writing rules

Let Me Tell You This…

Here’s my final word on “Show, don’t tell.”

This phrase is sanctimoniously quoted in almost every discussion among writers. Critiques frequently contain the comment, “Too much telling, not enough showing.”

This has started to bug me. It’s too pat, repeated so often it has become meaningless. What’s more, it’s a rule that’s broken all the time, by successful, widely published authors.

I recently started reading Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay. People have gushed about his books to the point I decided to try one as summer vacation reading. Imagine my surprise when I found the beginning, the all-important-hook-’em-in-the-first-few-pages part to consist of Telling. Paragraph upon paragraph of it:

Amid the ten thousand noises and the jade-and-gold and the whirling dust of Xinan, he had often stayed awake all night among friends, drinking spiced wine in the North District with the courtesans.

They would listen to flute or pipa music and declaim poetry, test each other with jibes and quotes, sometimes find a private room with a scented, silken woman, before weaving unsteadily home after the dawn drums sounded curfew’s end, to sleep away the day instead of studying.

Here in the mountains, alone in hard, clear air by the waters of Kuala Nor, far to the west of the imperial city, beyond the borders of the empire, even, Tai was in a narrow bed by darkfall, under the first brilliant stars, and awake at sunrise.

In spring and summer the birds woke him. This was a place where thousands upon thousands nested noisily: fish-hawks and cormorants, wild geese and cranes. The geese made him think of friends far away. Wild geese were a symbol of absence: in poetry, in life. Cranes were fidelity, another matter.

Pure “telling,” with backstory yet, and three one-sentence paragraphs, another no-no. And yet, it’s beautiful, compelling writing. It captured my attention and kept it.

So now I’m thinking that “Show, don’t tell,”  is not a rule but a metaphor, a short way of saying “Write vivid, smoothly flowing sentences that create images in readers’ minds and resonate memorably in their ears.” Or my favourite: “Make a mind-movie for your reader.”

Now back to GGK’s version of Tang Dynasty China.

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Writing Rules Re-Quibbled

I was reading another post by a “writing blogger” earnestly explaining the difference between showing and telling, when something occurred to me. The post repeated all that stuff about using “strong” verbs to show, with an example of how much better it is to write “She bubbled with excitement,” than the boring “She was excited.”  “Bubbled” is viewed as a strong verb and therefore desirable, while “was” is pale and weak.

But what about that other often-quoted rule — Never use a word other than “said” to attribute dialogue. Words such as mumbled, yelled, whispered, replied, declared and opined are frowned upon.

Now I ask — why? Why is it OK for the character to bubble with excitement, but not OK for her to mutter or opine? Why is “said” good and “was” bad?

My own take on all this? Far be it from me to add to all those self-contradicting Rules for Writers, but I think it’s a mistake to declare any word or writing practice taboo. “Was” and its variants are excellent one-syllable words invisible to the reader’s eye. They do the job admirably when the point of a sentence is to deliver information succinctly. Colourful words (bubbled, plunged, darted, crumbled) are indispensable in situations where the writer wants to be cinematic, to create a mind-movie for the reader. Knowing when to use which technique is one of the skills a writer needs to develop.

And finally — this making up of writing rules is sort of a weird little niche some people have wandered into, possiby a sub-category of “those that can’t do must teach,” Elmore Leonard notwithstanding. (Moreover, I suspect that when a writer is asked to supply rules and tips for other writers to follow, they will inevitably come up with a few. But that doesn’t mean those are the only rules worth following).

So endeth the screed on this Boxing Day. (I remember hearing once that Boxing Day was called that because boxing matches were held somewhere on the day after Christmas. Not true, but then there’s post-Christmas crabbiness induced by fighting the crowds for Boxing Day bargains — not something I would ever do, but perhaps it explains the combative tone of this post).

Fistfights in the Salon, or, What is Good Writing, Really?

The Fiction Writers Guild at LinkedIn has the best discussions about writing — mostly articulate, no obscenities but a lot of hot zingers. Even the trolls are civil. Like most of my recent posts on writing, this one was inspired by (mostly) lurking on these discussions.

Self-publishing is a kind of salon des refuses of the literary world, populated by writers who have been rejected by traditional publishers or decided to bypass them. Lately it has been full of turmoil about “bad” writers churning out inferior prose that makes everyone look bad, even those who have diligently honed their craft. Online discussions about writing almost always come down to this — what is good writing, and why don’t those bad writers ever listen? People jump in wielding metaphorical fists and philosophical razors, the action gets frothy and eventually peters out, exhausted. The following week it all starts up again from a different angle. Recently, there has been a vigorous discussion as to who should write reviews on Amazon — not self-published authors, some say, because they are self-serving. Not just any old reader either, but — get this — only “professional critics” who have been endorsed by editors (those all-knowing editors again!)

