You: Um…hey?

Word: Do you know why you’re here?

You: Not exactly.

Word: We need to talk about me.

You: I don’t think we do.

Word: Oh, right. This is where you tell me you don’t need me; that you never need me.

You: Um…yeah. Something like that.

Word: Because there are millions of words out there and you don’t have to use any you don’t want to. Is that it?

You: Yup.

Word: What if I’m the right word?

You: I don’t believe in “right” words.

Word: Oh really. Didn’t you struggle for hours yesterday to find “the right word” to describe your protagonist’s hair?

You: That’s different.

Word: How is that different?

You: I liked the word I found.

Word: Chestnut. It’s a fine word. But why not badger or mudpie or UPS-uniform?

You: UPS-uniform isn’t a word. Chestnut was the right word.

Word: Sometimes I am, too.

You: But I don’t like you. That’s why I have a thesaurus.

Word: So, instead of “shit” you might say “crap.” Something like that?

You: Sure.

Word: Do you like writing?

You: Of course I like writing.

Word: Do you like good stories?

You: Now you’re just wasting my time. Get to the point. There are only so many hours in the day and I have a dozen blogs to read and then I need some pondering time before making a new pot of coffee so I can consider writing more of my novel if the mood hits me while I’m staring at the blinking cursor.

Word: What if I’m the right word?

You: You already said that.

Word: Fine. I’ll reword it. What if the story demands me?

You: I already told you. I’d just choose something else.

Word: You’ll compromise the story, then. You’ll talk about your hero’s badger hair because chestnut gives you the heebie-jeebies.

You: Yes. I mean no! Now you’re just trying to trick me.

Word: Look, sometimes stories ask you to do difficult things. Sometimes they demand a word you don’t like or a plot twist you find distasteful. Maybe they want you to reveal an ugly truth about a character. Sure, you have a choice. You can replace all the shit with crap. You can ignore the slutty actions of your protagonist because you don’t like slutty protagonist actions. You can coddle and mollify and adjust and fix and tweak your story until it’s free of stuff that makes you uncomfortable. Or you can just tell the truth.

You: You’re making too much of this. I can tell the truth however I want.

Word: Okay. Tell a story about a writer who hates me.

You: Nice try. You want me to use you in a sentence. Besides, that’s different.

Word: How?

You: That’s not the story I’m writing.

Word: Then look at the story you are writing. Are all the characters in it you?

You: Of course not.

Word: Do they all believe exactly what you do? Do they despise the same words you do?

You: Um…no.

Word: Then how are you going to let them tell their story if all they have are your words? Use their words. Tell their truth. The story deserves it. Your readers deserve it.

You: But…

Word: Or don’t. It’s your funeral. I mean your story. But don’t come crying to me if you end up with a shitty story.

You: A crappy story.

Word: Whatever.

Sometimes stories ask you to do difficult things. Do them.

Absent Brilliance

Brilliance isn’t something you can buy for yourself. You can only receive it as a gift.

Some writers – I’d call them The Lucky Ones except for the fact that their brilliance is usually accompanied by a corresponding (and non-returnable) insanity – are granted the gift by the gods. Or The God. Or the universe. Or fate. (Pick one.)

They’re born with it.

They can’t deny it. They can’t escape it. It is woven into their being. Tell them to write something bad, they’ll try, and brilliance will whisper in the words they choose to leave out.

The naturally brilliant are not perfect. Far from it. But there is an innate and immutable beauty to their imperfection. They know this. They breathe it. They choke on it. The imperfection is where they find the best stories.

Then there are those who aren’t born with brilliance, but are awarded the next best thing: the Badge of Brilliance. Maybe someone gives it to them for a short story. Perhaps they get it for a novel. Or a blog post. They might get it once or a dozen times. It’s given to them by strangers and friends, by the well-informed and the uniformed alike. It means the most when the badge comes from someone they respect, like another writer. A brilliant one, preferably. Some who are given the badge are too humble to wear it so they stuff it in a purse or a pocket. Others display it like a neon sign.

There’s a third group and it’s a Very Big Group. It consists of people who weren’t born with brilliance, and who haven’t been given the badge.

Yet.

Ah yes, the Yet.

The Yet can be a motivator. Who doesn’t want to be called brilliant? Even those who would ultimately stuff the badge in a purse or a pocket want it. Brilliance is a writer’s brass ring. And so those who haven’t touched it (or those who want to touch it again) work hard to earn it. They read and write and study and hone their craft in pursuit of it.

The Yet can also be a monster. What if brilliance continues to elude them? What then? They become discouraged. Confidence dwindles. The dream crumbles. Writing just isn’t fun anymore.

Maybe you weren’t born brilliant. Maybe you’ll never wear the badge. So what?

Are you writing? Are you telling the stories you want to tell? Are you trying to become the best writer you can be?

Then here’s some good news: You can find happiness and fulfillment and success and maybe even wild success without having been called brilliant once. Because even absent brilliance, you are still the only person who writes like you. And there are people out there who happen to like the way you write. Or will.

I think that’s brilliant.