Setting Free The Sacred Cows Of Writing Advice

(I was going to go with, “Slaughtering the Sacred Cows,” which would have allowed me to segue neatly into a topical INTERNATIONAL HOUSE OF BURGERS MADE FROM SACRED COWS joke, but obviously I decided to go a nicer way with it.)

(Ahem.)

I did a thing on Twitter yesterday about this, but it also feels like a thing that should go here, in my blog, if only because I’m sure one day hackers will take down Twitter, and when they do, all of my wisdom — “wisdom,” he says, using vigorous bunny-ear air-quotes — will be flushed down the digital shitter. My post on Kill Your Darlings was sprung from a wellspring of wicked smart Twitter chatter from the likes of Jeannette Ng, Ann Leckie, Delilah S. Dawson, and it has since spun off further conversation about some of sacred cows of writing advice — the classics, the undefeated laws, the oft-repeated “rules” of writing stories. And of course like all so-called rules, they’re 49% truth, 51% bullshit — so I thought it’d be worth taking some time again to talk about which parts of them are bullshit, and why.

So, let’s SLAUGHTER

uhh I mean SET FREE?

the Sacred Cows of writing advice.

Let us begin.

Show, Don’t Tell

Nonsense! Shenanigans! Flim-flam banapants! Show, Don’t Tell isn’t a rule — it’s a trick. You literally cannot show something with your prose. All of prose is telling. It’s why we call it ‘storytelling.’ It is currently in vogue to write in a ‘cinematic’ way, especially through certain genres — thrillers, SFF, etc. — but that’s just a ruse. It’s a linguistic way to make the work seem more visual, and by proxy, open to some interpretation.

Example: you might not say, “Jessica was fucking pissed,” and instead, show the signs of her being mad. (She’s pacing, nostrils flaring, gritting her teeth, cursing under her breath, stomping her feet, kicking a trash can, punching a side of frozen beef, rage-eating lasagna, whatever.) So, as in reality, we don’t truly know her mind. We must make an interpretation of her emotional state, which is nice in that it forces the reader to do a little work. But also, sometimes, fuck that. Sometimes we just wanna say, “Jessica was fucking pissed.” That’s okay, too.

And sometimes we need to explain shit. Either in the text or through the mouths of characters as dialogue — but that leads us to our next sacred cow to slauuuuuhhh I mean set free —

Exposition Is Bad

Exposition is boring, people say. And so, therefore, it is bad, but I’d rather the argument be: Bad Exposition is Bad, Actually. It sucks when it sucks. When it’s done right, it’s artful as hell.

Listen, a good writer knows how to deliver information in an interesting, lively way — they can rewrite a lawnmower repair manual with vigor and tenacity. That’s literally our job: above all else, be interesting to the subset of people who form the backbone of our theoretical audience. (What I mean by that is, a so-called ‘literary’ writer would aim to be interesting to the ‘literary’ reader. A thriller writer would aim to be interesting to a thriller reader. Yes, ostensibly we aim to be interesting to ALL PEOPLE, but that’s impossible, so your first mark to hit is the reader that is intended to read your story.)

Exposition is often essential — the reader does not enter into a story with All The Information Ever, and so you cannot expect them to have the prerequisite knowledge. That information might be data on the social strata of the high school in which the story is set, or the mating habits of the Humboldt Squid (aka, the Vampire Squid). The reader doesn’t know, so you have to tell them. You can show some of it, sure. You can depict it, rather than explaining it. But sometimes, that takes too fucking long. Seriously. If you need the reader to understand, say, how antibiotics work, you could show it by doing some 3,000 word flashback chapter where Doctor Darla Q. Antibiotics (aka the inventor of antibiotics, I’m pretty sure) discovers penicillin, or you could just take a 100-word paragraph to get the job done in a quick, zero-fuckery way. And which path you choose really depends on the story you’re telling.

But more to the point, exposition is not bad.

Exposition is often necessary. We cannot show everything. Part of the power of a story written in prose is that we are granted an extra layer of story that visual media can only infer — we are allowed and even expected to visit the interior of narrative. Thoughts, ideas, narration, history — a lot of it bundled up as, yes, that’s right, motherfucking exposition.

Write What You Know

Oh, god, this one.

