Roasting Chestnuts: In Which This Heretic Tackles Common Writing Advice

I catch flak periodically because my writing advice on this site kind of pinballs and ricochets around — I’ll say one thing one day, and another thing another day. My advice vacillates. Well, of course it does. Writing advice is not math. It is not laser-engraved in a titanium plate. Writers are beholden to very few inarguable rules. This isn’t 2  + 2 = 4. It’s 2 + 2 = anything you jolly well want it to be.

I have opinions. Those opinions change because I’m a human being with a crazy brain. Further, I am a writer, which means my already-crazy brain is shot through with whiskey, syphilis, and magical parasites. Writers are not born. They’re made. By eating contaminated lunchmeat at a very early age.

Plus, I really like playing Devil’s Advocate. Not for any intellectual reasons — it’s just, hey, the Devil’s awesome. He’s all like, “Check out my suit, it’s Versace,” and then he’s waxing his demonic ‘stache and buying me a sweet-ass margarita machine in exchange for my soul and then next thing I know he’s tickling my lips with the tines of his trident and he’s like, “Yeah, go on, put it in your mouth. Put it in there. Suck it. Show the Devil how you suck it.” And I’m like, “That’s weird, Satan. Your trident tastes like maple syrup and sadness.” Then I run and cry but he will always find me.

Wow, that went off the reservation, didn’t it?

Point is, it’s time to play Devil’s Advocate. I thought, for poops and chuckles we could bandy about some classic “old chestnuts” of writing advice and see how accurate or useful they really are. From time to time it’s good to flip it and switch it, look at things from a different perspective. Let us begin.

Writers Write (Run In Your Stupid Wheel, You Crappy Little Hamster!)

Damn, I opened with this one? Man. This one’s gonna be hard to refute. I mean, this is the backbone of the writer’s life, isn’t it? And isn’t this that one piece of super-critical advice that separates the wannabes from the definitely-dos? I guess the thing here is that writers are more than the sum of a day’s writing. Writers are editors. Writers are marketers. Writers are thinkers. A given day of “writing” might constitute redrafting, outlining, answering emails, drinking Bourbon, wrestling with bonobo monkeys, pimping your work, book signings, imaginary laser battles, and, of course, endless sobbing.

(Related: “Writers Don’t Do That“)

Write What You Know, Lest Everything You Write Be Inauthentic Piffle

This is bad advice in that it really doesn’t say what it means. Generally, simpler is better, and brevity is the soul of wit and all that bloo-dee-bloo. But here the advice is better written as:

“Write what you know, but make sure you recognize that you know a lot more stuff than you think you know and that in the struggle between fact and fiction, what matters is authenticity instead of hard data, so, no, while you’ve never been in a laser battle with a cyborg orangutan that doesn’t mean you haven’t undergone battles like hey remember that time in 9th grade when you and Roger Tyvock got into that sissy-slap fight in Mr. Grabknuckle’s Phys-Ed class, so in other words, bring your real life human experience into your fictional storytelling and mostly you should be fine. And when that fails you, go fuck around on Wikipedia for 15 minutes. Close enough for horseshoes and hand grenades!”

But I guess that advice is too long to fit on a cross-stitch sampler.

(Related: “Write What You Know, Yes Or No“)

Adverbs Are Like Pus Globules Exuding From Satan’s Nipples

Yeah! Fuck adverbs! Fuck them lustily and fuckily in their ears! … oh, wait, I’m supposed to be playing Devil’s Advocate. Uhhh. Okay, listen, adverbs aren’t the bad guy, here. Writers who overuse adverbs are the bad guys. Adverbs are fine — ‘The toad hopped swiftly from plate to plate’ is a not unreasonable sentence, nor is it a sentence devoid of rhythm. But, ‘”Go eat a dick and die,” Tony said crankily’ feels clunky (he said, clunkily) and frankly, unnecessary. Adverbs are okay when they’re not redundant and when they don’t break rhythm. Keep them away from the word “said.”

