Good Writing, Bad Advice


A notebook for fiction writers and aspiring novelists. One editor’s perspective.

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Good Writing, Bad Advice.

My name (once again) is Dave Workman. I’m a developmental (content) editor IRL. I’m also an author. Over the years, I’ve accumulated a bit of knowledge that may help new writers beginning a long and often arduous (although hopefully rewarding) journey. Might I impart any significant pearls of wisdom on this page? I offer no assurances. Nobody in this business—in any business—can guarantee success. Finding a publisher is sometimes more luck (sadly) than skill. Good timing rather than dedication. Sometimes it’s who you know. Sometimes it’s who your daddy knows. Success is a subjective son-of-a-bitch with a chip on one shoulder and a crazed twinkle in its eye.

But knowing how to write well can’t hurt. And knowing a few basic rules along the way can definitely ease the process. Success may be elusive, but for an unprepared or apathetic writer, success is probably little more than a fuzzy daydream.

Do you know the Numero Uno, Most Common, Most Discouraging, and the Tragic Likely Outcome of all novel writing endeavors? It’s not finishing the book. Losing interest or losing your way, losing your nerve or losing your religion. It’s fear of success or fear of failure or fear of wrestling all those words into place, from “Once upon a time…” to “The End.” And if you can overcome those fears and finish a manuscript (even a first draft!) you’re already closer to success than most.

 Finish the book. That’s Rule #1.

In this and subsequent posts, I’ll attempt to reveal what many publishers seek in terms of a desirable manuscript, although—bottom line?—it’s very likely a polished, professional and unique voice. Yes, voice. A publisher (or agent) is far more likely to accept an uncanny voice over a complex, complicated or convoluted plot structure. Lock two characters in a closet, give them exceptional dialogue and quirky or witty personalities worth exploring, and a publisher will likely consider that manuscript over a done-to-death story about brain-sucking aliens attacking Las Vegas. (Although if your aliens have quirky, well-constructed personalities, a publisher will take a close look as well.)

But let’s face it—only so many finite plot-lines exist in literature. They’ve all been covered ad nauseam. Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy is eaten by giant squid. (It’s been done.) But a unique voice is yours alone. Exclusive. Inimitable. Priceless. For a writer, creating a unique voice by infusing excitement, passion, eccentricity,  pathos, wit and charisma (or all of the above) into a distinctive character can be money in the proverbial bank.

Okay, enough preamble. Although I do have one significant bit of advice to share: Don’t listen to anybody (and certainly not to me) if the advice doesn’t resonate. Go with your gut. Go with your own instincts. By all means, listen selectively to proffered advice—accept feedback when it’s constructively given—although I suspect some 80-90% of what you hear won’t work for you. However, that remaining 10-20% might may prove priceless. So do keep an open mind! (See Confronting Criticism.) Remember, success is as much about breaking rules as following them. If it feels right, crayon outside the lines. I think Gandhi said that. Maybe not.

To illustrate, here’s a true story. This one still gives me nightmares. I still wake up cringing.

The most single, most horrific, most god-awful perverse piece of advice I’ve ever encountered occurred during a week-long writers’ conference in Southern CA. (And while a writers’ conference can be a wonderful, magical, scintillating experience… again, be careful who you listen to.)

One evening, a panel of “editorial experts” bequeathed their brilliance to a capacity filled auditorium of eager, fledgling writers. An attendee stood and asked a panelist a question, and in doing so happened to mention that her nearly-completed novel filled some 360 pages. About 90,000 words.

Without a moment’s preamble—without a speck of empathy or a grain of intelligence—the so-called expert replied, “It’s too long. Cut twenty thousand words.”

This Expert of Knowing Everything While Knowing Nothing had no clue about the nature of the story or its genre, or of the writer’s level of craft, the tenor of the book. Simply “cut it.” The writer was, of course, crushed. And I have never forgotten my frustration over that absurdly idiotic remark.

Should anyone tell you to arbitrarily cut (or add) pages without otherwise knowing your story—it’s intent and purpose—smile politely and walk away. I’ve read too many manuscripts that feel truncated and unfinished… only to discover that the writer had been previously advised to “cut, cut, cut!” without further direction or counsel. In desperation, many writers blindly begin hacking all the style and nuance from an otherwise excellent story.

Think of a novel as a living, breathing person. If I feel that your story needs to lose a bit of weight, I’ll not advise you to remove its liver or stomach or left arm. The process is to shrewdly exercise your book—trimming adverbs, adjectives and excess verbiage like so many bloated fat-cells. Eliminate scenes or chapters that do nothing for the story but flatter your ego. Prune those sections carefully, little by little. Or feed it more Skittles, should the opposite be true.