From the vantage point of this obscure blog, I offer my thoughts. Entering a minefield here — strap on flame-proof armour!

Before I was a writer, I was a reader (and remain one), so I approach the question from that point of view. I think it’s impossible to define good (or, for that matter, bad) writing in technical terms, but “good” books have specific effects on readers.

A good book leaves an imprint on the reader’s mind, generating longings for it between reading sessions. Especially good books have this effect long after being read, resulting in re-readings, sometimes many of them. The characters become friends whose company the reader misses, and the settings they inhabit are dream-places the reader wants to revisit.

This is irrational stuff, or perhaps “sub-rational.” As a reader, I relate to books in an emotional way. Some generate positive emotions, others are repellent. When reading a book that delights me, I’m not consciously aware of technical issues. I may notice them after several re-readings, but by then I don’t care because that book has become one of “my” books, sort of like a friend whose minor flaws I am willing to overlook. It’s entirely possible to become attached to books that are technically imperfect, although too many obvious typos or other errors jolt the reader out of the story on the first reading, preventing the bonding process.

If readers’ attachments to certain books are emotionally-based, no wonder it’s impossible to come up with a definitive set of criteria for good writing. A rational approach lends itself to creating such a list, but that belongs in the realm of academic literary criticism, which is not what most readers engage in when they give an opinion on a book they have read. This is actually a good thing for writers because it broadens the realm of action, throwing open an infinity of creative possibilities. Think of a blank canvas and a full spectrum of pigments as opposed to the outlines and little paint pots in a paint-by-numbers set. Why would writers want to fence themselves in with a write-by-numbers set of rules?

This is why discussions that try to define “good writing” frequently become heated and are never conclusive. For writers who are looking to do something other than write, they can be amusing, and for bloggers in need of topics they are useful.

Hooks, Tics and Tension

When I read a work in progress presented for critique, I am a different sort of reader than when I read a completed book for entertainment. As a critiquer, I am looking for things to critique — awkward dialogue, improbable situations, confusing structure and so on. As a regular reader, I’m not consciously looking for anything, just going with the flow of the narrative wherever it takes me. Only if that flow is interrupted or destroyed do I notice the actual writing, and even then I don’t think about it much but simply stop reading.

If a piece of writing is effective, the casual reader doesn’t have to think about it, any more than someone luxuriating in a hot tub has to think about the plumbing. Most writers I know, myself included, write for that ideal reader, making the narrative flow easily to help them create a mind-movie.

But before there’s a casual reader, there are non-casual ones, aren’t there? Fellow writers in critique groups, test readers, and (if the work becomes a submission), publishers’ readers or editors. They resist being carried along. The first two are on the lookout for bumps or snags, and the gatekeepers are looking for reasons to throw the manuscript onto the “rejects” pile and move on to the next one.

I touched on tics a few posts ago, when I mentioned a recommendation to target the word “that,” removing as many instances of it as possible because in many cases it is redundant and slows down the flow. I have read similar suggestions about other words: only, just, still, some, had (as in the much-maligned past perfect) and was. The trouble is that if you read with the target word in mind, that word is all you see; the piece of writing becomes otherwise meaningless. It’s sort of like the dripping tap or the ticking clock — once the sound has claimed your attention, it’s all you can hear. The best way to look for any of these suspect words would be with the Find feature in Word, which lets you hop from one instance of a word to the next and decide whether it’s needed. But if you are doing a general read-through, don’t focus on a specific word.

So much for tics.  How about hooks? Writers are told that to keep a reader’s interest they must “plant a hook” at the beginning of a novel and at the end of every chapter until the work bristles with them, like a longline fishing setup from which a reader cannot possibly escape. The trouble is that not every type of writing lends itself to the hook-planting technique. Quite often a bridge or a winding path is more appropriate, or an alluring vista in the distance. I suspect the whole hook business comes from readers who must get through dozens or hundreds of submissions from the slush pile. To keep them interested, hooks are absolutely essential — no hook, no luck.  Many casual readers, I think, don’t need hooks everywhere, only writing that’s easy to read (in the sense of “flow”), punctuated with instances of greater intensity (action, tension, sex or transcendence) at regular intervals. These may be called hooks, I suppose, but in that case we may need a different term for devices that generate readers’ interest.