Writers Must Be Voracious Readers: Bibliovores Say: “Nom Nom Nom”

Yes. But. But. This, like all things, demands balance. Lots of writers — like, say, Chaucer — used to struggle with the notion of whether it’s more important to go out and live a life and find stories out there or whether it’s more important to sit at home and read. Here’s a bold proclamation from the Luciferan Advocacy Council: it’s more important to go out and live your life. Books aren’t telling you new stories. They’re also not telling you your stories. I mean, sure, if you just want to retell everyone else’s stories, by all means, sit at home and read. Okay, settle down — I’m not saying don’t read. But you don’t need to be some kind of gibbering bibliophile buried under books to be a writer. Read what you love, then go out and live your life.

Open With A Bang Or The Reader Will Fall Asleep And Drool On Your Book

Here’s why this is nonsense. The Bestest Actionest Action Movie Of All Time, DIE HARD, does not open with a bang. It opens with a dude on a plane getting advice about his toes. You need to open with character awesomeness rather than event and explosions. Here’s why opening on a bang is dangerous: because it assumes action, and action only matters when we give a rat’s right foot about the characters involved. Now, you can create that kind of sympathy in that action scene, sure, but it’s tricky. Just make sure that the character is what’s getting the full attention in those opening moments. From the first sentence we need to care about the characters in any work — film, novel, game, pornography, pamphlet, placemat, what-have-you. Though, don’t take this as an excuse to write some boring-ass ponderous intro, either.

Skip The Boring Parts Because The Reader Is Like A Crack-Addicted Housecat

Well, it’s hard to disagree with this — would anybody say, “Leave the boring parts in?” Anybody who says that hates the audience. And anybody who hates the audience should have their nuts burned with lava.

The only trick here is judging which part of the work is boring. It’s hard. Don’t judge this in the first draft because in the first draft, you’re swirling down the drain in the hate spiral. You might hate something or find a piece boring that, frankly, is no such thing. Let a second read reveal that. Let editors reveal that. Let a hot cup of ayashuasca tea reveal that during intense hallucinations while also leading you on a jungle odyssey spirit quest where you eventually conquer and make love to the Jaguar Queen of Xibalba.

“Only Use The Word Said,” He Said

Yeah, mostly? I’d say, 90% “said,” 10% “some other entirely appropriate word.” I’ve gone with protested, asked, exclaimed, stammered. But you start wandering too far afield — “I love pie,” he ejaculated — and the reader’s just going to think you’re a weirdo.

Prologues? More Like “Prolapsed Anuses!” Am I Right? High-Five!

Ennnh. Eh. Okay, isn’t this just because a lot of prologues suck? That’s why the rule exists in the first damn place. Because mostly, they’re garbage. “Here’s 2000 words that don’t immediately relate to the next 2000 words until you realize that later I’ve connected them but that doesn’t happen until the end of the book and I am like the preening peacock, don’t you like my elegant plumage?” Prologues are often a case of stunting, or writers showing off, and that’s not that much fun for the audience.

But that’s not to say prologues automatically suck balls by dint of them being prologues. Or that you shouldn’t use them. One of my favorite books, LAMB (The Gospel According To Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal) by Christopher Moore has a very short, simple, and hilarious prologue. It works in the context of the piece. That’s the key — does it work? Then use it. Does it not work? Well, duh. *smacks you in the chops* Then don’t use it. I’d say, don’t let a prologue be your default state. Write the book. If it needs a prologue, it will be revealed to you. Possibly in a dream after fornicating with the Jaguar Queen.

If You Touch A Thesaurus, You Will Get Monkey Gonorrhea

I fucking love the thesaurus. Not because I want to constantly look for the next ten-cent word but rather because my brain is total shit. I am constantly like, “What’s the word I’m looking for here? What is it? It’s a word, right? That means… this thing. I’m looking for a word about this thing.” Finally, my wife is like, “Taco?” And I’m like, “Yes! Taco! This is why I married you.”

Sometimes, you need the right word, and you have a word that’s close but not dead on, and so you go to the thesaurus. And you shouldn’t be punished for that. That’s just sad for you. And by you, I mean me.

Defeat Indefatigable Rules!

Hey. You. Yeah, you. Your turn. Lob up a classic chestnut of writing advice, and let’s see if we can’t all dismantle it with our cynical, skeptical knives. Slicey-slice! Dicey-dice! Chestnut salad!

