Good Writing, Bad Advice

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Rules-headerA blog for fiction writers and impending writers. An editor’s perspective.

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Good Writing, Bad Advice.

My name (once again) is Dave Workman. I’m an acquisitions and content editor for Muse Harbor Publishing. My job is to: 1) read manuscripts, 2) reject most of them as incompatible with our needs, 3) accept a limited number of promising tales for potential publication, and; 4) edit the living daylights out of those same pieces—then expect the writer to do likewise—before MHP commits to a publishing contract.

I have few friends.

However, I do have a modicum of knowledge for those of you seeking advice. Whether you’re already a contracted MHP author, a promising talent or simply passing by, I can offer a bit of insight. Because I certainly know what excites me as a reader.

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. More good timing 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 doesn’t hurt. And knowing a few rules won’t hurt either. Success may be elusive, but to an unprepared or apathetic writer, success is little more than a pipe dream.

Do you know the Numero Uno, Most Common, Most Discouraging Failure, 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.” But if you can overcome that particular obstacle, you’re already closer to writing success than most.

 Finish the book. That’s Rule #1.

In this and subsequent posts, I’ll attempt to reveal what MHP seeks in terms of a desirable manuscript, although—bottom line?—it’s a polished, professional voice. Yes, voice. We’re far more likely to accept an uncanny voice over a fancy plot structure. Lock two characters in a dark closet, give them great dialogue and personalities worth exploring, and we’ll consider that manuscript more closely than a story about brain-sucking aliens coming to digest Earth. (Although if your aliens have quirky, well-constructed personalities, we’ll look at them, too.)

Let’s face it, only so many 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, a unique voice infusing excitement into a distinctive character is money in the proverbial bank.

Okay, enough preamble. I do have one significant bit of advice to share. My first shiny pearl isn’t a “what to do”—it’s “who not to listen to.” IMHO, it’s one of The Most Important Lessons an unpublished writer can absorb.

Rule #2: 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, but 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 writers’ conference. (And a writers’ conference can be a wonderful, magical, scintillating experience… but, again, be careful who you listen to.)

One evening, a panel of “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. 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 Internet 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? 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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Index

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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 acquisitions and content editor for Muse Harbor Publishing. 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, and what excites me as an editor who accepts or rejects manuscripts. Thus, these following notes may be worth a look.

1. Good Writing, Bad Advice.
Rule #1: Finish your book.
Rule #2: Don’t listen to anybody’s advice if that advice doesn’t resonate.

2. Simple, But Exciting
Rule #7: Write in clear, precise sentences. Communicate to your reader in intelligent thoughts, carefully constructed, while providing a constant, continual procession of relevant information.
Rule #5: Continually scene set, character build or move the plot forward. (Nothing else matters.)

3. Exciting, But Simple.
Rule #3. Write to please yourself, first and foremost.
If you’re not fully engaged in your writing, potentially dull and tedious prose won’t thrill readers. But excited writers tend to produce exciting prose.

4. Active Writing (Part 1): Active Voice.
Rule #8: Keep characters in motion.
Either through action or dialogue, you’re continually pushing characters toward drama or pulling them away from action.

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

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

7. Where To Start. (Discover your core elements.)
Rule #11: Get acquainted with your story.
Rule #100: Get Over Yourself.
Creativity is often messy, incomplete and open for revision. Don’t begin to write with the assumption that you’ll immediately write a best seller. Don’t assume you’ll never change a word, a thought, a plot structure. If something’s not working, try different methods, styles, a new subplot or two. Have fun. If you’re not having fun writing, you’re doing something wrong. Perfection (as you’re about to discover) doesn’t exist.

8. Perfection.
Rule #25: Perfection in writing doesn’t exist.
Rule #4: Do the best you can.

9. Action/Reaction.
Rule #10: In fiction, for every action, provide a reaction.

10. Show, Don’t Tell. (It’s still relevant.)

11. What’s Your Intention?
Rule #29: Your characters may remain mysterious, elusive or distracted, but your prose must remain clear and concise.

12. Focus on the Now. (Stay in the moment.)
Rule #16: Focus on the now.

13. Hammering It Out.
Rule #28: Write one thought at a time.
(And don’t worry about the rest.)

14. My Favorite Films About Writers and Writing (A personal aside.)

15. 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. That’s a writer’s style.

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

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

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

19. Basic Plotting (Part 2): Plot Ahead.

20. Basic Plotting (Part 3): It’s all about the drama, dahlings.
Rule #27. Make drama your novel’s constant companion.

21. 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.

22. Dialogue (Part 1): Writing Great Dialogue: An Absolute Necessity.
Rule #30: Create dialogue that—like narration—accomplishes one of three specific goals: 1) Sets a scene; 2) Develops a character or; 3) Moves the plot forward.

23. Dialogue (Part 2): Writing Great Dialogue: Balancing reality and fiction.
Rule #39: Never reveal too much relevant information too quickly.
Rule #39A: …but relevant or not, always keep dialogue witty and interesting.

24. 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.’ 

25. Dialogue (Part 4): Dialogue vs. Monologue. The key to precise communication with your readers is knowing when to use what.

26. 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.

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

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

29. Dialogue (Part 7): Attribution. The ‘he said/she said’ of writing dialogue.
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.
In other words, if you depict two characters attempting to diffuse a ticking time bomb with thirty-seconds remaining on the timer, they don’t stop diffusing the bomb to carry on a conversation.

30. Dialogue (Part 8): When not to use dialogue.

31. Confronting Criticism: Rule #99: Knowing the difference between constructive criticism and nonproductive criticism is crucial.
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