Finally, tension. At a recent critiquing session, I was told that one of my scenes lacked tension. I made things too easy for my characters and they needed to experience more difficulties. Well, OK, maybe so. Rewriting, I added a few obstacles and disconcerting moments. I’m aware of the advice to “Torture your characters. Make life really hard for them, because that’s what makes a good read.” Indeed, but like any other fictional devices, the obstacles must be plausible and contribute to the plot. Traps set for their own sake may well snap down on the writer if they lengthen the story too much or create a lot of pointless detours.

What’s this post about, really? Partially it’s me venting my annoyance at the suggestion that a piece of my writing is flaccid. More justifiably, it’s me questioning another set of Rules for Writers. Show me a rule and I’m inclined to quibble with it. Creative writing isn’t something you can do by slavishly following a set of rules, like a paint-by-number. Come to think of it, visual artists don’t seem to bother much with rules any more. It’s true that some artists are more successful than others, but that’s true for us writers too. We make our choices and take the consequences depending on our individual situations. If I had a publisher’s team behind me, investing their time and treasure in marketing my work, I would have a real incentive to follow whatever rules they came up with. But I don’t, so I can write things like the foregoing with impunity (I hope).

The Rules of Writing: Fun to Make and Break

Recently CBC Radio issued a challenge to its followers to write sentences breaking Elmore Leonard’s ten rules of writing. I suspect the assumption was that the results would be examples of really bad writing, and therefore chuckleworthy.

Setting the challenge aside here, I wonder if that assumption is justified. Surely it depends on what kind of thing a writer is writing. Rules that apply to gritty, hard-boiled urban fiction may be totally wrong for romance, or fantasy, or Literature with a capital “L.” There may be a few fundamental rules that apply to all writing, but I’m not sure that Elmore Leonard’s list qualifies.

I have to admit, this topic of Rules of Writing is one that I find hard to leave alone. It’s like salted nuts, or maybe like a burr, because I find such rules irritating. Never mind whose rules they are; as soon as I perceive that someone is pontificating to writers (even other writers), I go into combat mode, or at least argument mode. A year ago the Guardian newspaper published writing rules by a large number of writers. Some are quirky, or just funny. From Canada’s own Margaret Atwood:  take two [italics mine] pencils with you on planes, in case one breaks and you can’t sharpen it because no one can take a knife on a plane any more. (But are those little stick-it-in-and-twist pencil sharpeners confiscated by security, I wonder?) See what I mean about arguing?

So what about Mr. Leonard’s rules? I agree with a few of them, such as the one about avoiding adverbs (words that end in “ly,” including “suddenly”) — and not just to modify “said.” Ditto exclamation points and dialect.  Also, I would add, italics.

But I think some of the rules are too restrictive. Yes, it’s best to carry dialogue with “said,” but sometimes you need another word, as when a character doesn’t just say something, but splutters, groans, sighs or mutters. Words like these add texture and juiciness. They should be used sparingly, like spices, but not banished from a writer’s vocabulary.

Come  to think of it, Mr. L. uses “never” way too many times in his rules.

Weather and description. Mr. L. says never to start a book with weather and to avoid descriptions of people, places or things. I think it’s a matter of degree. Having your character stand there like a dummy while you give a verbal snapshot of their clothing, hair and accessories doesn’t work. But readers want to know something about your main characters, including what they look like. The trick is to create vivid images of them by slipping details into sections of action or dialogue, so people don’t even recognize the descriptive bits as such. As for weather and places, these can be opportunities for “beautiful writing,” the kind that gives the writer a frisson when he or she reads it over at the end of a writing session. The trouble is that readers don’t always share those frissons and often skip over those sections to find out what happens next. Sad  but true, at least for plot-driven books. Writers of the literary type may get away with beautiful writing, because they attract readers who enjoy that sort of thing.

Rule #10 is one of those sneaky lines that gets remembered and quoted; it’s also guaranteed to induce anxiety in the insecure writer (and just about all of us are insecure at some point). “Try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.” So what parts are those? Here is my quick top-of-brain list of what to look for in your never-ending revision sessions:  1. Long paragraphs that contain extended descriptions or backstory, even though the writing is beautiful. Consider cuts or moves. 2. Extended sections of dialogue with no action, especially those where the speakers are not identified. 3. Long action sequences of the sort where all hell breaks loose for several pages. They may be crammed with verbs, but when they go on and on, the little movie-maker in the reader’s brain gets tired and wants a break. Have your characters go for a drink and talk about the weather.