56 comments

  • Wrestling with bonobo monkeys is actually part of my scheduled week: every Tuesday and Friday at about 3 PM. Sometimes later on Friday if the movie runs late.

    Also, I need to get a tattoo or something of Thesaurus Rex.

    Also also, great post.

  • Some of those rules have gotten mangled in the transmission.

    There’s nothing wrong with adverbs. Most readers won’t realize that they’re reading a story filled with adverbs unless a frustrated, unpublished, English literature major tells them the story has too many adverbs. Case in point, Harry Potter. I keep reading the complaint that Rowling overused adverbs, but they don’t jump out at me when I read the books. (I were a engineering major.) Interestingly enough, those same english majors don’t recognize that much of her prose is written in passive voice.

    “Writers must be voracious readers.” An observation which has been mangled into a rule. Most bestselling authors are also voracious readers. But being a voracious reader won’t give you the ability to write well.

    The prologue rule came out after a slew of aspiring fantasy writers included them in their stories because that’s what Tolkien did (or maybe it was Jordan.) Just because your favorite author uses prologues doesn’t mean that you need to use one in your story. But if you do, then do it right and do it well. Anne McCaffrey and Clive Cussler use prologues in their stories. Those are done well and are needed to understand the story. Use them as examples to work from.

  • Hmm… lesse… One of the most frequent things I’ve heard over the years is that you have to treat writing like work. As in the sit your ass in a chair for hours and pound out a chapter or two a day or your not worth shit type of work. Why can’t it still be considered working if you’re sitting outside with a laptop or a notebook for the longhand writers enjoying the day while kicking ass on your current project? I honestly can’t stand sitting at a desk for more than an hour in a day, and i think the ritual of being elsewhere, in an environment i enjoy, helps relax me and shut out the nagging bitch inside my mind that tells me i’m wasting my time… heheh

    • @Amanda:

      True dat. Writing is work, I think, but I don’t think it needs to be desk work. I think you go where the writing gets written. You go where the word count flows.

      Which is why I do all my writing in a Portuguese brothel.

      — c.

  • As an English teacher, I love adverbs. But only when they’re necessary. Most of the time, a strong, active verb can take care of that need. However, occasionally, one needs to use an adverb to get across as precise a point as possible. English is a clunky language; we can’t often define a concept in a single word like, say, German can. We have to make do with what we have.

    Also, thanks for the thesaurus love. As long as we’re not going Stephenie Meyer-style synonym crazy, we’re okay. I forget words. Sometimes, my brain wants me to use the same word over and over. And on the first read-through, it sounds great. But on revision, I find it repetitive and redundant and unbearable. So I hit a thesaurus and figure out that “obtain” does indeed work better than a 56th use of “get.”

  • >That’s the key — does it work? Then use it. Does it not work? Well, duh.<

    This pretty much sums it all up. IMHO, this is the only rule to writing.

    — says she who has used adverbs, a prologue, written about things I know little about, etc.

    • @Jess —

      Oh! Yeah, damn. Good one. What’s *your* feeling on that supposed gem?

      Hey, it’s mostly true. But again, it’s another one of those “so brief it kind of misses the point.” It doesn’t explain itself well enough. In fiction, we have to tell things frequently — everything can’t be driven by the grand, sweeping filmic reveal. We can’t hide things in the background. Sometimes you just have to say, “This is what the fuck is up, yo,” and drop that mic on stage and walk off, telling it like it is. Show when you can show, obviously — “Jim was ebullient” isn’t nearly as interesting as showing Jim’s ebullience in the scene. He’s dancing around his kitchen, he’s clicking his heels together, he’s singing karaoke into the toaster. We can see he’s happy — you don’t need to tell us that. But sometimes, in terms of conveying information or offering up past elements, writers are forced to tell. So, when you have to tell, just make it interesting, not a clunky concrete info dump KERCHUNK.

      Or something.

      That’s the best I can do with only a half cuppa coffee in me.

      MOAR COFFEE

      *guzzle snorfle ebullience*

      — c.

  • The one I always struggle with is not starting sentences with “There is”.

