Jacqueline West, Writer

Bestselling author of The Books of Elsewhere and Dreamers Often Lie

Some writerly advice should be ignored (she muttered obstinately)

August 24, 2012    Tags: , ,   

Just finished a round of line edits on my second/third/eleventy-hundredth  draft of Volume Four.  Generally, when I revise, I try to look at my work as a reader rather than as a writer–I pare down sentences, I pay attention to sound and rhythm, I look for logic holes, I think about pacing–but this time, perhaps because of some recent blog-surfing, a few particular writing “guidelines” kept looming up in my mind.

People are always asking writers for writing advice, and writers are always giving writing advice.  Often this advice is contradictory, but a few conclusions seem to be ubiquitous these days.  Conclusions like these:

Adverbs are bad.

– The word ‘suddenly’ is especially bad.

– Using synonyms for ‘said’ is bad.

– Using lots of adjectives is bad.

Boo, I say to all of this.  (And I say it like the old woman shouting at Buttercup in The Princess Bride.  Bow down to her!  The queen of filth!  The queen of putrescence!) Boo.

There’s a core of truth to all of these suggestions, of course.  But the problem with so many rules like these is that they deal with stylistic choices.  And style is individual, it’s subjective…and stylistic rules are often arbitrary.  Saying that adverbs are evil is like declaring that painters shouldn’t use pale yellow–or, if they do use it, it should be used sparingly (adverb!).  I say, if that pale yellow speaks to you, or speaks for you, you should probably use it.  Maybe you should even use it lavishly, wildly, and unrepentantly (adverb, adverb, adverb!).

I just read a blog in which a writer/teacher complained that writers tend to describe the actions of their characters’ eyes too much–that they are always looking, staring, watching, blinking, gazing. Well, yes.  They are.  Unless they are blind, your characters will always be doing something with their eyes.  Do you have to describe what they are doing at every second?  Heck, no.  If it makes sense for your story, or your style, or if it conveys a character’s thoughts/feelings/attitude, should you use it?  Yes.  (I had to tell myself this, because simply reading that blog made every bit of eye-related action leap distractingly off of the page at me as I went through my latest draft.)

If you subscribe to any single source of advice, you will start to write to please that source.  We’ve all done this: You have a teacher who says you can’t start a sentence with a preposition; you stop starting sentences with prepositions.  You have a teacher who circles every form of the verb ‘to be’ in your writing, and suddenly your work is crammed with interesting action words.   A professor who sneers at similes?–Similes gone.  The style of your writing changes.  And maybe the style it changes to isn’t really yours anymore.

Here’s a piece of writing advice that I wholeheartedly believe, and it comes from Neil Gaiman: Remember, when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right.  When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.

So, sweeping, prohibitive writing advice?  Use it cautiously (adverb).

This is one more New Orleans photo–one of my favorite tomb angels in Metairie Cemetery.  I love it because the book in her lap looks much more like a novel than a bible, and the expression on her face isn’t mournful or transcendent, it’s just vaguely bored.




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