We are told to read to see how pros write but a good portion of the time they use techniques I get slapped down for using. I'm not talking about how just one or two write but a dozen or so will use the same technique but it's one we are told not to use.
I have a theory that writers are the worst (most severe) critiquers. We are looking for something to be wrong because it trains us in our own writing. The things I find wrong in someone else's work I look or already have looked in my own for.
The problem is that the successful writer is being successful because his fans (non-writers primarily) like his work so his bad technique works. But when a writer goes to another writer they'll get hammered for that technique like you're saying because we've been trained to think of it as wrong.
I'm getting to a place where I'm willing to accept certain criticisms as "valid" but at the same time I'm not going to change the story because this is the story I wanted to write. And I'll let the non-writers decide whether it is effective.
Makes me think of C.S. Lewis and how Tolkien and the other Inklings didn't think he should publish the Chronicles of Narnia. I can see why, Narnia is a completely different kind of story (childrens) from say Lord of the Rings (adult, "high fantasy"). But it was the story Lewis wanted to write, and people loved him for it.
I should add one thing. I didn't mean to imply that these techniques were bad. I think in some cases a certain technique adds to the story. Which is one reason I want to use it.
Sometimes they probably are bad but not always. And I'm not just talking about pros that have been around for years who may have gotten lazy but even those that have only a few books out. Some of them have won awards for writing but I still get told editors do not go for that technique.
[This message has been edited by LDWriter2 (edited June 30, 2011).]
I was noticing this the other day when reading a lifelong favorite fantasy author of mine. If *I* were to write a story like she does, an agent would read it and say, "Too wordy."
Posts: 223 | Registered: Sep 2007
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It could also be an expectation issue. If you know this writer is wordy and you picked it up for the writer then you won't be bothered. Whereas an editor needs to sell something that has broad spectrum appeal for a newb. Posts: 336 | Registered: Jan 2011
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Honestly, you can do whatever you want. The idea behind the "rules" is that you don't abuse certain things. I think they come from a lot of novice writers not thinking carefully enough about their prose.
Avoid Adverbs- Many times adverbs are used when they aren't needed. Sometimes strong verbs can replace the adverb verb combo. A lot of time they are repetitive. Every word should be carefully chosen and able to justify it's existence. You can use adverbs, just make sure it is really necessary.
show don't tell Showing usually draws the reader into the story and helps them emphasize more with the character. Go ahead and tell when you don't want this affect.
Cliche openings So many beginning writers use certain beginnings that editors find them annoying. Such us walking up. Usually there is a better place to start the story. It is always a good idea to think carefully about where your story should start. If waking up is the best place for your story to start and no other beginning could work, then that is where it should start.
I could go on and on, but my point is that ANYONE can break the "rules." You just need to do it for a good reason.
The "rules" are really just common mistakes that beginning writers make that detract from the story. I am so thankful that these "rules" exist and that I have become aware of them. I made every stupid mistake in the book when I first started, and after I learned these "rules" my writing has become so much better.
Of course I break the "rules" now and again, but now I do so purposely and not accidentally. There is a big difference.
When critiquers point out a broken rule, they are either a) making sure you are aware of the rule, or b) telling you that it didn't work for them. But it is up to you to decide if you should change it or not. It is your story.
[This message has been edited by MAP (edited June 30, 2011).]
I think MAP's spot on. An easy way to reconsider the whole issue is to rethink of the term 'rule' as just something that 'risks the reader stops reading'.
Then, if you write in first person and kill off the pov character, your critiquer says: "I stopped reading here," you read "this technique can lose a reader." "The first person pov dying threw me," you read "this technique can lose a reader." "You can't kill a first person character, that's against the rules; you don't know how to write and should read my favourite book X on writing," you read "this technique can lose a reader." Oh, and you get another critiquer.
In any case, you just evaluate whether you really know why it doesn't work (hence, 'the rule'). If you know why it often doesn't work, and you can work around that, then go for it.