    I struggle with it more in my 40K writing, because starting a sentence with There Is is some pretty bombastic shit, and 40K is a pretty bombastic setting. But I still love it. I don’t do it a lot, but when the writing tone needs to be schooling someone, or it needs to be overblown and grand, then there is nothing better than There Is.

    I once had an argument in a pub about this. The other guy (who, for the record, was almost ludicrously ugly) said he would never write a single sentence that began with There Is, and that it was weak writing no matter how it was used.

    I replied by quoting this narration, verbatim:

    • @ADB:

      Is the “there is” thing a fairly canonized rule? I know it’s one of my big ones — the construction “there is” gets under my skin like a carpet of meth-addled chiggers — but I see it so often in writing I didn’t think it was really an old chestnut, as ’twere.

      For me, “there is” or “there’s” works in conversation or colloquial writing. So that’s for me how that rule can fall under stompy feet.

      But even still — brrr. You’re right though that movie trailers use it. They use it… in damn near every trailer, it seems. Though, I wouldn’t say that’s a good reason to put it into a novel. Movie trailers are marketing ad copy, not compelling fiction.

      Yeah. Works in dialogue. Works in conversational writing. Less so in more formal terms — at least for me.

      “There is cake.”

      Works as dialogue. “Hey, Judy. There’s cake. And inside it, there’s a male stripper with a pair of man panties that look like an elephant’s trunk.”

      Less so as straight-up prose. I don’t feel that it’s grand so much as hollow — like the booming ad copy on a movie trailer.

      Dang, now you got me talking about “there is” again.

      *shakes fist*

      — c.

  • Amen to the thesaurus thing. Well, amen to all of it, but that one really spoke to me.
    Sometime when I’m writing I can see the shape of the word in my head but I can’t remember what it is. It’s not just about finding the word that means the right thing. It’s also about finding the word that sounds the right way. But some people abuse that power and try to sound smarter than they really are.
    Maybe this would make a good rule of thumb: use the thesaurus for sound diction, NOT to sound like a dick.

  • “Maybe this would make a good rule of thumb: use the thesaurus for sound diction, NOT to sound like a dick.” – Dude, you freaking rock.

    “Less so as straight-up prose. I don’t feel that it’s grand so much as hollow — like the booming ad copy on a movie trailer.” – M’yeah, grand is the wrong word. Overblown (which has its place) is definitely closer to what I meant. They’re on the same racetrack, but they park in different pits.

  • “They’re on the same racetrack, but they park in different pits.”

    Dang, this comment thread is a QUOTEAPALOOZA.

    Overblown works — you do get that kind of thunderous melodrama out of the construction, sure.

    — c.

  • I think of things like “Show,don’t tell,”and “write what you know” as koans. They are not objectively true, but they unpack in all sorts of interesting ways as you learn more about the craft.

    I also tell my students that there are no rules, only techniques that may or may not work in any given circumstance.

    • I think of things like “Show,don’t tell,”and “write what you know” as koans. They are not objectively true, but they unpack in all sorts of interesting ways as you learn more about the craft.”

      I am totally into that notion. I mean, listen, I joke about these chestnuts, but to play Devil’s Advocate to the Devil’s Advocate (the Angel’s Advocate?!), these things are old gems for a reason — they contain a core of wisdom, and treating them like koans allows that wisdom to remain without them becoming rigid and needlessly sacrosanct.

      — c.

  • I’ve always had some issue with the “only use said” rule. Not that that is necessarily a good thing, but I rather enjoy “asked” and “responded” as a pair. Also, said feels clunky on its own to me at times.

    As far as other things? How about “Kill your darlings” as another one of those kind of vague ones.

    • Kill your Darlings is a good one. And, again, oft-misunderstood.

      I’ve seen it interpreted as, “If you love something, kill it,” which is ludicrous advice — why would you automatically cut the parts of your manuscript you love? Life doesn’t work that way. “I love my baby so much. Which is why I must put this baby in a basket and chuck it in a river. Good bye, baby. You were too good for this world.”

      The key for me there is in the word “darlings” — a darling is meant to be something that exists only to attract attention to itself, a precious, preening beauty mark that has no purpose in the story. The point is really that *just* because you love something doesn’t give you reason to keep it — it must be both loved and have purpose and place in the draft.

      But again, all that doesn’t fit on a cross-stitch sampler or bumper sticker.

      — c.

  • I would like someone to strike down the “x number of exclamation points per book” rule, because I break it all the damn time and have to back up and take them out, crying over each one.

    Look, unless you’re Chekhov, high tension = a lot of exclamation points.

    Bitch bitch bitch…

  • “That’s why the rule exists in the first damn place. Because mostly, they’re garbage.”
    This is pretty much why all writing “rules” exist. I think, specifically, they’re there to reign in novice writers that don’t know a well-written novel from a live firecracker. In my experience, writers that are just learning the ins and outs tend to take things too far, rather than the other way around, so “rules” and “advice” were made to help writers learn that less is more.

    You use thesauruses in the exact same way I do. I am constantly forgetting words.

  • Albert, that’s awesome.

    My rebuttal to Show Don’t Tell is: we can’t all be Proust and thank God for that. Remembrance of Things Past would look pithy if we all started showing every little bitty thing in our books.

    Kill Your Darlings infuriates me. I understand we’re often too close to our word to be wholly objective, but I’d like to think we wouldn’t be writers at all if we couldn’t reason out a halfway decent scene. Like, let’s string thousands of words together but then flail and have no idea what to do with them afterward, so much so that we should suspect the parts we like? We must not be very confident in ourselves.

  • The thesaurus bit, yes! I don’t ever go to the thesaurus to find a beautificus thirteen syllable word to substitute for ‘walk’. I do, however, go to the thesaurus all the damned time because I can’t think of the word ‘walk’. Throwing in a quick search of a related word usually turns up the more simple form I was after. Then again, sometimes it doesn’t, and then I just drink my sorrow away.

    I don’t have any random tidbits of common writing advice to throw into the bonfire. I’m helpful like that.

  • To thine own self be true. The idea that you have to defend your artistic integrity to the death is akin to saying, if you have to ask the price, you can’t afford it. There are some very literate readers out there who still have no objection to a fiery car crash, steamy romance, or a classic formula. Why do you think it’s classic? Because people like it.

  • I happen to strongly disagree with the “always use ‘said'” rule. I also find it interesting that you pair it with the “never use adverbs, especially with ‘said'” rule. Which means that you are killing any chance to add spice around the edges of your dialogue. Changing a ‘said’ to a ‘mused’ or a ‘declared’ is like adding salt to the pasta water. Sure, 90% of your flavor needs to be in the sauce, but adding a touch of flavor to the pasta itself really helps the meal.

    I’m guilty of going to the thesaurus overmuch. Of course, I also use words like “ebullient” and “preface” in my everyday language. It drives my wife crazy.

    I’m going to disagree with you slightly on Die Hard, but strongly agree with your point while doing so. I am vast, and contain multitudes. Die Hard does not open on a guy getting toe advice. It specifically opens on a man who is hard, clearly some kind of action-oriented guy, putting a cute stuffed bear in an overhead compartment. Five seconds of film, and we are already set in understanding that this guy is going to be our hero (villains don’t get soft relationships like that) is traveling (duh, he’s in a plane) to see someone he loves (probably a child, possibly a girlfriend). Because this kind of guy is embarrassed to carry that kind of toy, but does it because it’s important to him. Given the tropes of the genre, we can guess that his loved one is going to be put in mortal danger, and that’s going to be part of the central conflict. Now *that* is starting with a bang!

    • I happen to strongly disagree with the “always use ‘said’” rule. I also find it interesting that you pair it with the “never use adverbs, especially with ‘said’” rule. Which means that you are killing any chance to add spice around the edges of your dialogue. Changing a ‘said’ to a ‘mused’ or a ‘declared’ is like adding salt to the pasta water. Sure, 90% of your flavor needs to be in the sauce, but adding a touch of flavor to the pasta itself really helps the meal.

      I’m guilty of going to the thesaurus overmuch. Of course, I also use words like “ebullient” and “preface” in my everyday language. It drives my wife crazy.

      I’m going to disagree with you slightly on Die Hard, but strongly agree with your point while doing so. I am vast, and contain multitudes. Die Hard does not open on a guy getting toe advice. It specifically opens on a man who is hard, clearly some kind of action-oriented guy, putting a cute stuffed bear in an overhead compartment. Five seconds of film, and we are already set in understanding that this guy is going to be our hero (villains don’t get soft relationships like that) is traveling (duh, he’s in a plane) to see someone he loves (probably a child, possibly a girlfriend). Because this kind of guy is embarrassed to carry that kind of toy, but does it because it’s important to him. Given the tropes of the genre, we can guess that his loved one is going to be put in mortal danger, and that’s going to be part of the central conflict. Now *that* is starting with a bang!

      @Lugh —

      To be clear, I think DIE HARD is opening hella strong — it is opening, perhaps, with a character bang, but the *actual* bang (which is what the advice generally points to) doesn’t start until the end of the first act when the terrorists show up. Until then, it’s all very much character-building. Which is great.

      And adverbs aren’t the only thing that give spice and clarity (and I’ll note that I think clarity is more important than spice) — as you note, an occasional replacement of the word “said” works to add some extra dimension. But usually pairing adverbs with “said” ends up sounding clunky.

      “He said cheekily,” can better show instead of tell by having the character demonstrate cheekiness instead of relying on the adverb to conjure it in the reader’s mind. Some action (a wink, a leer, a smirk) to hammer it home.

      — c.

  • Wonderful stuff — loads of good sense there.

    When it comes to dialogue tags in general, adverby or otherwise, I try to stick to ‘said’ unless my mind just leaps out there and puts something else in there automatically. Even then, I do my best to make sure it’s something I would say in conversation with a friend, when describing a third party’s speech. i.e.:

    ‘My mum called. I asked how she was doing. “Fuck you,” she snarled. I think it was the goats.’

    Generally though, I’ll use an action if I really want a tag, rather than a descriptor:

    “Fuck you,” mum said. She coughed a thick dockyard oyster into my face. “And your goats.”

  • What a great crazy site! I love adverbs (I also happen to teach English), they make the language become alive. They are part of the beauty!

    I also like “ejaculated”, I can always shock my students when I ask them about the meaning of the word – hi, hi!

    Thanks for the insights!

  • So I’m reading a book that basically says run the find function and annihilate every –ly, exclamation point, synonym for said, cliché, ellipse, “there is”, “it is”, -ion, and doublet. I must also eliminate all body language and any words resembling amazing, fantastic, or in order to. If I fail, I will die a horrible death and my novel will never see the light of day hence the breakdown.

    • @Karen:

      Heh, yeah, that’s pretty intense. I mean, it holds some truth — a lot of writers go overboard and, further, some editors and agents will judge such inclusions harshly. So it pays to be diligent — but it also pays to make sure your work reads well and reads in your voice, so… well, like with everything, it’s a case of moderation.

      — c.

  • I think my problem is being objective. I teach English. I’m Satan with a red pen according to my students. I know I have to edit my work and be severe with it but I really want to tell the rules to go to hell. That the sentence- “Instantly, a smile sprawled across my face.” or “The smell of salt and rain in the air, the waves tumbling toward the coast, I inhaled deeply.” – are perfect sentences. Even if they are garbage. I’m sure it’s just because I’m a newbie. I’ll lose my sense of rule rebellion at some point. Maybe.

    • @Karen:

      The smile sprawl line is maybe a little overwrought (IMHO), but the follow-up line about the salt and rain has a nice rhythm to it. It shows rather than tells, conveying a sense of place rather than forcing it upon us. In the right context, that sentence could do nicely.

      For first drafts, I write however I write and whatever ends up on the page is what ends up there. I mean, I try to be judicious — I don’t vomit forth Finnegan’s Wake. But I also don’t go apeshit. First draft is a good time to play.

      Second draft is when the knives come out.

      — c.

  • Thanks Chuck! ” I don’t vomit forth Finnegan’s Wake. But I also don’t go apeshit. First draft is a good time to play.” I laugh every time. I don’t know if it’s possible not to smile at what you write unless you’re a complete asshat. I’ve actually tried reading Finnegan’s Wake. #Fail I think Joyce was like I dare you idiots to try and understand that.
    Thanks again.