I don’t know anything, and yet I write a lot of things, because I am capable of learning stuff. I am not a hacker, but I wrote a book about hackers. I know very little about ants, but I wrote a book about ants. Featuring characters who are decidedly not me. You know how I do it?

a) I do research

b) I make shit up

Write What You Know is not a law — it’s an opportunity. It’s an opportunity to know more things, and it’s an opportunity to connect your current experiences with the work at hand, both out of a search for some authenticity and, well, because of basic laziness. Sometimes that means finding an emotional core to the story that connects to your emotional core. Sometimes it means taking your experiences in one hand (climbing a tree) and using that experience to inform a completely made up one (climbing a castle tower).

You can experience stuff, you can research stuff, and you can make stuff up.

That’s writing. That’s it.

Writers Have To Write Every Day

WRITERS HAVE TO WRITE EVERY DAY OR THEY DO NOT APPEASE THE WORD GODS, AND IF THE WORD GODS GO UNAPPEASED, THEY SEND UNTO YOU THREE CROWS, AND THESE CROWS WILL SPEAK THE FORBIDDEN WHISPERS THAT ROB FROM YOU THE WILL TO CONTINUE, CURSING YOU WITH WRITER’S BLOCK UNTIL YOU AGAIN COMPLETE THE SACRIFICE OF 2000 WORDS PER DAY AND SO THAT IS WHY WRITERS MUST WRITE EVERY DAY —

Nope. They don’t. Some do. Others don’t. I think if you’re the kind of writer who can’t really get it going, then maybe trying to write every day has value — it can develop discipline and habit. But others might try it and move swiftly toward burnout. Find what works for you. Challenge your process. When your process isn’t yielding results, change your process.

Cut All The Fat Out Of Your Story

Except fat is often the most delicious part of our meal. A story isn’t a stainless steel tube that feeds you nutrient narrative gruel. Fat is flavor, and can also be in fiction. Sure, if you’re writing a high-test action scene or a scene of tension, you might undo some of the action or tension by suddenly pumping it full of unnecessary oleaginousness. But well-marbled, layered fat — meaning, bits of flavor text that may not directly contribute to PLOT PLOT PLOT — are welcome throughout most stories. Sometimes, the fat is the most interesting part.

All You Need To Be A Writer Is To Read And To Write

I hate this advice. I hate it like I hate poison ivy because it’s deeply dismissive toward what it takes to be a writer. Real talk? Reading and writing do not automagically make you a good writer. Yes, you have to do both of those things! They are essential. But sitting on chairs and whacking wood with a hammer doesn’t make you a carpenter. Driving a car and opening up the hood and fucking around with belts doesn’t make you a mechanic. You have to read, yes, but you also have to learn to read critically and read well-outside your chosen genre. You have to write, yes, but you also might need someone to instruct you in writing — a teacher, an editor, another writer. You also have to live a life. And think a lot. And a whole bunch of other things that may be unique to you: take walks, travel, fight bears.

Start Your Story With Action, Bang, Zoom, Kaboosh!

Or don’t? Starting with action is tough. Listen, action works because it’s conflict, it creates tension, but to have conflict and tension we need a reason to care about the characters involved — and we don’t get invested in those characters if the moment we see them they’re under fire or in a car chase or whatever. At that point, it’s purely a mechanical exercise, a rote scene placement, to get us to the supposedly “boring” character development.

But look at one of the biggest action thrillers of all time and you’ll find —

Die Hard doesn’t begin with action.

It’s not until the seventeen-minute mark that we get action — meaning, Hands Goober shows up with his wacky crew of party planners. Up until that point, it’s John McClane on a plane, in a limo, in a party, talking to his wife, in a box, with a fox. His character is established. His relationships, also established. So that when those things are threatened, we have a reason to care. That said, the movie also gives the faint hint of coming action: a literal Chekhov’s Gun on the plane when a passenger sees McClane’s service pistol. It’s a hint, a promise, a threat.

Prologues Are A Curse Upon This Earth, Never Do A Prologue, If You Do A Prologue, Your Urine Will Turn To Fire, And Ants Will Never Leave Your Skin As They Colonize You As Punishment For Deigning To Do A Prologue, You Monster

Except you should do a prologue if you need to do a prologue. As with exposition, the problem isn’t prologues — it’s bad prologues. It’s unnecessary or confusing prologues. Listen, part of why prologues can be problematic is that they’re context-free prequel text to the book someone is about to read, often featuring characters we don’t yet know or care about and who might not show up again until the end of the book. But they can be done right, and they can be necessary, and if you need one, you need one. Just make sure it’s both interesting and necessary.

