Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Advice: Don't Always Take the Advice of Experts

I read a lot of writing tips, and as you might have noticed by now I even write a few. My credentials might be slimmer than some of the other folks who tell you what to do and what not to do when it comes to writing, but I've been writing fiction for a long time and I have sat at the feet of some of the best. So here is my advice for what it is worth: do not always heed writing tips.

One of the most common tips for beginning writers is to trim out the fat, kill your darlings, and stick to the action. On the surface this is a great piece of advice. After all modern readers get bored quickly in our micro-blogging and text messaging age and beginning writers often make the mistake of including lots of dull and go nowhere description. But if you go back the basics and actually read the classics you will find that some of the most beautiful and inspiring passages of fiction are spent in consideration of a landscape, or describing the interior of a room, or even the rambling thoughts of the author suddenly intruding. Most of that wonderful description would be marked with red pencil and be left on the floor by conscientious modern editors getting to the action.

So if it's going to be cut - why include it? First of all there are other ways to get published these days, but second of all just the act of writing it can be a learning experience. Third of all if you're an artist you just might succeed in getting that description to be essential to the heart of your story and get it past the well meaning editors. We're not all meant to be mean, clean and spare as Elmore Leonard.

Don't add fillips of deathless prose description just for filler, and don't get caught up in something so mundane that it serves zero purpose, but do remember that you're painting a picture in your reader's mind. There is an art to what to reveal and what to conceal. You might well leave out detailed descriptions your character's appearance, but create a deep visual of their bedroom or workspace:

Scattered on Wyatt's desk were discarded pistachio shells. Weaving in and out of a tangle of electronic wires were opened bills, read then jammed into available spaces to be ignored. In a green glass bowl of pebbles laid the thick silver band he usually wore.

This tells us more about Wyatt than any description of his commanding brown eyes, agile capable fingers, or manly chest would ever do. There is a purpose to the description - to show us a bit about who Wyatt is without resorting to language like: "Wyatt was a slob, and never threw away or filed his bills. He loved eating pistachio nuts. He always took his ring off when working because it was too tight."

The best advice on writing is always from the best writers. If you want to know how to write, read and read from the best. Examine their novels, short stories, poetry. Take it apart to see what makes it tick. Ask your self questions as you read. Read it twice. The first time should always be for the sheer pleasure of it, but then read it again and tease it apart to see how that writer kept you enthralled and engrossed. How did they break the rules and get away with it? How did the flights of seemingly irrelevant description or musings on the meaning of life actually enliven the piece for you, or would you have used the red pencil there (not all great writers are infallible)? Writing tips are a place to get started, but don't let them mold you into a boring pedestrian writer that has no voice of your own.

And you know what else? It's ok if you write a few books before anyone ever wants to read them. Like any other art form else there is an apprenticeship to writing.

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