At the moment I'm working on a multiple-pov story in which I'll head-hop mid scene. Some people will say you shouldn't do that (as a new writer) and I can see why - the draft occasionally fails hard. But I can at least spot those occasions by now. And when it works... wow.
It's not just novice writers that say it. My frustration over this matter started with an assistant editor who worked for Baen Universe and now works with whatever they call it now. She works with new writers on a special forum operated by Baen. Or did six to twelve months ago.
And it's been repeated by writers who have a few stories sold. As well as novices.
I know a couple of long time pros who say either there are no rules or just a few and you should break them as soon as you learn them but not until you do learn them.
Of course it doesn't help that no matter what I do with rules I still don't get the attention of editors. Beyond maybe a very slight bit of interest now and then.
Adverbs are a *part of speech.* - this is my particular annoyance. readers don't notice them in the slightest, but every single writer will notice every single instance. Sure, some are lazy cheats, but so is summing up the last two months of action by saying "They found themselves in June, still on the road to Morgnana and still hot, still dusty." Or whatever. There are workarounds for everything.
I'm reading a book right now with almost no conflict and I *LOVE* it - crazy love it. It's so great! There's not this artificial "the main character gets kicked in the teeth, and then his puppy dies!" baloney that so many stories focus on. It's an adventure story. Things occasionally go awry, but mostly the MC does well with the challenges and likes his fellow adventurers. So refreshing, I might just read it again once I finish!
There's a reader out there for every type of story there is. How many readers is the only big question...
And the specific word "suddenly": it's a great word. You know, sometimes, things do happen in an instant. A character gets hit over the head with something she's been blind to until that very second. So, SUDDENLY, she sees what she's been missing. Or says what's been needing to be said. Or stops dead in her tracks. Leave out the word, and you lessen the impact.
Now, yeah, if I suddenly started using the word suddenly, like, every sentence, I'd suddenly find myself without any readers. Suddenly, I'd be wondering where I suddenly went wrong. But, dang, folks, adverbs are like everything else: use moderation, and make them really count. Use them where NOT using them makes the story flatter.
Rules are meant to be broken. Beat em, kick em, squish them.
I feel your pain. What I realized once I accepted that no published author that I would want to read follows the rules I decided not to worry so much about them. Now, I still haven't attracted editors or agents, not just because of my skills or lack of, but also I dont submit nearly enough.
My point this, Since giving more liberties in my writing, I have found reading more fun. Where only 2 years ago I never finished a book, I find myself reading 1-2 a week now, and enjoying them.
As far as what it has done for my writing, it has freed it up again. I feel I have again found my voice.
Pros are pros because you trust them to write good stuff, regardless of the rules.
If Stephen King starts a book with "Kilroy Jigglehead awoke to the sound of thunder." I'm going to keep reading. If Dustin Adams starts a story the same way I'm going to throw that book across the room and ask why some noob would have the audacity to think he can start a story that way.
My mother gave me some great advice before taking my driving test. She said "learn the rules, follow them, take the test, then drive how you want."
I believe writing is the same way. If you demonstrate to a publisher you know the rules, they'll be there at the door to greet you. "You know the rules, oh, great, we can trust you, come on in."
After you're inside, break em all you want.
Also, I think a lot depends on what rules you break. Look at John Steakley's ARMOR. There's all kinds of broken rules in that one. Mostly run on sentences. But ask yourself if you mind. That was his first novel, and it's still in print after 30 years.
Which brings me to my other observation of rule breaking. If your story is great, your characters legendary, a proper editor will help fix your broken rules and get your work out to the world.
Consider Danny DeVito. He is not attractive, tall, in shape, his voice sounds like gravel, and yet he's had consistent work in the most fickle of all industries. Why? The dude is compelling.
