Thursday, 22 March 2012

Bad Advice For Writers

Most advice given to writers is generic and basic. This is because most aspiring writers make the same basic mistakes. But then most aspiring writers never finish the story they're writing. And most of the ones that do finish, never get round to doing a rewrite. And if you happen to be one of the few who do manage to persevere and are serious about producing a book worth reading (and buying) then, by definition, you aren’t most people.

When you follow generic advice your writing most likely will become better than it was, but that doesn’t mean it’s as good as it could be. Once you reach a certain level you need specific advice. Specific to your writing. And there aren’t people qualified to give you that advice. 

For example, flowery, repetitious description is annoying and distracting to read, but that’s when it’s done badly. It is very difficult to show someone how to do it better. It’s very easy to tell them not to do it at all. But that may be the kind of writing they love to write. How can you help them then?


Let’s say I’m writing a story that starts with a woman giving her kids breakfast (cereal, small talk, where are my gym clothes, did you do your homework etc) and then she takes them to school. My intention is to show them as a very normal family, and then on the school run their car is rammed by an SUV full of gunmen who kidnap her kids etc. 

So I very deliberately have a mundane breakfast/car opening to contrast with the switch up to action thriller (or whatever the hell it is I’m writing). But a very common reaction to that will be that the start is boring, lacks pace, isn’t engaging, has no hook, agents won’t keep reading, start the story later, begin with the car crash and so on. 

And they’d be right, it is boring. Even though I’m doing it on purpose, that doesn’t make it any more entertaining  to read for the reader.

But, the reaction that most people have is based on not really knowing what I was going for, or how to make it work the way I was trying to make it work. That doesn’t mean it was a good idea in the first place, but I will only be able to tell if it’s a good idea or not once I write it in an effective way and see for myself.

Anything you write badly will be bad, whether it follows the rules or not. 

The fact I’ve done a bad job of realising a scene doesn’t mean the scene needs to be cut. First I have to do a good job of writing it, then I can see if it’s right for the story.

In this case, let’s say I start the breakfast scene with her six year old son insisting he wants to wear his Spiderman outfit to school. And her ten year old daughter decides now is the time to inform her there’s a school outing today and she needs a packed lunch, oh, and also that she no longer eats gluten... 

So mommy convince the son he needs to dress like Peter Parker with the Spiderman outfit under his school clothes, and she defrosts bagels in the microwave which she convinces her daughter takes the gluten out... 

Does this breakfast scene still achieve my original goal to show a normal family going about their normal life? Is it more interesting than the original version?

My point is there's always a way to write a scene effectively. Then you can make a informed decision on whether it works for your story.

Obviously the advantage I have here is that I know what my intention for the scene is, so my ability to suggest changes that emphasise that intention is fairly simple. I still have to come up with a solution, but knowing the thinking behind it helps a lot.

That’s where most advice falls short. When people don’t know what the intention is (and that could be because the writing isn’t good enough to make it clear, or because the reader isn’t astute enough to work it out, or both) they tend to fall back on standard, generic dogma.

When someone tells you they think there’s something not quite right about your story, they’re probably right. If they can pinpoint where this feeling started to occur in the text, that is amazingly helpful. When they tell you what you should do to fix it, chances are they have no idea what they’re talking about.

Not  that you can’t offer advice, even specific changes to the narrative and structure of the story and even new ideas. But first you need to know what it is the writer is trying to do. What style they’re going for. What their ambition is for their story.

A lot of aspiring writers don’t yet have a clear idea of what it they’re going for, and so get all sorts of conflicting advice based on random assumptions. And writers have to make allowances for this. You can’t expect people to come with good, practical advice that tells you exactly what to do to achieve your goal, if no one has any way of knowing what that goal is.

But bad advice can work to your advantage too. If you keep getting suggestions that have nothing to do with the kind of story you want to write, then there’s no clearer indicator that your current approach isn’t very effective. Yet.
If you found this post did more good than harm (even if only slightly) please give it a retweet. Cheers.

24 comments:

Garry G. said...

This is all good practical and sensible advice for dealing with critiques.

Remember that you can learn just as much from a bad critique as from a good one.

K.D.Storm said...

This is great advice that I myself will take to heart. On another site I am on I am always asked to review work. I do not have a problem with telling them if I like the story or not but as you mention in here I am sometimes not sure what they are going for and do not want to be that voice that discourages. So instead I try to find at least one thing I like about their ork. I was afraid I was doing more harm than good but after reading your post it seems that it might not be the case. Thanks :)

Botanist said...

I am a lot more cautious these days about which critiquing advice I pay attention to, but I've never articulated my reservations like this. Good insight.

I also think that many (most?) critiquers start falling into the trap of giving generic advice out of habit, because they are so focussed on the text, regardless of whether or not the scene might actually work for them as a reader.

Maria said...

Some good points :-)
I go to a critique session regularly and learn so much from giving and receiving feedback.

L. said...

I think you've hit a nail on the head -- after a certain point, there isn't a right way to tell a story or a wrong way. There's only whether it works or not.

And you won't know if it works or not until you write it, clean it up, and show it to critters.

Hopefully, your critters know the difference between "This doesn't work" and "This isn't my kind of thing"...

mooderino said...

