Tuesday, 15 December 2015

How Writing Rules Can Sometimes do Bad Things to Good People

A week or so ago, I found a thread posted in the Writing Forum of an online writing community I've been a member of for a while. Its title was "Words You Hate/Won't Use."

It started off innocently enough. The Original Poster listed 'gingerly,' 'albeit' and 'fastly' among her no-no words. Others added 'righter,' '-ish' words (like 'tallish' and 'brownish') and the godawful 'moist' (I can totally get behind that one.) There were smatterings of debate as to the dictionary-defined validity of some of the words offered ('fastly' was contested for a good few pages of the thread.)

My own, personal 'oh-hell-no'-word is actually a phrase - and it's entirely my own fault that I hate it because I was the one who over-used and abused it in a novel I started about ten years ago, that limped to about Chapter Five before I shuffled it quietly into the Novel Graveyard on my hard drive. I had two male characters who appeared to have only one way to express troubling emotions, and that was to "rake his hands through his hair." They were both at it, every time things got a bit tense for them, and after seeing that action so many goddamn times in one of my read-back sessions I wanted give them both a buzz-cut and staple-gun their hands into their pockets. This has had a hangover effect on my writing ever since; I can't use it in any of my stories now without feeling a little bit sick in my mouth. (I think I may have one variation of it in Redemption at the moment - or I may have already replaced it with something else and then dissociated from the whole traumatic experience. If it is still there, trust me, it's living on borrowed time...)

So far so conversational. But then things started to get a bit hardcore. Words like 'suddenly' and 'very' came up, along with 'then,' 'got,' 'almost' and 'just.' Not just once, but several times, with many others agreeing with those who put them forward. And adverbs in general, of course - and while we're at it let's not forget the dysfunctional families of 'was' and 'to be' (beGONE, evil Passive Verbs!)

The same little add-on phrases starting creeping in too - you know the kind of thing I'm talking about. 'Using this word in your writing just screams 'amateur'...' 'It's an example of lazy writing on the author's part - there's always a better/stronger word you can use...' And of course the ever-so-humblebrag 'I've made a point of eliminating every instance of that word from my writing now, and if anything it makes my writing stronger.'

Reeeeeaaaalllly? You've eliminated every instance of words like 'very,' 'then' and 'got,' have you? Well, aren't you the Star Pupil of your Fiction Writing 101 Class?

I'm sorry if that sounds snarky... well no, perhaps 'sorry' is the wrong word. Perhaps what I really mean is "I have no wish to upset or offend you, but my brain is rejecting what you just said so hard that this response is projectile-vomiting from my speech-hole faster than anything more polite and less sincere." Yeah, that sounds more me, I'm going with that, thanks.

Pick up a book by any famous-to-insanely-famous author - go on, any book you like. Pick one by your favourite author if you like. It's okay, I'll wait for you until you get back.

Done it? Good.

Now, do you notice a total absence of adverbs, so-called 'passive verbs' and words like 'very,' 'got' and 'then' in their work? To the point where they clearly made it their mission to weed them out like the canker-sore Violations of Good Writing Rules they truly are? Nope, didn't think so. And yet those authors seem to have done okay for themselves - even garnered themselves a bit of respect, you might say.

Perhaps those Fiction Writing Rules hadn't been hewn in fire onto their stone tablets back then - or said authors simply never got around to engraving them on their souls. How lucky all us millennium-generation writers are then, living in a webby-connected world that guarantees we'll never miss the chance to hear them trumpeted loud and long - and as such, be saved from committing such a heinous crime as a wanton adverb to the page...

Yes, my brain is projectile-vomiting again - I should probably calm down now ... *deep breaths, thinking happy thoughts...*

But here's what's winding me up about the Writing Police; how must fledgling writers, new to the craft and eager to stretch their creative wings, feel when they read this kind of twaddle? When basic words like 'very' and 'then' - words we all grew up with and use in our speech every day of our lives - are suddenly signposts to the writing equivalent of a minus score on an IQ test? Veterans don't realise just how damn scary this zero-tolerance attitude can be to the padawan writers. No matter where we are on the road to getting our work in front of readers, we're all in this together, aren't we? We should be helping each other, not finding petty little ways to make it even harder for new members to join the Proper Authors' Club.

Of course when it comes to writing there are things that work and things that don't. Yes, a lot of the writing rules - even this one we're discussing now - were invented for a reason, and being at least aware of them and why they're worth knowing will help you become a better writer. And obviously the staples like spelling, punctuation and grammar are important, because readers need to understand what they're reading.

But these are the technical skills of writing, and there's more to a great story than making sure the i's are dotted and t's are crossed. Even Stephen King, in his book On Writing, follows up his lecture on shunning adverbs with the cheerful admission that he doesn't always follow that rule himself. Why? Because godammit, sometimes that dirty old adverb adds the right pinch of spice to your prose, to the point where it would be more wrong not to put it in.

Getting perfect tens for your technical skills in writing will not guarantee a great story because story is not just science; it's an art. And when you sacrifice your art on the altar of technical perfection, all you end up with is a dead chicken. We don't learn the rules of great writing to slavishly live by them; we learn them to understand when, why and how it's okay to break them.

Readers who aren't writers don't invest huge chunks of their time learning all the Rules of Great Writing, because most of them aren't bothered about such stuff. Unlike fellow writers, they don't read books to critique them; they read them to be entertained. And sometimes, seasoned writers forget that in their quest to define what 'quality fiction' really is.