Never Start With Weather —

But what if the weather is relevant? If the story starts during a hurricane, I better jolly well be told that there’s a fucking hurricane going on.

Never Start With A Character Beholding Herself In The Mirror —

Did it in Blackbirds. Book got published. Fuck you.

Characters Must Be Likable And —

Shut up. Also did that in Blackbirds. Also this is very often advice that seems to be demanded of women characters and/or women writers, as dudes can be as unlikable as they need to be, because then they’re complex and interesting and redemptive and

*weaponized eye roll*

Adverbs Are Evil, And They Are Hexes, Do Not Trigger The Ancient Hexes

Never use adverbs! Unless you want to use a word like “never,” because the word “never” is a fucking adverb. Adverbs are a huge swath of language, modifying verbs the way adjectives modify nouns. We need them. Just don’t over do it, for fuck’s sake.

“Always Use Said,” He Said

Nah. Mix it up. Authors use hissed, spat, shrieked, ordered, offered, commanded, explained, whispered, and so on and so forth. Long as you don’t use a non-dialogue verb with dialogue (“I went to the store,” he tickled), or a really awkward one (“I love cheese,” he ejaculated), you’re probably in good shape. Everything in moderation, I say. True in life. True in writing.

In Conclusion

Writing advice, as I am fond of saying, is bullshit.

But bullshit fertilizes. It has function, if you want it to. These most common pieces of writing advice are useful for newer writers, but never good to keep as gospel, because for every piece of ironclad writing advice are ten writers who can snap that iron bar with their bare hands, breaking those rules left and right — with grace, aplomb, awards, and sales. None of this stuff is as simple as it seems on the surface, and demands a deeper scrutiny than just accepting them at shallow face-value. Dig deep. Challenge these ideas. Fuck ’em when they don’t work for you.

What are some pieces of super-common writing advice that you’ve realized are basically bullshit? Let’s hear it. Line ’em up, shoot ’em down.

* * *

THE RAPTOR & THE WREN: Miriam Black, Book Five

Miriam Black, in lockstep with death, continues on her quest to control her own fate!

Having been desperate to rid herself of her psychic powers, Miriam now finds herself armed with the solution — a seemingly impossible one. But Miriam’s past is catching up to her, just as she’s trying to leave it behind. A copy-cat killer has caught the public’s attention. An old nemesis is back from the dead. And Louis, the ex she still loves, will commit an unforgivable act if she doesn’t change the future. 

Miriam knows that only a great sacrifice is enough to counter fate. Can she save Louis, stop the killer, and survive? 

Hunted and haunted, Miriam is coming to a crossroads, and nothing is going to stand in her way, not even the Trespasser.

Indiebound | Amazon | B&N

29 comments

  • Your point about opening with characters looking at themselves in a mirror was particularly well-developed. Quite a thoughtful analysis. 😉

  • LOVE, LOVE, LOVE this post!! Of course, that you have expressed exactly what I have been thinking for a long time explains my adoration. When I began this writing journey, I believed what the experts (a.k.a., writing gods) said about all of these edicts – sort of. As I wrote, it occurred to me that what was being communicated as gospel made no sense if I was to write a story rich with character, setting, plot, and language. I have come to the conclusion that like pornography, no one really knows what good writing is, but we know it when we see it. In my opinion, these “rules” have come about because authors and other industry professionals get put on the spot at conferences, in interviews, etc. when they are asked what makes good writing, so they parrot the received writing wisdom. And so the BS continues! Good for you, Chuck, for calling it out!

  • Thanks for calling these out. I always thought it was funny that we had to learn all these ritualistic guideliness for creating “art,” as defined by the teacher’s/author’s sense of art, only to find them broken time and time again in the Great Works of Literature (TM).

    My greatest pet peeve is “always start on action,” which you mentioned above. Like who are these people even, and why do I care that they’re punching each other?

    Anyway, great post. Thanks again!

  • You must write at X time of day or write Y number of words per day to be a “real” writer. Or only published writers and/or writers who have made Z amount of money from their work are “real” writers.

    I spent way, way too many years beating myself up for not meeting someone else’s definition of success as a writer.

    As your post points out, writing daily and setting word-count goals can be helpful. For newer writers, setting those goals helps build discipline and a regular writing practice. But I think they can lead to a toxic cycle of “I missed today’s writing time because I’m coughing up a lung, so I’m not a real writer. Real writers write even if they’re dying. I suck.”

