Writing for the initiated

There are some basic rules new writers hear again and again—skip the passive voice, show, don’t tell, and never start a story in a dream or morning routine. Then there’s the never start a story with a piece of dialogue, and the cast out ye adverbs admonition. If these no-nos are the signifiers of poor writing, then surely agents and editors are on the lookout for them and once spotted, our work is targeted to the real or virtual trash bin. And Microsoft can call its icon a “recycling bin” all it wants, but nothing ecologically positive happens with it, so they should stop confusing the next generations about what recycling means.

The problem with these bumperstickers as writing craft advice is that they’re too simple, too easy to absorb and not ponder later, and somewhat antithetical to the idea that writing is, at the end of the day, an art form. I wrote a few weeks ago that in reading through dozens of “how I found my agent” stories, I noticed that successful writers tended to break the rules here and there, on their way to getting published. The “rules” in question were about how to query agents, set boundaries, do the professional etiquette thing. But as writers we’re following all kinds of rules, not the least of which concern the craft of composing words themselves.

In a great big bookstore out in Portland—I’m sure folks know which I’m talking about—I picked up half a dozen books and one by one, opened them up mid-tome to get a feel for the style, tone, and pacing. Mid-book is the hardest part for me, plus, it tends to be the least revised. In a typical piece of fiction, whether it’s genre or not, I’ll expect to see some conflict between characters or a description of a tension, if the book is following the standard story arc.

What I noticed was that each book sounded similar to the other five, even though one was science fiction, one dark fantasy, one humorous mainstream, one women’s literature, and two the great American novel. No adverbs in sight, other than “well” and “very.” Nothing overwritten; all of the language was as tight as a drum. Smart characters with carefully pronounced points of view, as depicted in brief description and differentiating dialogue.

In other words, these were well written books. And wow, they were boring. I mean, not boring in the page-turning sense. They all explored people who were interesting, dealing with matters weighty or involving enough that I considered purchasing all of them, my budget be damned. But they were boring in the holistic, what are we reading and writing as a country? As people interested in digesting and creating narratives? They were beautiful gray books. They avoided the proscriptions of contemporary writing, and they all sounded the same.

Sounding the same isn’t a bad thing, necessarily, and again, the writing quality was perfect. But what happens when Tolstoy writes too long to get published? Or Nightwood is too confusing? Is there any fallout to saying that Mark Twain shouldn’t have depicted people of color? That Poe was just too noir or gimmicky? None of those writers sounded like each other, and we let them get away with it.

I shouldn’t say these things, I suppose, as I’m in the hunt for an agent—still—and as I myself am trying to jump through the hoops properly. I don’t have any gripe with the idea of agents, with the wealth of information on the Internet that we hopeful writers can snag to get us closer to our goals. Those are good people who love books, and there are many, many great online places for solid information on the business of writing that authors should explore, including where to find residencies, writing groups, beta readers, agents, editors, book doctors, and writing associations. Note that my list didn’t include tips for writing. Because we need to think twice about taking the simplest advice. I know we have the low-hanging fruit handled. Now we need to focus on voice, storytelling, and why our WIP matters. And those aren’t things anyone can advise us on in one sentence.

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Categories: ponderings

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3 Comments on “Writing for the initiated”

  1. Sharon
    October 26, 2010 at 6:07 pm #

    Aren’t we all supposed to sound like Hemingway? What? Adverbs have a purpose in the English language? And passive voice should not be thrown out of grammer books?

    Wow, I really liked this post.

    • evmaroon
      October 26, 2010 at 8:23 pm #

      I’m glad you got something out of it! Again, I’m not saying we should chuck all sense out the window, but hey, variation keeps publishing honest and interesting, right?

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