Don’t tell me how to write

So, I skipped a blog post. I know you didn’t notice, and odds are very good that you don’t read many of them, but I still need to talk about the last few months and why blog posts have been fewer or book reveal substitutions.

First, it’s because I’ve been releasing books from The Book of Carter every month since November, and that’s been exhausting. They weren’t all written, when I started which has also been a new experience for me – I have always had a book tucked away for a long time before I published it, before now, because it gives me a lot more space to think about it and be ready for editing and revisions. They say that you (the author) know what’s supposed to be there, so you don’t read what’s actually there. And to an extent, that’s universally true. If you mis-use idioms in your everyday speech, you will mis-use them in your writing and never, ever catch it. If you use homonyms and don’t know one from the other, you need to read with a list of those puppies in the very front of your mind and actually go look them up – every single time – when they show up in your writing. (Pallet/palette, I’m looking at you!) But there’s a rule among people who write software for a living that holds true, too, that I don’t ever hear authors referencing:

If you wrote that piece of code more than six months ago, someone else may as well have written it, for all the good your own memory is going to do you.

And that’s so true for me. I read sentences and go… I have no freaking clue what those words were supposed to mean. Just none. Something about an old woman and a boat and a goat and a bale of hay, and yeah, I know what the reference is (it’s a riddle I like), but how in the world did I think it fit into the story here?

So I pull it. And figure out what else was supposed to go there.

It works for me.

(It’s also why I have so many novels sitting on my hard drive – and my inbox and my jump drives and a buncha other places – that haven’t gone out yet. That and because covers. Covers are hard.)

So I’ve been releasing Book of Carter novellas, and that’s taken a huge amount of focus.
More than that, though, I’ve been going through the three most productive writing months of my writing calendar. They start with November (the beginning of my writing calendar, which I wrote about here) and NaNoWriMo, and they culminate with JanuWriMo (completely unaffiliated) with December sandwiched there in the middle with all this momentum and goodwill and days inside, and I just go for it. This year has been no exception.

I got so much done.

One of those things was not routine blog posts.

This is not an apology.

It isn’t even a very good explanation.

This is a very long-winded open to my topic today.

November and January are community writing months. This is massively motivating to me, and I do several more of them over the course of the year because of how much more productive I am and because of how much happier I am while writing. Having people around, for writers, is novel. I pounce on that.

The other thing that happens when you get that many writers together in one place talking about writing, talking about productivity, talking about words and stories and ideas, is that you get writers asking each other for advice and posting pieces of fiction for consumption and critique.

And mostly this works out pretty well. Authors who are nervous get confirmation, other authors get a chance to read from an outside perspective and think about how they’d do what they’re seeing, to pull apart the process of writing just this bit and see what’s going on inside of it. This is healthy and a great way for both sides to learn. (Let me open with that, quite emphatically. I’d be breaking my own thesis if I said that this is bad.)

That said, I hate posting ‘snippets’ because, first, I don’t think they capture the flow of a story and all of the structure that leads up to that piece of fiction. (Obviously first lines don’t have that: they have their own drawbacks.) Second, though, I don’t like people telling me how to write. And I don’t like watching people tell each other how to write.

(A few of these are specific examples I’ve seen, but I’m going to try to bury them in generic examples to try to keep my personal grievances out of it.)

First person/third person.
Past tense/present tense.
Adverbs.
Outlines vs. freeform (pantsing!)
Dialogue tags.
Split infinitives.
Commas! (Some commas are mandatory. Not many. I believe in the Oxford comma, but… okay, I won’t drag that out any more.)
Expletives.
Volume of description.
Exposition.
Show vs. tell.
Fast vs. slow.
How characters should behave.

I think that there are times an places when any option may be the right one. I really do.

When you look at the classics, at the most popular books today (completely different set of books), at the things you really enjoy the most (another set of books), you’ll find stuff that’s all over the map in terms of how the words fit together, and I can just about guarantee that you’d find all manner of processes on the parts of the writers.

There is no right answer.

As far as I’ve been able to come up with, there are two rules to writing.

1. It must be clear.
2. Characters must have agency.

I’d love to add other things to that list, like ‘it must be entertaining’ or ‘things should happen’ or ‘the plot should make sense’, but I can’t stand behind those statements. It’s entirely possible to write a good story without them. It’s actually possible to write a good story that is unclear, and it’s possible to write a good story with characters who don’t have agency (agency: an agenda of their own that they are following), but those are truly elevated writing techniques that can ignore my two rules. You want your mousy, four-foot-flat wallflower to decide at the end of the book that she wants to be an MMA fighter? Do it. But earn it. You want to use bunches of adverbs? Do it. But be clear.

And then.

And then.

Realize that some people may not enjoy it.

Realize, also, that exactly the rule that someone is trying to tell you you’ve broken may be the one that makes you who you are, as a writer. Own your own voice.

I don’t like it when other people tell me how to write.

They can tell me how they reacted to my writing. Cool. (Awesome.) But it’s my job to take what they have to say about what I’ve written and either change or not, based on it.

I don’t like when writers try to tell each other how to write.

Our world is made up entirely of guidelines.

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