I am genuinely amazed when I read what people write about writing. The most amusingly ponderous rules that must be followed or else, the litany of “errors” and “mistakes” that fall like the shredded manuscripts of olde upon the fires of despair, and always, without fail, the invariable “In my book, Ostentatious Title, …” plug, all cast with abandon to the masses, who bobble their heads in agreement.
- Write a thousand words a day!
- Generally never use any adverbs!
- For God’s sake, never, ever write a prologue!
- Passive voice should be avoided!
- Never have a character look into a mirror!
The list goes on ad nauseam, and the heads bobble sans surcease. Invariably all the participants of the discussion talk about the things they want to write, and how they know far better than to indulge in any of the horrendous mistakes being discussed (And sometimes venture into discussion about how authors of the classics were fairly terrible, and never followed the rules…).
Reading their comments, I’m struck by a simple fact: These people don’t read to enjoy, and it’s possible they never did once they began to dissect their own work and that of others. Likewise, they write with a scientific precision and planning, and each element is sculpted to fill its exact niche to grant the perfect proportion of every critical rule. There are millions of adequate authors writing (and often never finishing) adequately boring, derivative stories that they desperately hope will bring them fame and fortune.
They don’t lay awake at night and dream of telling stories.
Following the rules won’t save bad storytelling. I would rather read an inventive, interesting, poorly-crafted story than any number of technically precise, adverb-free, spare, unfinished pieces of (in my mind) trash.
Errors of writing occur on many levels, and the writing-club types only focus on the facets most able to be reduced to simple rules…but every layer is important!
If you don’t have a good story, don’t waste my time. Don’t ask about rules, because there are no templates for a good story. It either moves you—and will move me, the reader—or it doesn’t. If it moves you and doesn’t move me, then perhaps the failure is on the next layer…
The way you go about telling a story is critical. Pace, flow, characterizations, consistency, narrative voice, rhythm, setting … this is where the true art of writing comes in, in my opinion… and it is where almost all authors fail. It’s not enough to just avoid common tropes (Many of which needn’t be avoided if their use is not simply a product of laziness that compromises the story!) and have a solid plot. This is the magic—the layer where you ensorcel the reader with your story, and make them believe.
The flow and structure of sentences, dialog, and sequence flow dictates the way the reader perceives the scene. What works for some readers won’t work for others, and there are no absolutes here. This, along with ‘Telling’, is the biggest element in the ‘fingerprint’ of a writer, and the area where one has the most artistic freedom of method.
Only now do we get into the sections that people spend most of their time talking about! Vocabulary, while necessarily subordinate to mechanics, is critical to ensure the rhythmic flow remains strong. It takes a tremendous creative mind to craft an effective ballad with only eighth notes, and even then it wears on the listener after a time. Replacing adverbs, limiting adjective use, etc. all falls into this section… but really, how you write isn’t nearly as important as what you write, and if you sell the story to the reader, only the critics will care that Josephine muttered something darkly. Having an adequate vocabulary mostly aids in keeping the reader immersed in your story, as does proper…
Obviously grammar is important. If we think of a written work as a tapestry, grammar would be the thread. All but the most brilliant work will fall flat if the reader can’t read through the errors. Proper grammar is critical to maintaining immersion, because while we can read past a surprising number of errors, misspellings, improper homophones, grocers’ apostrophes, and use of words that don’t actually mean quite what the author intended*, the cumulative effect is that the reader is reading at a lower depth of immersion … and immersion is critical!
Now that I’ve made a short story long, here’s my summation: As fiction authors, we’re not journalists trying to maintain style. We’re not in academia. We’re not writing a section of a technical manual and working toward uniformity. We’re trying to lure people in, steal their consciousness away and drown them in our dream until they’re reborn to live in our world, alongside our characters.
Not everyone will be able do that…but almost everyone has the capacity. To build the skills, however, one must read. Hotly devour! Not to study and analyze, but read and enjoy. And then, when they have a story to tell, one that consumes them, one that they want to bring others into…they must write what they’d want to read, take risks, weigh the opinions of others and then ultimately follow their heart.
The “rules” of writing don’t exist to be broken—they exist to be ignored.
* Sidebar: If you’re going to use a $10 word where a $5 word will do, AT LEAST USE IT CORRECTLY.