    Comparisons to another’s process or success is a recipe for failure. And a lot of the writers I know spend too much effort trying to follow a process that doesn’t work for them because famous writer uses it.

    As you said, our process will change. Probably must change if we’re truly growing as writers and taking new risks. We can look to others for ideas to try out, but we can only walk our own paths.

  • June 12, 2018 at 3:08 PM // Reply

    Thank you so much! Especially for the “said” one. As an editor and a reader, never mind a writer, I can’t tell you how mindnumbing pages of “he said” is. It also leaves dialogue feeling flat in a lot of cases. Then again, I was taught to learn the rules so I would know HOW and WHEN to break them. Thanks for an awesome post!

  • I saw a Stephen King quote: “Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule.” If I want the exact right word, with the exact right nuance and without repeating the same words ad nauseum, I know of no better tool than a thesaurus.

    • Agree completely! That quote from his book On Writing baffles me too! Sometimes I simply cannot remember the right word that I am looking for without consulting a thesaurus, and my vocabulary is good enough.

  • Writers should be detailed-oriented people – so it is weird, if you think about it – that they’d take any rule as iron-clad – but they do!

  • My favorite sacred cow? Titles should be short as possible, and no longer than three words. Really? My very favorite title is “Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart”. (Joyce Carol Oates). OMG, so much is packed into that title. “My Bitter Heart” ? Meh.

  • Can we ditch, or at least trim, the ‘No adverbs!’ ‘No passive voice!’ and ‘No cliches!’ rules?

  • ooh. it’s kind of interesting because i never heard the writing advice “start in the middle of an action scene.” i was told to start the story with a “break form the norm.” meaning there’s a reason the story is starting where it is and not the day or week before when everything in the character’s life was normal. I always kind of liked this advice a lot because it’s a trend i’ve noticed in books i’ve read.

  • Brilliant post. Dogma and slavery to rigid ideas never helped anyone. Thanks for the clear articulation.

  • This Sacred Cow concept reminds me of Kannan Gill’s “Driving School and Cows” stand-up (see YouTube). “There is a cow. How do you cross?”
    The ‘advice’ that really gets on my wick is the idea that all good writing is like Ernest Hemingway’s. Clearly, whoever came up with that idea has never read anything by P. G. Wodehouse.

  • Thank you for writing this! I thoroughly enjoyed reading and laughing right out loud at this post. As a kid I never understood “Show Don’t Tell” or “Exposition Is Bad” because all the books I read had those things and I liked ’em just fine. As a college writing student, I heard these yet again. Still didn’t make sense to me. Now “i before e except after c,” that is a rule that has actually helped me. And even that has its exceptions! So yeah, basically what you said!

  • Thank you. Loved the entire article. It made me smile. I will have to employ weaponized eye rolls more often.

  • When I first started reading your blog you spoke a lot of “write every day,” and “real writers WRITE.” It always came across with the tone and intensity of “Kill your Darlings,” “Adverbs are Evil,” and the rest. I’ve seen a lot less of it lately, replaced with “You do you, just, ya know, actually *do* it.” “Find your process and use it.”
    Thank you for the “write, damnit” empowerment early on, and thank you, too, for empowering different processes now.

    Oh, and thank you, also, for weaponizing that eyeroll. I feel seen.

  • It continually amazes me that so many wannabe writers confuse “writing advice” with “writing rules”. Thank you for clarifying so many points for those who just don’t get it (i.e., the ones who tie themselves in knots trying to “work to the rules” and end up giving up – or writing pure crap!)

  • So happy to read this–not merely because I AGREE with everything said here, but also because I’m an intentional iconoclast when it comes to these arbitray “rules of writing.” I also provide writing workshops (which I prefer to call “playshops”), in which I always tell my participants: “You can do whatever you want, as long as you do it well.”

    I recently wrote a blog about prologues, prompted by the proscription of a so-called “expert” at a writing retreat. She asked how many of us include prologues in our books. Not sure how many hands went up along with mine, but her response was: “Don’t do that.” DON’T DO THAT? I steamed over that for a few weeks; then wrote my own response on the topic, which you can read at: https://abigaildaneromance.com/blog/f/to-prologue-or-not-to-prologue.

    Abigail Dane
    Historical Romance Novelist

    “History happily ever after…”

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