I acknowledge that the above-referenced workshop occurred before the Age of e-publishing. Stricter rules applied once upon a time (although stupidity didn’t count back then, either). And I continue to hear agents and editors and the so-called “people in the know” advising writers to cut or add pages, to alter a manuscript in order to satisfy some personal itch or the guidelines of a publishing system that no longer exists.

The biggest problem today? Since the emergence of e-books and self-publishing (around 2008-ish), the industry remains in flux. No one’s certain of the new rules yet. But in this rapidly changing paradigm of 21st century novel writing, here’s my best advice: Trust yourself—and hone those basic skills of storytelling in the (somewhat paradoxically) simplest, yet most exciting voice you can muster.

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rules-header-fullA notebook for fiction writers and aspiring novelists. One editor’s perspective.

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Welcome to the blog!
……Here’s what’s what.

My name is Dave Workman. I’m an author and freelance editor (formerly an acquisitions and developmental editor for Muse Harbor Publishing). Several years ago I began writing Rules of Engagement for beginning (or curious) writers, based on what I perceive to be fundamental obstacles that many of us confront when starting, or struggling through, a new novel. Perhaps I can offer useful advice—or maybe not—although I certainly know what excites me as a reader. Thus, the following comments (although RoE remains a work-in-progress) may be worth a look.

INTRO. Good Writing, Bad Advice. Ultimately, it’s your book.
Rule #1: Finish your book.

1. Where to Start. (Part 1). Exploring your inciting incident.

2. Where to Start (Part 2). Your first line should be the most thoughtfully crafted sentence of your story. Also, don’t know exactly how or where to start? (I have a suggestion.)
Rule #2: Make your story’s first line enticing enough to immediately hook readers.

3. Where to Start (Part 3). Outlining. (If you’re a first-time novelist, outlining may be more important than you think. Even if you’ve written a dozen-or-so novels…it’s still important.)

4. Where to Start (Part 4). Getting down to it. (Starting for real).
Rule #3:
Write to please yourself.
Rule #11:
Get acquainted with your story.
Rule #100:
Expecting perfection? Well, get over yourself. Beginning a novel is often messy, complicated and fraught with sleepless nights of panic, self-doubt and uncertainly. However, trust me, you’ll improve. Patience, pilgrim… patience. (Also see #13: Perfection below.)

5. First Drafts. Writing is a two-part process. Part 1: The Idea. And, Part 2: The Implementation. A first draft is how writers make that often difficult transition between creative right-brain thinking and logical left-brain doing. Also, don’t expect perfection (or even coherence) in a first draft. It’s not a finished product, just a tool we use to ‘get where we’re going.’

6. A Few Common Obstacles. The 6 most common obstacles that most novice novelists confront.

7. Fundamentals. Discovering those so-called ‘pillars’ of a successful novel. Sometimes it’s nature. Sometimes it’s nurture. Success is likely a combination of both.
Rule #17: Make a hard copy (paper) back-up of your manuscript every now and then, even when working in draft mode. (See Finagle’s Law. But brace yourself.)

8. Simple, But Exciting. Juggle precision with passion. Also: Introducing the novel’s Three Essential Components.
Rule #7
Write in clear, precise sentences. Communicate to your reader in intelligent thoughts, carefully constructed, while providing a constant, continual procession (discreetly or indiscreetly) of relevant information.
Rule #5: Continually 1. scene-set; 2. character-build, or; 3. move the plot forward. When writing fiction, nothing else matters. Page by page, a good novel should seamlessly blend all three components.
Rule #13: Readers don’t read novels to find out What Happens. They read novels to find out What Happens to Whom.
Sufficient character development is as essential as your plot.

9. Exciting, But Simple. Juggle passion with precision.
If you’re not fully engaged in your writing, potentially dull and tedious prose won’t thrill readers. But innovative, excited, passionate writers tend to produce innovating, exciting and passionate prose. Too much passion, however (the dreaded ‘purple prose’) can quickly drown a reader in the unintelligible. So it’s important to find that balanced, literary ‘sweet spot.’

10. Active Writing (Part 1). Active Voice. How to find it. How to keep it.
Rule #8:
Keep characters in motion. Either through action or dialogue, you’re continually pushing characters toward drama or pulling them away from drama. Also see Show, Don’t Tell below.

11. Active Writing (Part 2). Active Language (Grammar).
Rule #6:
The Jumping Cow Rule (Active vs. Passive Voice).

12. Active Writing (Part 3). Active Composition (Plotting)
Rule #14:
Develop your story from A-to-Z. Know where you’re going.

