The Danger of Writing Advice From Industry Professionals
Yesterday, a literary agent on Twitter stepped into a big pile of Twitter poop. One assumes this agent meant well. He, the agent who shall remain nameless as he has since deleted his tweet, popped on with a bit of intense, over-the-top writing wisdom (“wisdom”) that said, paraphrased, cut out all of the adverbs and adjectives from your book. All of them. Every last one of those little motherfuckers — axe ’em. They are ill beasts to be put down.
My response, was of course, to go even bigger:
DELETE ALL REFERENCES TO PLACE AND TIME IN YOUR BOOK. ALL OF THEM. GET RID. YOUR BOOK SHOULD FEEL TIMELESS AND AS IF IT IS FLOATING IN THE NETHERVOID.
DELETE ALL NAMES IN YOUR BOOK. EVERY LAST ONE. PURGE THEM. NAMES MARK US AS INDIVIDUAL BEINGS AND TRUE STORYTELLERS KNOW THAT WE ARE ALL ONE TERRIBLE, NAMELESS ENTITY.
PUNCTUATION IS A CRUEL VIOLATION OF THE SACRED WHITE SPACE OF THE PAGE, AND TO SUMMON READERS YOU MUST ELIMINATE ALL PUNCTUATION. BE SHUT OF THESE HUMAN, FLESHBAG NEEDS. YOUR READERS WILL THANK YOU IN DREAD ULULATIONS
SOON YOUR WORK WILL BECOME TRULY SUBLIME. YOU WILL HAVE CUT OUT THE FAT. AND THE TENDON. YOU WILL HAVE BECOME RID OF THE RUINED MEAT OF EXISTENCE. THE BOOK MUST BECOME ONLY BONE. SHARP, HEART-KILLING BONE.
REMOVE ALL WORDS FROM YOUR BOOK. GET. RID. OF. WORDS. THE BOOK MUST BECOME A SERIES OF GRUNTS AND ANGRY GAZES. THAT IS HOW YOU WRITE A BESTSELLER. YOUR BOOK IS A DEFIANT, WORLD-CLEANSING WIND. IT IS THE GASP OF A DYING GOD. THE FLASH OF A STAR IMPLODING.
And of course, that’s all very bad advice.
It’s very bad advice because there exists this occasional movement toward severe austerity cuts inside fiction, as if every bit of prose should be cut down to the bone, and then the bone whittled to a spear that can be thrust cleanly through the reader’s heart. There’s nothing wrong with austerity in prose, if it’s what you seek and if it’s what the story demands. There’s also nothing wrong with adding fat to the prose in the form of descriptive language. One’s voice as an author and in terms of the book you’re writing is useful, even vital, to preserve; I often note that originality in fiction is utter bullshit, except in the area where it really matters, which is to say, YOU. You, the author, are the one original component that can be brought to a story. Your ideas. Your fears. Your preferred arrangement of elements. And, obviously, your voice.
Now, that’s not to say that BUT IT’S MAH VOICE is a good reason to keep bad writing. Bad writing is bad. But bad writing does not mean, “writing that includes adverbs and adjectives.”
Adjectives and adverbs should be kept when they are impactful and provide clarity to the narrative. Use them with intentionality. Use them because without them, the work cannot be properly conveyed. Removing adjectives will force us not to describe things, and while over-describing things is bad, describing essential parts of the story is just fine. We want the reader to know what they’re seeing. And never mind the fact that the constant tolling of the anti-adverb bell always seems to misunderstand that adverbs don’t just mean SHE RAN OVERLY SORROWFULLY THROUGH THE GARDEN, it also means words like “later,” or “everywhere,” or “never” or “alone.” And so the advice really should be, don’t use adverbs or adjectives when they sound awkward, or when they fail to tell us something that we need to know.
All this goes toward the old chestnut of SHOW, DON’T TELL in fiction. But even that is an oft-misunderstood chestnut, innit? SHOW DON’T TELL is half-nonsense because, spoiler warning, you’re always telling a story. It’s why it’s called storytelling. It’s why your book isn’t a fucking movie. You must use words to — oh no — tell it. SHOW DON’T TELL isn’t a rule; it’s a trick. You’re trying to trick the reader into feeling like they’re being shown a thing rather than told a thing. Which is fine and admirable to attempt.
All this, really, is beside the point.
The point today is that you should beware writing advice from people with power inside the publishing industry — which, I know, sounds terribly counterintuitive. But please, follow the bouncing ball of my logic:
And yet, I give it. I give it because I like to think about this stuff and talk about this stuff and often talking about writing helps me unpack the problems I’m having with writing. So, yes, writing advice is bullshit. Bullshit can fertilize; it has value. But you still gotta know that it’s bullshit. I also increasingly like to make clear that writing advice is nothing more than giving an opinion, and it is similar to the opinion as to how one should wear their hair or parent their child: while there are a few cardinal rules, for the most part, it’s DO WHATEVER THE HELL YOU LIKE, BECAUSE WHATEVER WORKS IS WHATEVER WORKS.
Nearly every piece of writing advice can be taken, tested, and found wrong. Because inevitably there exists a novel — a popular novel, either bestseller or an award-winner or both — that does exactly the thing you’re Not Supposed To Do. Or it doesn’t do the thing that Everyone Is Supposed To Do. Novels break the rules all the time because ultimately, no rules exist. (The one rule that does exist is that you must finish your shit. A book can never exist until you finish it, and so all books pass that indestructible law.)
The problem is when people inside the industry — writers, yes, but more notably editors and agents and other publishing folk — make declarative statements about writing and style and story without first letting people know, “This is my preference, not an ironclad rule.” Newer writers, aka LI’L BABY PENMONKEYS WANDERING THE DARK WOODS OUTSIDE WRITERTOWN, take this shit as Golden Law. They accept it to have been given from On High, and so now it is Sacred, even though it’s no more sacred than the steaming load that falls out of a bull’s ass.
So, I just want to note that you should be wary of writing advice from people inside publishing — not that you should dismiss it or disregard it. To the contrary, you should try using the bullshit to fertilize your own narrative fields, and see if anything grows there. But take nothing as chiseled into stone. Make no assumptions about the indefatigability and righteousness of their advice. It’s just advice. They’re just telling you how they prefer you wear your hair. But they also don’t know. For every bit of writing wisdom they believe that they believe, they will probably have that faith tested — and defeated — again and again, because what works works, and what doesn’t, doesn’t.
If you’re a person inside publishing giving out writing advice, try to be cautious how you frame it. I’ve grown increasingly aware that the impact of my assertions can be dangerous; indeed, what works for you, what you like, may help someone. But it may set others off the path, and the best thing you can do is to frame your advice with a lot of flex in the joints, ensuring that people know full-well that what you’re offering is only your opinion, and nothing more.
NOW PLEASE GO AND READ MY BOOK ABOUT STORYTELLING
see, that’s how you pivot to sweet, sweet marketing, everyone
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DAMN FINE STORY: Mastering the Tools of a Powerful Narrative
What do Luke Skywalker, John McClane, and a lonely dog on Ho’okipa Beach have in common? Simply put, we care about them.
Great storytelling is making readers care about your characters, the choices they make, and what happens to them. It’s making your audience feel the tension and emotion of a situation right alongside your protagonist. And to tell a damn fine story, you need to understand why and how that caring happens.
Whether you’re writing a novel, screenplay, video game, or comic, this funny and informative guide is chock-full of examples about the art and craft of storytelling–and how to write a damn fine story of your own.