It occurred to me that my three most recent Ed’s Casual Friday posts were all basically “writing advice” things; one about “cinematic” elements, one about naming characters, and one about exposition. Looking back over all three, it struck me that I felt the need to start each with a proviso about my lack of fondness for “how-to” writing advice. The disclaimers went something like this:
Let me first fully acknowledge that I subscribe to the Different Strokes school of literary advice, inasmuch as “What might be right for you, may not be right for some.”
– Book v. Movie, Steel-Cage Death Match, 8/24/12
(I)f anybody knew anything about any aspect of writing that was true in all times and places, I feel like I would have seen it in my facebook newsfeed by now.
– What’s in a name, Jar Jar? 8/17/10
(T)his post should be read with your “tongue-in-cheek” detector on its highest setting.
– Ed’s Really Bad Writing Advice: Exposition, 8/10/12
Of course immediately after each disclaimer, I went on to give writing advice, mix in a joke, little soft-shoe maybe, then exit stage left. At this point however, it seems like I should lay out my thoughts on writing advice in somewhat greater detail. I am not talking here about the grammar rules of the English language, but only about that “do this/don’t do that” sort of wisdom.
First, it’s all nonsense. If there was a set bunch of rules that any person could employ, then everybody could write a book. And you know what? Not everybody can.
Second, writers giving you writing advice don’t always follow it rigidly themselves. Stephen King says not to use adverbs, right? Have you ever read a Stephen King book without an adverb? Not if you’ve read a Stephen King book, you haven’t. Besides that, Strunk and White said it before King (they also said not to use adjectives, by the way), and Mark Twain said it before any of those other guys. And guess what? Twain used adverbs too, when they were the right word to use. Get over it.
Third, genre definitions do not depend solely on plot elements, like whether or not there are werewolves in a book, or if the story takes place in Cedar Falls, IA, or on Mars. Different narrative elements tend to be more or less prevalent in different genres. If your action-packed Thriller uses long flowery language, or your sprawling, epic Fantasy uses only short, clipped, subject-verb-object sentences, readers accustomed to the norms of either genre are going to think you don’t know what you‘re doing. No “how-to write” advice is going to apply the same way to every potential kind of literature.
Four. Some readers just like certain things more than others. Some can escape into a world that would bore others to tears. Some books are going to be too complex to interest some readers, and some are going to be too simple to interest others. That’s life.
Five, the very thing that makes the work of different authors interesting to read is their differences. No one reader has only one author that they like, most have several “favorites,” and often-as-not those favorites can run the gamut of genre or style or substance. Nobody’s favorite authors are following exactly the same rules, which means that there is no single rule that is going to yield something that will appeal even to one single reader every single time. That rule just isn’t out there, not even: “Just write a good book,” is reliable. Look at a bestseller list sometime and judge whether or not, according to your own opinions, every book on it fits your own definition of “good.”
So what does that leave me with, and why do I even bother with posts that are, after all, offering writing advice?
Only because I do believe that all of us, as writers, only grow our own skills by trying new things. If there is some bit of writing advice that sounds interesting and/or useful to me, maybe I will noodle around with it in the next thing I’m working on, just to see if it leads me somewhere. To try something I haven’t tried before, maybe to tell the story in a slightly different way than I have grown comfortable doing. As the sort of writer I am, I don’t feel like I can amuse a reader if I am not amusing myself first, so that is what I will try to do. But if a “rule” doesn’t work for me, I discard it and go on. And if someone later says, “you broke a rule there,” I feel sort of bad for them. Because I’m pretty sure their own writing would bore me to tears.
In closing as usual, another genuine one-star book rating, from a reader who really didn’t like a particular book. Like I keep saying, different strokes.
“I detest all Dr Seuss books.”
– How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss