Thursday, January 3, 2013

My Worst Advice

Pretty much every writer has that one piece of writing advice they hate to hear. It's like nails on a chalkboard for them and as soon as the words drop off of some well-meaning critique partner's or writing buddy's lips, they cringe away with dismissive irritation or irate annoyance or at the very least a heavy sigh and an exasperated "I know."

Maybe they don't agree with the philosophy behind it. Maybe they don't really understand it. Maybe they've just heard it so many times it’s become more like dieting tips than anything else. Everything in moderation, dearie; it's all about portion control and if you just found a little more time to work exercise into your daily routine…

There’s a lot writing advice out there and most of it is misunderstood at best, ruthlessly abused at worst. I have a critique partner who took Stephen King's words about eliminating adverbs so seriously that she'd slash out every word ending in -ly she came across. Even the ones that weren't adverbs. I began to slip extra seriouslys and quietlys and angrilys into the pages I brought to critique meetings just to see her get all worked up over them.

Someone else I know got so caught up in the idea of beginning the story with an action scene that she reworked her entire plot just to accommodate a fight that didn't actually make any sense.

Ever gone so far to avoid exposition that you forgot to mention the main character’s name until page 65? I know a guy who did that.

I used to keep a spreadsheet to comparing the frequency of be verbs in my prose to all the other words in an attempt to minimize my use of passive voice.

Write what you know. Eliminate needless words. Use adverbs sparingly (the sparingly there makes that one my favorite). Avoid passive voice. Lead with action.

Show, don't tell.

Show, don't tell is my personal writing diet tip. I've heard it about 10 million times and it took me forever to actually understand what I was being told. How do you show without telling when you’re writing? It's not a movie. I can't actually show you anything! I'm a storyteller; I have to tell you things! That's how words work, dammit!

You can see from my excessive use of italics and exclamation points that I used to get quite worked up when I'd hear this particular piece of advice. Because I didn't understand it.

On the surface, it seems very straight forward. You should show the reader what happens by actually writing the scenes, not tell them about it by recapping afterward. At least, that's what I always thought it meant.

HINT: That's not what it means.

You should absolutely write the important and interesting scenes so your reader can see your characters in action. You should absolutely not spend a crap ton of words dumping world building and character backstory on your readers. But that's not what show, don't tell is really about. At least, that's not what people were saying to me when they gave me that particular piece of advice.

You have to give the reader the details they need in some kind of context, rather than just info dumping. Here’s a somewhat clumsy example: take a look back at my introductory post.( Obviously, I still have a lot to learn and this isn't the best example out there, but it's mine and it's what I'm going with.) After reading that post, what do you know about me?

Well, you know right away that I've started at least one new novel, or I'm at least passingly familiar with the process. You can probably tell this isn't the first blog I've set up either. It sounds like I've read a few things about how publishing works and how novels are supposed to begin. I went to college and while I was there I took a marketing class. I have imaginary friends. My name is Renee Elizabeths (that's my pseudonym anyway) and I don’t find standard bio pages very interesting. I'm familiar with Twitter and a couple of products offered by the good folks at Google. I'm married to a guy I knowingly heap quite a bit of guilt onto and I have kids. I write very early in the morning before my kids wake up.

If you read it a little more critically  you'll discover I'm fond of run-on sentences and I like to write with a relaxed, somewhat conversational style. For the most part I write in complete sentences with correct spelling and proper grammar, but I'm not totally rigid about those concepts. I make a couple of references to SF/F tropes, so I must have at least a basic understanding of that particular genre. I clearly have no understanding of what goes on during fishing trips. I'm probably going to spend a lot of time on this blog relating things to the mechanics of writing a novel. I try and fail quite frequently at being witty and interesting. And none of my critique partner's advice about slashing out adverbs stuck.

Now, I'm not setting myself up to brag here, but I think the way I wrote the original post was more interesting to read than those last two paragraphs. I didn't detail the college experiences that made me realize the business world wasn't for me and I wanted to write professionally. I also didn't give you a full history of my previous and failed attempts at reaching this goal, share far more information than I should about my marriage, or overload you with fun facts about my children.

And yet still I showed you who I am. I didn't just sit down and tell you.

But I obviously still haven't fully mastered the concept, because I couldn't just let that post stand there and speak for itself. I had to hold it up here and shout "Look! Look at this cool thing I sort of did!"

Oh well. It's a process.


  1. i like the way you explained the show-don't-tell. thanks!