Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Writing Advice to Ignore

Many years ago, I went bowling with a big group, all of us related in one way or another. I love to recreate as much as the next person, but in general, bowling isn’t my idea of a good time, and this particular outing became especially fraught as one by one, nearly everyone in our group—fortified by beer—tried to turn me into a bowling superstar with his or her advice.

Hold the ball this way. No, that way. Pivot here. No, like this. Slide. Don’t slide. Swing back more. Swing back less.

Not a fun night.

Advice is lovely, as long as it’s measured and proven and consistent. But in our eagerness to help, we often fail to consider how contradictory and even potentially damaging a bit of oversimplified advice may be.

Here, some common writing advice worth ignoring (or at least thinking through):

§  Focus on the main character: While it’s true that readers will want to empathize with your protagonist, it shouldn’t be at the expense of your secondary characters. Even minor characters should be memorable.

§  If your work is literary, emphasize character; if you write genre fiction, emphasize plot: Character and plot are too deeply intertwined to be separated. No matter what the genre, readers expect engaging characters and riveting stories.

§  Show, don’t tell: A common beginner’s mistake is to substitute exposition for scenes that show rather than tell. But don’t overcorrect. If you eliminate all telling, you’re missing out on opportunities for reflection, emotional depth, and narrative distance.

§  Reveal what you know: In some ways, good writing is like a comedy act—it’s all in the timing. Knowing when and where to withhold is essential to creating narrative tension.

§  You’re either a pantser or a plotter: These are fun, handy terms for describing a writer’s process. A pantser writes by the seat of her pants; as words spill onto the page, she watches her work find its shape. A plotter plans out her book, then writes to the plan. But while some of us may lean in one direction or the other, our best writing often comes from a combination of pantsing and plotting.