13. Perfection. Do your best, and then move on.
Rule #25: Perfection in writing doesn’t exist. (Don’t burn out or waste years attempting to find it.)
Rule #4: Do the best you can. That’s all readers can ask.

14. Action/Reaction. A novel is an endless series of relevant connections. Every paragraph you write is like a puzzle piece that must fit into a specific, coherent place within a specific, coherent premise.
Rule #10:
In fiction, for every action, provide an appropriate reaction. Over and over and over.

15. Show, Don’t Tell. What’s it even mean? Because we’ve all heard this advice a thousand times before… but it’s still a valid axiom. So don’t dismiss it! Also, exploring E-Prime writing.

16. What’s Your Intention? A brief guide to rational writing.
Rule #29:
Your characters may remain mysterious, elusive or distracted, but your prose must remain clear and concise.

17. Focus on the Now. Stay in the moment.
Rule #16:
Focus on the now. Write one thought at a time, and don’t worry about the rest.

18. My Favorite Films About Writers and Writing. A personal aside.

19. Finding Your Voice (Part 1). Find a style and stick with it.
Rule #9:
A great novel is not so much what you tell, but how you tell it. All writers develop a unique style. Finding yours is imperative.

20. Finding Your Voice (Part 2). Do your characters speak to you?
Rule #12:
Shut up and let your characters tell their own stories.

21. Finding Your Voice (Part 3). Point of View: Narrative vs. Authorial Voice.

22. Basic Plotting (Part 1). Right Brain (creative thinking) vs. Left Brain (critical thinking). Unfortunately, we need both halves.

23. Basic Plotting (Part 2). Fiction is all about drama. (Even raucous comedies are about the drama.) So don’t dismiss the drama.
Rule #27.
Make drama (big drama, little drama) your novel’s constant companion.

24. Story vs. Plot. What’s the dif? Also, resolving the “My-story’s-too-short!” dilemma.

25. Action vs. Information. The Oil & Water of Novel Writing.
Rule #26:
Don’t mix Action and Information scenes. Keep these two incompatible concepts (relatively) separate.

26. Dialogue (Part 1). Writing Great Dialogue: An Absolute Necessity.
Rule #30: Create dialogue that—like the basic fundamentals of fiction—accomplishes one of three specific goals. Dialogue must: 1) Set a scene; 2) Develop/refine a character and/or; 3) Move the plot forward.

27. Dialogue (Part 2). Writing Great Dialogue: Balancing reality and fiction — two very distinct styles of chit-chat.
Rule #39: Never reveal too much relevant information too quickly.
Rule #39A:
...but relevant or not, always keep dialogue witty and compelling.

28. Dialogue (Part 3). Writing Great Dialogue isn’t about epic plotting. It’s simpler than that. Rule #41: Great fiction isn’t about ‘what happens.’ It’s about ‘what happens to people.’

29. Dialogue (Part 4). Dialogue vs. Internal Monologue. The key to precise communication with your readers is knowing when to use what. Also, Communication via TV, Radio, Social Media and Texting

30. Dialogue (Part 5). Writing Great Dialogue in First Person (POV).
Rule #45:
First Person POV readers aren’t expecting absolute authenticity so much as absolute personality.

31. Dialogue (Part 6A). The Q. & A. page.
Rule #48: Don’t use dialogue as an alternative to directly depicting action or drama.

32. Dialogue (Part 6B). The Q. & A. page (Cont’d).

33. Dialogue (Part 7). Attribution. (AKA: Dialogue Tags.) The ‘he said/she said’ of writing dialogue. Because sometimes visual subtleties matter.
Rule #55:
Don’t just write dialogue, write active dialogue. Avoid ‘talking heads’ scenes by maintaining visual stimulation or plot momentum during scenes of intense dialogue.

34. Dialogue (Part 8). When not to use dialogue.

35. Character Development. Quite possibly the most important part of your story.

36. Scene-Setting. Scene-setting is often the most overlooked of the three essential components of novel writing.
Rule #28: Every scene we write, before we begin (or before we continue) to propel our plot forward, we must establish a viable setting for our characters, and a firm grounding for our readers. And we must do so every time we move a character to a new time or place, scene after scene.

37. Confronting Criticism. Sooner or later, we all confront criticism. How we regard such feedback can be crucial to our eventual success.
Rule #99:
Knowing the difference between constructive criticism and counter-productive criticism is crucial. (And this is where I tell you why.)

38. Write The Daydream. What’s a novel, but a daydream we write down and embellish, expand and hone into something coherent, dramatic and hopefully entertaining?

39. More Common Obstacles Are you still finding those first few scenes/chapters difficult or impossible to write? I’ve already mentioned a few common obstacles that writers face. (See #5 above.) Maybe it’s time to look inward and investigate further.


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