Thursday, October 7, 2021

Just do everything that I'm didactically telling you to. By Catriona

Q: Not everything works for everybody. Give us some examples of writing advice, given to you in good faith, which just didn’t work for you. Tell us why you think it didn’t work.

Give some examples, you say?  Looks to me like this is a job for a listicle. So, in acsending order of . . . hm . . . controversiality? . . . here are my top five pieces of bad advice I've been given. They don't work for me. They might work for you. (Listen to what I'm saying = the worst advice of all.)

5. Time Travel

I've told this story before but the sheer bonkersness of this advice still smacks me in the face whenever I think about it, even after getting on for twenty years. I wrote a time-travel caper. My then agent read three chapters of it and advised me that  "Emily, in Our Town, found out that changing the past achieves nothing. I think you should write something else."

I ignored the advice and agented with someone else instead. Who sold that book for a decent chunka change.

4. Cut, cut, (short)cut.

This is one of the many units of advice we could file under: "There's a shortcut to good writing. Pay for my workshop and I'll tell it to you." (Spoiler: there isn't. (Disclaimer: some writing workshops are fantastic.)) 

If you read books about writing, or attend classes, or even google "how to write well" probably, you'll hear things like "2nd draft  = 1st draft minus 10%". Or "Remove the first chapter." Or "Omit needless words."  It always makes me think of my sister, who was told that everyone underfills their washing machine and she should add twice as much dirty laundry to get full efficiency. She broke her machine, because turns out she'd been filling it up perfectly all along. 

3. Delete "that"

This is another example of the "trapdoor to success" bits of advice that you'll come across regularly. I heard it at a writing workshop. "Don't use the word that", the teacher said. I raised my hand and asked which that she was talking about.

  • Demonstrative article - Later that same day
  • Demonstrative pronoun - That's all, folks!
  • Relative pronoun - The mouse that roared
  • Complementiser - Tell me that you love me

What was worrying was that the workshop leader didn't seem to know. I'm guessing she had heard the advice and was passing it on, but it was an awkward moment. We got past it by me suggesting all the grammatical terms were different in UK and US English. But I still shudder. Anyway, I think, on reflection she meant the last one. But I'm still not convinced.

2. Just killing time

Another quick fix that will turn you from William McGonagall to William Shakespeare (allegedly) is to search and destroy any instance of the word just in your manuscript. Sometimes it's very too, but it's always just. I don't know where this came from, and I punched the air to see just in the prompt question for the blog this week. 

Writing just isn't that easy. Killing just changes the rhythm of a sentence. (None of the scalpelly writer-coaches ever talk about rhythm.) Killing just also changes the meaning. And worst of all, just proliferates because people use it when they speak. So killing just makes your dialogue less authentic. If your narrative is first-person and informal, that goes down too. It's just not worth it, but that's just me.

Incidentally, do have a look at William McGonagall's poetry if you haven't come across him. He's the Florence Foster Jenkins of verse. Wow.  

1. Show; don't tell.

I hate this rule. It's repsonsible for a lot of needless words. If you truly believe that you can't tell your reader anything - e.g. Lexy Campbell was drunk when . . ." - but have to show your heroine going out, buying drinks, feeling woozy, buying more . . . And then you can't tell the reader that she was hungover the next day either, but have to show her dry mouth, coffee emergency and the mad search for some Ibuprofen . . . you might end up struggling to differentiate what matters - show us; the detail is worth the words - from what doesn't - tell us and keep moving. 

I would change this rule to "Show or tell". If you've described the drinking you don't need to say Lexy is drunk. If you've told us she's drunk we'll work out how it happened without being shown. And even at that I'd have to add a bit and settle on something like "Show or tell, usually, unless there's a good reason to do both, which there very well might be, because there are no trap doors to good writing. Sorry."


p.s. I've got a book coming out in the US next month. There's showing, there's telling, there's just, there's that. There's no time travel. But int it purty?


Frank Zafiro said...

Great points, Cx! I'm with you on each of them. It frustrates me when people give advice that may be a decent guideline generally but present it as an absolute... GRRRR.

Way to call out some perfect examples.

Catriona McPherson said...

Right, Frank? I wouldn't even follow the "no adverbs with speech tags" rule without caveats.

Triss said...

1. General: you have to write every day. That's actually great advice...but at the time I had a demanding job, two daily hours on subway,husband,home and 2 small kids.I was doing well to make sure everyone left the house every day with the right bag! And the guilt about writing did not help. 2. Personal for me: The agent who said "Your writing is good. Give me a book about vampires and I'd be very interested." ( I was writing a book about a current day amateur sleuth/historian in Brooklyn. No woo-woo.).

Catriona McPherson said...

Triss - you are living proof that you don't have to write every day. Everyone else, Triss Stein's Brooklyn historian series is exhibit A, brought into evidence.

Clea Simon said...

How about "delete all adverbs"? I find that one completely and utterly bonkers. (SO glad you listened to your gut and not that first agent!)

Catriona McPherson said...

Clea - that's hilarious - I put a gratuitous adverb in the title and then forgot to talk about it.

Triss said...

Catriona, thank you. Made my day. Actually, my whole week. Triss

Josh Stallings said...

You are brilliant as ever. I love “ I would change this rule to "Show or tell". When ever I hear “always” or “never” in advice I hear a voice in my head say, unless it works. All rules are trumped by unless it works.

Tara Laskowski said...

This is great! I totally agree on all of them!

Susan C Shea said...

Your example and one of the comments point to a rule-maker that really bugs me: The agent who breezily tells you what you should write to chase a trend s/he can sell on rather than what you've written, or who keeps asking you to write a lot of "few chapters and a complete synopsis" as if it was easy, as if writing was a throw-away task, not as hard-won achievement in the best of cases.

Ellen Byron said...

Love these! And have enjoyed William McGonagal’s poetry on several occasions. A couple of which I was drunk, which made it all the better. And no, I won’t show you how I got drunk.

Catriona McPherson said...

I honestly believed I would have an argument on my hands today - not this love fest! Susan: grrrrrrrr.

Jeff O. Cohen said...

I'm distraught. Nobody has EVER given me any writing advice. I'm sure I've been doing it wrong all my life.

James L’Etoile said...

Love this!

James W. Ziskin said...

Perfect. I agree on all counts.