@Garry G-well - I wouldn't say just as much, but yes, not all bad.

@KD-I think you can't avoid occasionally annoying someone, c'est la vie.

@Botanist-I think when you ask random people to comment on your writing you have to be open to all sorts of critiques, sometimes a painful process.

@Maria-definitely works both ways.

mooderino said...

@L-i think that's true, but ultimately you can't rely on critters to tell you exactly what you should do. It's up to the writer to make the decision about what to change.

Jason Runnels said...

Your point about intent is great! Some of the best advice I have ever heard was actually from a Romance writer I met at a conference.

Cherry Adair coined this acronym, WITFPOTS. What Is The F**ng Point Of This Scene?

As a writer, if I know the intent of each and every scene, then I can better take critique advice -- good or bad -- and evaluate how effective my scene happens to be.

Great post!

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

That's why I think critique partners who understand your style really help. They have a better grasp on what you're trying to do and can offer more specific suggestions. (All three of my critique partners had read my first book, so they knew my style and the main character well.)

A.A. Leil said...

Every now and then I run into a critique partner who asks, before even reading the piece, what my intent is? I love that because usually it means I'm about to get a pretty useful critique. It all sort of relates to the difference between an alpha reader and beta reader. The best critique partners know how to do both.

J.L. Campbell said...

Pity new writers don't know all of this stuff before switching things up to suit people who don't have a clue what the writer intends. Makes sense as a writer to take advice with a grain of salt.

Christa Desir said...

I really like this. There is lots of generic advice out there and it is helpful in getting your foot in the door, but a lot of it can be chucked once you start to really dig in. I've read supposed "bad" first lines in great books.
Also, you are right to suggest that it is more individual and you need to really "listen" to what people are criticizing bc it isn't as simple as what it seems.

You're so helpful with these writing blogs. This is why I've stopped doing them and gone more personal. There are too many people with way better advice than I. :)

Julie Daines said...

I think this is awesome. One of the best pieces of advice I ever got was: when critiquing other people's writing, don't prescribe.

Tell them what's working and why, what's not working and why, but don't tell them what to write. Only the author knows exactly what they are going for. If it takes them 20 tries to get it there, then so be it. That's how it goes in this business.

mooderino said...

@jason-nice to know someone gets the point I'm trying to make, even if i make it in a rambling, incoherent mess.

@Alex-I think all readers can help, and all can have off days.

@AA-sounds like you've got some excellent helpers.

@JL-I think that is a danger, to go along with advice because it sounds convincing.

@Christa-here at Mooderino University we only employ original thinkers. Mainly drunks and hobos.

@Julie-it's easy to get carried away though, to be thinking you're helping by rewriting the opening chapter for a person you've never even met. Hubris, hard to recognise, delicious on toast (wait, I may be thinking of halva).

Alexis Bass Writes said...

This is a great post. Critique partners are critical. It's probably the most frustrating thing EVER when someone thinks your scene is about something that it's not. But, you are so right - that's when the advice is most helpful.

Lydia Kang said...

Great post. It's so true that the basic rules can be really useful, but they do not guarantee a readable book.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Yes. There's the generic "show don't tell" and generally that's fair enough. When, however, it leads to "she ran a hand through her long blonde hair" it can be tiresome. Sometimes two lines of tell can be enough rather than spend six pages showing. "tying back her long blonde hair she got on her motorbike and charged the aliens down."
Your bit about the breakfast scene is so detailed I suspect it may be something you have actually done and had critiqued. ;-) I'm actually reading a story by Lois McMaster Bujold that begins with exactly such a breakfast scene, very funny too, and she has a reason for it and I trust her.

mooderino said...

@Alexis-use every part of the animal, that's my motto (no one else uses it, do they?)

@Lydia-at some point you will know all the basics, but the story will still need something more.

@Sue-all stupid examples made up on the spot.

McKenzie McCann said...

I think the best step from amateur to writer is learning the writer's language. In my creative writing class, I often try to give advice like, "sentence x disrupts your voice because character L is blah blah blah, not blah blah blah."

And they look at me like I have six heads.

Lorena said...

You've mentioned a very important point that we often forget when critiquing someone else's work: "What is the writer's intention and where is the story going?" We often make assumptions and give the writer what you call "generic dogma" (I've seen agents/editors do the same). You're so right about this! This is why I think critiquing an entire novel is more effective than critiquing three or so chapters at a time. Just like writers become better with practice and experience, we also need to learn and evolve in our critiquing with time and avoid simply reciting what we read in books. ("Show don't tell" and the like). I think in order to really help a fellow writer, we need to be open to the possibility that their 'broken rules' might be working.

mooderino said...

@McKenzie-good practice for trying to get people to understand what you mean.

@Lorena-I think most times when people think there's something wrong their instincts are right. It's when they offer what to do about it that things get messy.

shain said...

Good stuff. All of which can be used in perfecting my craft.

Anonymous said...

Funny. All of the writing advice I find teaches to do the exact opposite of what I find in published books.

mooderino said...

That's because writing isn't about knowing the right thing to do, it's about knowing all the available options and making a deliberate choice. so using an adverb isn't bad, but you should know the strengths and weaknesses of doing so and choose accordingly.

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