  • Adverbs are okay when they’re not redundant and when they don’t break rhythm. Keep them away from the word “said.”

    HALLELUJAH!

    Of course, I find myself guilty of that from time to time, but when I read it, it makes me want to hurt something.

  • I love it. Sometimes I get paranoid about what I’m writing. Am I using too many adverbs? Did I overdo the metaphors? Did I show there? Aaaaaaack! Okay. I’m okay now. I think the rules are good starting points. In order to effectively break the rules, one needs to know how they function and why. There are definitely some folk who should stick to the rules (thinking of a novel I finished the other day that broke way too many rules and not in a pretty way).

  • There seem to be dozens of style ‘rules’ about what words / sentence structures / other grammatical stuff you should or should not use and they all suffer from the same flaw, they make assumptions about what effect you’re trying to create. Personally I say throw the rulebook in the bin and just try and understand the effects different sentence structures / tenses / word choices etc have and pick the one that gives the effect you want to create.

    Also the whole show don’t tell thing… okay suppose I’m starting a story with the last battle of a long and ruinous war because I want to tell an after the end type story about the survivors, it seems to me that I can either tell my readers this by starting with a sentence like ‘Three hundred years of bloody conflict lead up to this moment’ and then carry on to show this battle or I can write a prequel.

  • I didn’t realize people felt so strongly about adverbs. The problem with adverbs is they’re usually used in place of a strong verb. Adverbs don’t make the language become alive, they make the language live. See? (No offense meant to the original commenter, it’s just a perfect example.) Adverbs that convey the who/what/where/when can get a pass, but when you start going with the how function, it’s easy to get lazy.

    I also have no problem with words other than said, *in moderation.* I read a book where the author rarely used said and it was so obvious it was cringeworthy. The reason said works is it fades into the narrative.

  • Hey Chuck. I’ve been reading your blog for a little while. It makes me snort far more than usual. Also, you say you use the thesaurus to find a word you’re looking for?
    http://www.whatsthisword.com is pretty awesome. You just fill in the letters you know and it lists possible words.

  • I hate the rule that says I have to hate what I’m writing.

    Fuck. I think everything I write is golden.

    Of course, I usually come back down to earth. But for awhile…golden. Otherwise I couldn’t go on.

  • Well, do you mean cliche dialogue, or cliche situations? Cliches can be wonderful things. For one thing, they’re known quantities, which means by using them you can draw on collective knowledge. Which then means you can play with the reader by playing with their expectations. You use the cliche once, and set a pace. The next time, maybe change it up and throw a curve ball.

    They’re also impossible to avoid for the most part.

  • Dialogue.

    I read a piece that used this gem. “What do you want?” “You know what I want. I want the name.” and this one about 4 times “I have a proposition for you.”

    No where in the five pages was there one mobster or prostitute. Disappointing.

  • The chat has rolled on passed (and past) this topic but I’ve only just found this “terrible” site and I’m intrigued by all the defensiveness over poor old Thesaurus. I was reared on it. It’s a wonderful book – “there are” small words as well as long ones. It stops you repeating yourself and boring the reader, it also helps you find the exact meaning you need – thank kind of precision is important for flash fiction, and it’s great for sheer inspiration….and a laugh. I suspect some of you secretly love it too, so come out of the closet :-)

  • I know you don’t like origin stories, but how do you feel about prologues in movies before lets say the titles, setting things up for us, showing, not telling, cutting out future exposition or do you like just stepping in and seeing the characters for how they are when the story starts? is including a prologue of how they met, etc., etc., insulting to an audience? I’d be very interested in what you think being a past pupil of the Sundance Lab! I hope I’m articulating what I’m trying to get across. ie, the audience can come to the same conclusion that the writer, actor or audience could come to about certain things. perhaps vague is best. if someone is a drug dealer we don’t need to see how they came to be that way and piece the parts together ourselves…have I answered my own questions?! :)

  • I’ve seen the attributor, ‘he ejaculated.’ It was in George Gipe’s adaptation of the movie ‘Explorers.’ It’s been more than twenty-five years since I read that book and I still remember it.

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