I've just about given up on some writers who've abused my tolerance for bad writing---Stephen King among them. He's done too much bad work for me to risk dipping into anything he'll do in the future. (I will, however, content myself with his older work, things I already know I like.)
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quote:At the moment I'm working on a multiple-pov story in which I'll head-hop mid scene.
I did this all the time in my earlier writings. Then, I found out it was against the rules, so I stopped doing it.
Almost immediately, I began growing frustrated with how I was no longer able to tell the story in the way I thought was best.
Over time, I came to the conclusion that rules are for those who are learning the ropes of writing, and that, once you've become proficient at those rules, the next great challenge is becoming proficient at mangling them in ways that allow you to tell your story the way you want it told. With my current works-in-progress, I've not had the need to break this particular rule, but I know me...it will happen.
There is a certain aspect in rule-breaking that creates 'uniqueness'. Danny DeVito is unique. If there were a bunch of really short, really brusque actors in the movies, his attraction would fade. But there isn't, so there is a market for him.
If you create a unique product (story style, voice, etc.) and it catches on, then you can achieve success. This is despite the fact that part of your voice or uniqueness breaks the rules. In fact, by the definition of uniqueness, it just about has to.
[This message has been edited by Owasm (edited July 01, 2011).]
Owasm, I agree he is unique. I watch him because he is there, in those roles that require his uniqueness, but that's not why I like him. He could be anyone yes, but he makes it work because he is him.
If you can tell a Good Story, the techniques you use will not matter as much.
If you spend all of your time worrying about your technique and not about telling a Good Story, you may not ever sell anything, no matter how many rules you follow correctly.
Writers who continue to sell and who sell well have provided enough Good Stories to their readers that the readers are willing to ignore poor technique because they trust those writers (ex: Stephen King) to deliver a Good Story and they will put up with sloppy writing and lazy technique in order to enjoy the Good Story.
So, the biggest SELLING rule of all may not have anything to do with technique, except that it's a rule that explains why pros get away with breaking technique rules.
And that SELLING rule?
A grabs-you-by-the-throat-and-never-lets-you-go story can overcome a multitude of technique flaws and will sell long before the most perfectly-techniqued-but-flat story out there.
I take it like this. If you can enjoy reading your own story, then it must be good, otherwise you wouldn't have written it. It may not float somebody else's boat, but then there are probably some out there who would like it.
Not everybody likes Stephen King. I love The Stand, but can't get into the gunslinger novels. I do like to check out the books at the local Dollar General stores in my area. They may not have much selection, but every once in a while, i'll get a book by somebody i've never heard of, and it's a damn good book.
Well, with Stephen King, it's difficult to point to just one thing that soured me on him...I think maybe it was his column in Entertainment Weekly, where he recommended things that (1) mostly I never heard of, and (2) when I had heard of it, it was definitely something I didn't like. Besides that, I thought he displayed an unattractive arrogance I hadn't noticed before. (Or maybe it was that mystery novel where he didn't bother to solve the mystery.) His work has always been kind of overweight...I remember a reviewer, way back, saying something like "How do you tell a guy who's sold so much that his work needs cutting?"
I'm not sure what constitutes "flaws" in a story these days. I had occasion to reread an issue of F & SF from 1968...the fiction consisted of four short stories and two novelettes...and, for the life of me, I can't figure out why the editor bought any of them. They all seem pretty, well, bad. They were all by relatively-well-known names (one is a translation), some of whom have written some stuff I've really liked. I even remember liking one of the stories...but I sure don't now...
If you don't have a great story, you risk boring your reader, and that is fatal.
Remember, as a writer of fiction, you are also an entertainer. When you create a novel, you have to give the reader a reason to read.
As for technique, the best writers make the words disappear and the story come alive. Once you do that, you can get away with lots of technical errors (well, not really - a well-written good story beats a badly written good story every time).
An example of a good story that has lots of writing errors is Mary Doria Russell's 'Sparrow.' A damn good yarn.