Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The Trap of Taking Advice

My regular readers know I don't often delve into writing advice. In my opinion, there is more than enough advice floating around already. There are hundreds of books on the subject and probably thousands of blogs. The difficulty lies not in finding advice, but in determining which advice is useful and which is not.The best place to start is with a simple rule: Take all advice with a grain of salt.

Any critical thinker knows this rule. He or she also knows to look closely at the person giving the advice, and measure that person's qualifications. After all, a person may have studied, experimented, and made mistakes in order to gain the wisdom he shares, or he may simply be a know-it-all leading you down the same path of folly and misery he chose for himself. It takes discernment. If the person claims to be an expert in his or her field, it shouldn't be hard to verify whether the title was earned or self-appointed. For writers, it's especially easy. A quick internet search will disclose how many books the person has authored (if any), and whether any of them were commercially successful.

Alternatively, bad advice can be -and often is- perfectly well-intentioned. More bad advice has probably come from classes than anywhere else. These classes are often taught by people who have little or no writing success themselves, and who are simply repeating some of the same advice they've heard and read all their lives. Here are a couple gems that every writer knows:

Show, don't Tell!
Write what you Know!

We're all familiar with these often repeated rules, because they're hammered into our brains from the time we write our first book report until we leave the school system. And they're both wrong. Why do I say that?  Because advice like this is very generic, very obtuse, when in reality it only applies to certain situations. Take the first example. If you decide to show, don't tell everything that happens in your 90,000 word novel, it might double if not triple in size. No publisher will want to buy it, and no reader will get through it. Human beings go through the motions of thousands of things in our daily lives that require no explanation. Your character or narrator shouldn't describe these events in detail if he can gloss over them in a paragraph or two and get on to the meat of the story. Would you show your character eating breakfast, brushing his teeth, taking a shower, getting dressed, finding the car keys, and so on when you can simply have him say, "I showered, toasted a muffin, and headed for work" ?

Also wrong with this advice is another obvious fact that seems to escape so many writing coaches: First person narrative tells everything. A novel written in first person, by its very nature is a perfect example of how wrong this rule can be. In this case, the exact opposite is true. Your character must tell, because everything that happens in the book is related through that character's voice and perspective. Writers of first person stories walk a dangerous line here, and to religiously follow the above rule would probably destroy such a book.

The second example, Write what you Know, has very little relevance in most fiction writing, unless you happen to believe that J.R.R. Tolkien actually visited the Misty Mountains and helped the elves and hobbits fight Sauron. Did Edgar Rice Burroughs watch a tribe of apes raise in infant in the jungle? Did he visit mars and rescue an alien princess? Did Robert E. Howard have a hobby of lopping people's heads off with a battle-axe? Obviously not. These writers most likely did some research about life in various unusual settings that they could draw upon in their fiction, but in real life they didn't experience much -if anything- of what they wrote.

However, the rule might apply perfectly well if you're writing Bridges of Madison County or The Kite Runner. Unfortunately, literary fiction makes up only a small niche of the commercial market, and it's not a very lucrative one, so following advice that is best applied to literary fiction is probably going to destroy your dystopian/zombie/fantasy/romance. Write what you know is a good thing if you're writing a memoir or a novel based on real events, but it won't get you far if you're writing about the adventures of a young hobgoblin in faerie-land.That's why generalizations are bad, and when they are turned into rules, they can be downright destructive. But you don't have to take my advice. What if one of the world's best-selling authors told you this? How about Stephen King? In his book, On Writing, King wrote:

“You don’t need writing classes or seminars any more than you need this or any other book on writing. Faulkner learned his trade while working in the Oxford, Mississippi post office. Other writers have learned the basics while serving in the Navy, working in steel mills or doing time in America’s finer crossbar hotels. I learned the most valuable (and commercial) part of my life’s work while washing motel sheets and restaurant tablecloths at the New Franklin Laundry in Bangor. You learn best by reading a lot and writing a lot, and the most valuable lessons of all are the ones you teach yourself.”

Does that mean writing classes and books are a complete waste of time? Of course not. Neither is taking advice from an old friend or a mentor. The important thing is exercising discrimination. Some advice, no matter how well intentioned, can destroy not just your career, but your life.Ultimately, as King says, the important thing is to practice what you do and learn from it. That's the difference between an amateur and a pro in any field, and it follows in writing as well.


2 comments:

  1. While I don't agree with your "Show, Don't Tell" philosophy here, we all know there are exceptions to every rule. I believe the "know what your write" that you mention is more directed for writers to have their story world and facts thought out in advance so they "know" them to spin them into the creation of the world building and storytelling.

    I do, however, think the best advice in this would be Stephen's King's "the important thing is to practice what you do and learn from it." We all have different learning styles and you have to do what best suits you to get better at what you do and there is always the old adage of "practice makes perfect."

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  2. Thanks for your comment. It's hard to find fault with most of King's advice, and that book is full of gems.

    Regarding your first comment, my issue with these rules is not in circumstances where they correctly apply, but the many situations where they do not, the very existence of which effectually means they shouldn't be rules at all. As you say, rules have exceptions, but when the exception applies as often (or more often) than the rule, then the rule shouldn't exist.
    I own novels by writers like H.G. Wells and Isaac Asimov that were almost entirely "told" rather than "shown," and those are just two examples out of dozens that I could find rather quickly. Many of those books are considered classics.

    I think writing coaches would do far less damage if they gave specific examples in a particular student's work, rather than making generalizations that be so can so easily misapplied, with such destructive results. Regardless, we're all free to take the approach the suits us best. As long as we're happy with the results (and selling lots of books!) then the rest is philosophical.

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