So, to all you writers-in-training out there, don't let yourselves be intimidated by The Rules - or the folks who sigh and tut at you when you 'break' them. It doesn't mean you're a bad writer and there's no hope for you, and it definitely doesn't mean you should give up on your dreams. You don't have to ban every adverb, talk exclusively in Active Voice for every single sentence or slavishly follow any jackbooted clusterbag of Thou Shalt Nots. Yoda said "Do or do not. There is no try." For writing, I would amend that to "You learn much more by doing than you ever will trying not to do."

Just keep doing what you do, for as long as you love doing it. And trust that, the more you do it, the better you'll become at knowing when you can improve your work by following those pesky rules - or equally, by not following them. Your choice. Your story.

Your rules.

Sunday, 6 December 2015

Why Being a Writer means Learning to Care Less

Whaat? That's not right, surely?

Writing is about baring your soul - you 'open a vein and bleed onto the page,' as Hemingway is widely rumoured to have said (although there's plenty of evidence that Walter Wellesley 'Red' Smith actually said it before him.) We write about the human condition; the frailties, the hopes, dreams, joy, anger and despair of life. How can we do that if we have the empathy of a lump of granite?

Relax, I don't mean that kind of not caring. Pretty much impossible to purge that from a writer's soul anyway. We're born to notice stuff, think deeply about that stuff and then be compelled to write about it - and caring about it comes with the territory. No, I mean the kind of caring that can destroy a writer's career before it's even begun, and has certainly done for the dreams of many an aspiring one -  caring about what people think of you as a writer.

There's a kind of poetic cruelty in it really. While you're writing your novel or whatever you must care like the mother of all Care Bears. You must care about every moment of every plot event. every hint of subtext, every word of character dialogue... you must care...

Right up to the moment you've finished and you're ready to reveal your work to the world. And that's when you're supposed to immediately flip your Care Switch to the 'off' position, so that when the dissenters, naysayers and folks who just plain don't like what you spent a huge amount of time caring your arse off about can descend upon it and pull it to pieces like the contents of a KFC Bargain Bucket. And you can smile sweetly and thank them for their 'feedback.' Because don't we all know that "all feedback is good feedback?" As somebody somewhere said that one time...

While I've been writing Redemption, I'll admit I've been having the odd fantasy moment. Some people dream of winning the actual lottery; I've indulged in dreams of winning the book publishing lottery and having gazillions of people reading Redemption and loving it. And heck, part of the reason it's taking me so long to write it is because I want to make it as good as I can in order to have the best odds of even knocking at the door of that dream. To have a best-seller... that must be truly awesome, right? The ultimate high for any writer.

And then I remember how that went for E.L. James.

When Fifty Shades of Grey first hit the readersphere it was the red-hot, New Awesome Thing in the world of books. Everyone who was anyone had read it or was reading it, it sold in the squillions and every living creature in the western world except perhaps garden insects had heard of it. Everyone wanted to talk to Ms. James, the 'shy housewife' who had written it apparently on a whim, powered by little more than divine inspiration (we-ell. okay, maybe a little Twilight inspiration thrown in as well) and good old-fashioned determination. She was a freakin' legend, and her book was a resounding call-to-arms, both for the neglected lady-readers and the aspiring writers longing to be her...

For about.... ooh, the first five minutes of its published life. Remember that? Most people don't, 'cause that's how short that time period was.

Suddenly, as quickly as it arrived, the tsunami of PR turned from positive to very, very negative. It was amateurishly badly written! It painted a horribly inaccurate and offensive picture of BDSM practitioners! It set a terrible example to young girls - that wanting to be with a douchebag who abused and uber-controlled you was totally okay if he had washboard abs and truckloads of cash to splash! And then the hate trickled down to Ms. James herself; she was the bad writer of the bad, bad books - and probably all kinds of weird as well...

In no time at all, it became trendier to say that either you had read her books and hated them, or you hadn't read any of her books and would never lower yourself to do so. (Even if the fact that it and its two follow-up books made their author ridiculously rich suggests there are a hell of a lot of liars out there.) But Ms. James didn't change a word of the text in the time Fifty Shades went from Hero to Zero. All that changed was the viewpoint of first the media and then the media-gobbling public. So if that kind of nuclear manure-strike can happen to someone who, on balance, wrote a phenomenally successful trilogy in terms of both notoriety and sales... well, what hope is there of escaping derision and mockery for the lesser-known and practically invisible writers? Like... erm, me for instance?

Does E.L. James care about all the mean things people have said about her and her work? Dunno - maybe we should ask her after she's adjusted her posterior on that pile of money she's probably sitting on right now. But for us lesser-known and aspiring writers there is no bottom-cushion of wonga - and there may never be - so we're probably gonna care that little bit more if we 'fail.' And if we care too much, we may believe it's Fate's way of telling us we're not meant to be writers and we should quit while we're ahead, before we embarrass ourselves any further.

We must not care enough to believe that.

Us writers write because we have to. We write because it's who we are as much as what we do. And it's only when we're brave enough to write things we fear people don't want to read that we can dig deep enough to write our every best stuff. We have to care enough about our writing to not care what criticism we attract from those who read it. This is about more than just growing a thick skin to cope with it when it arrives; it's about shutting your ears to the negative voices telling you not to take that risk in the first place.

Some of the greatest writers in history have written stuff intentionally designed to piss certain sections of society off. That, in part, is what makes it great writing. If you write to be liked then you're basically King Canute, screaming at a tide that does what it damn well wants to. You can't please all of the people all of the time, as the saying goes. So you might as well say what you mean and mean what you say.

Be you. Because there's no-one else better suited to the job.