Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Magic Bullets, Panaceas, Quick Fixes, and Other Things You Won't Find Anywhere

advice
noun ad·vice \əd-ˈvīs\
guidance or recommendations concerning prudent future action, typically given by someone regarded as knowledgeable or authoritative.
I've talked about various pieces of writing advice here and there before. Most of the time, my opinion can be boiled down into this: nothing works every time, your mileage may vary, write what you want to write.

I attended a session at the Spring Fling conference last year about tightening prose. The presenter offered up a number of tips and tricks for trimming the fat out of a manuscript. Strengthening verbs and rewriting passive constructions into active ones. Minimizing dialogue tags. Watching out for explanations after the fact. Things like that.

All good bits of advice. I really enjoyed the presentation and I still have the handouts she gave us on my desk for reference. But there was one aspect of the session that I really hated. It was nothing the presenter did. It was the audience.

Every single time she'd bring up another idea for tightening text, half a dozen hands would shoot up in the air and argue a specific example for when that idea wouldn't work.

"Rewriting this phrase in active voice uses four fewer words and focuses the reader's attention on the character. . . "

"What if you're trying to keep something from the reader as part of the suspense?"

"If you've just shown two characters having a fight, you don't then need to show one character repeating every detail of the fight to someone else. You can just say 'Jane told Bob about Amy's insulting behavior' and be done with it."

"Yeah, but sometimes how a character tells someone about something can reveal a lot about them."

"Cut down on the unnecessary, mundane stuff. The reader doesn't need to see your character's drive to work and hear about all the red lights they hit and what song was playing on the radio. When you character arrives at work, the reader will assume they used whatever means of transportation they needed to in order to get there."

"A drive scene can do a lot for worldbuilding though, tell the reader what kind of place the character lives in, whether they can afford a car or maybe they have to take the bus instead, stuff like that."

It went on and on and on. Even as I sat there getting frustrated, I found myself chiming in from time to time, like we were all under some kind of weird group hypnosis.*

I love writing advice. I respect the hell out of any professional who takes the knowledge they've gained through the years and gives it back to those of us still struggling to find our own path to success. Good writers seem to love writing about how they do what they do and you could spend hours every day just soaking all that knowledge in. The writing community is brilliant that way.

At the same time, eliminating all your adverbs, rewriting every passive construction, and/or adding more white space to your pages isn't going to fix every pacing problem. Cutting two out of every three dialogue tags might just leave your reader confused as all hell. Showing, and not telling, every single thing can yield a very shallow tale.

None of those pieces of advice, good advice though they may be, is a 100% effective guaranteed path to writerly fame and fortune. Writing is not assembling a prefab bookshelf or balancing a checkbook or sticking flooglebinders on the ends of shoelaces. There is no official instruction manual.

There shouldn't be. Storytelling is an art form. It's a creative pursuit. It has to be able to change and grow and adapt every minute of every day, because the people who make it and the people who consume it change and grow and adapt every minute of every day.

It's important to remember that there is no magic wand here. Everyone seems to think there is--if you Google "how to write" you get over a billion results--but the sad truth is that there is no perfect formula or foolproof plan to make your writing better. There is no one true path. There is no single answer.

Stop looking for it. Take the writing advice you're given for what it is: advice. A recommendation offered by someone who has gone before you. Take it in, learn its lesson, adapt it for your own style, and then move on.


*That group hypnosis is something I like to think of as "newbie-proving". You get a bunch of relatively new writers into a room and start talking about craft, say at a critique session or a class or, in this case, a conference, and all of the sudden we all have to start showing off all the things we think we know. As if by vomiting up very specific but ultimately useless examples, we can prove to everyone that we're really smart and savvy veterans instead of ignoramuses who just graduated from Google University. Behavior which, of course, just proves our newbie status far better than wearing a blinking neon sign over our heads ever could have.

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