by Anne R. Allen
We get lots of questions from new writers who have spent time in forums and online writers’ groups where they’ve been given advice by other newbies. Some of that advice is fine, but a whole lot is dead wrong.
Unfortunately, the wrong stuff is usually delivered with the most certainty.
That’s because the most ignorant people are generally the most sure of themselves. This phenomenon has been scientifically proved. It’s called The Dunning-Kruger Effect. Nobel Prize winners David Dunning and Justin Kruger of Cornell University did a study in 2000 that proves the least competent people really are the most likely to overestimate their own competence.
I remember feeling perfectly confident I knew everything worth knowing at age four. Then I went to school and it ruined everything.
I do still encourage the use of critique groups and beta readers as a first step in learning the ins and outs of the craft and business of writing, but keep in mind that most of what you hear in a critique group needs to be taken with a grain of salt. And now, with the rise of social media, the chances of getting bad or misleading information has increased exponentially.
So make sure you cross-reference if a suggestion for a change goes against what you’ve observed or heard from respected authorities.
Some of these “rules” are pretty comical—the opposite of what the publishing industry considers good writing. I have a feeling some frustrated new writer may have made them up to justify bad writing habits.
When in doubt, ask a professional or look it up. There are many, many good books that teach the basics of how to write fiction. One of my favorites is How to Write a Damn Good Novel by James N. Frey (not the James Frey who who wrote the bogus memoir.) I also like The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman (nice and short). Screenwriters’ bibles Story by Robert McKee, and Save the Cat by Blake Snyder are great for story structure, and of course every writer’s library should have a copy of The Elements of Style.
If you have a favorite nuts-and-bolts writing book, do tell us about it in the comments.
I hope you’ll pass this post on to new writers who may be led astray by “the blind leading the blind” syndrome that can happen in social media.
Here are eight bogus “rules” I’ve heard recently.
1) When writing something inspired by your own life, every incident must be told exactly as it happened, or somebody will sue you.
If you know somebody is likely to sue you if you include them in a memoir, it’s safest to disguise them with a name-change. Better yet, fictionalize your story. For advice on how to fictionalize a “true story,” read Ruth Harris’s great post on the subject from earlier this month.
But even if you’re writing a memoir or a piece of creative nonfiction, you still have to craft it into a story with an arc. That’s a story with an inciting incident, conflict, and resolution. That’s never going to be exactly “the way it really happened,” because real life is a meandering journey, not a tidy story. Plus real life has lots of boring bits. Do NOT include them if you want anybody to read your book.
A memoir has to tell a story. That means it has dialogue and scenes. You can’t help putting less than accurate words in people’s mouths unless you recorded every word ever said to you.For advice on how much “truth” to put into a memoir, here’s an enlightening post from Jane Friedman: How True and Factual Does Your Memoir Have to Be?
She points out how subjective all memory is, so no one person’s memory is going to provide 100% absolute provable facts.
2) Novels can not contain contractions.
This one floored me. A writer had been told this by an “editor”. (Which shows you should carefully vet freelance editors. As I said last week, anybody can call herself an editor, so do your research before you hire somebody.)
If you follow this editor’s advice, every person in your novel will sound like Star Trek’s Mr. Spock.
People who speak English as a first language (and are not robots or space aliens) use contractions. If your characters don’t use them, your novel or memoir had better be set in a robot colony or the planet Vulcan.
3) “Said” is boring. Use more energetic tags like “exclaimed”,”growled”, and “ejaculated.”
Whoever thought up this one is treading dangerously close to Tom Swifty territory.
“Said” is invisible to the reader. Any other dialogue tag draws attention to itself. Use other tags judiciously, the way you do with exclamation marks. You do use exclamation marks judiciously, don’t you!!?
4) In a memoir, everyone in your life must be given equal time.
Somebody has been telling memoirists that even if they were personal friends with Elvis, the king shouldn’t get any more space in a memoir than Great Aunt Myrtle Mae, if the two people were “equally a part of your life.”
Sorry. Unless you’re writing an autobiography for your family’s eyes only, this is the worst advice possible.
First, a memoir is not an autobiography. Autobiographies are a chronology of a life from the cradle to now. Nobody’s likely to read them unless they’re written by heads of state, tech moguls, or members of the Rolling Stones.
A memoir should be the story of a particular incident or related series of incidents in your life that will be of interest to the general public. Maybe how you overcame a disability, had Elvis’s love child, or invented Post-It Notes.
So unless your Great Aunt Myrtle Mae was Elvis’s date for the prom, or a crazed fan who broke into Graceland and stole a leather jumpsuit in which she wants to be buried, only give her a walk-on part in your story.
A lot more people want to read about Elvis than want to read about how much you loved your Auntie. Sorry, but that’s the way human beings work. We’ve always been suckers for royalty.
5) Head-hopping is necessary if you have more than one character in a scene.
You don’t need to tell us what everybody is thinking in every scene. That only confuses the reader. Good writers can show the reactions of other characters through the eyes of the scene’s point-of-view character.
After all, you’re seeing your entire life through the eyes of one point-of-view character: you. And you probably know what’s going on. Or think you do.
Learn to use body language, facial expressions, and dialogue to let us know how key characters are relating to the action.The exception is a story told from an omniscient point of view, which is not the same as head-hopping. Omniscient POV uses a god-like voice that knows everything. You’ll often see it in high fantasy, which is told in a “bard’s” storytelling voice.
An omniscient voice also works well in a humor novel, because it makes the story sound like a stand-up comedy routine. Carl Hiaasen does this brilliantly. So does Dave Barry.
But be aware omniscient POV in most genres seems old-fashioned, is hard to pull off, and is often taboo with agents.
For a hilarious take on the omniscient narrative voice, here’s a brilliant video by Nick Offerman in which the characters in a Western movie rebel against that all-knowing narrator.
For a great overview of POV, read this post from Kristen Lamb: Point of View: How to find the perfect voice for your story. It’s a must-read for anybody having POV issues (and most newbies do.)
6) All internal monologue must be put in italics.
I’ve even seen this in guidelines from small publishers. It’s not wrong, but it’s not the norm.
Putting internal monologue in italics is a convention that comes from mid-20th-century pulp fiction. You especially see it in thrillers. Some literary authors, like William Faulkner, also experimented with it. Some contemporary authors like to use italics to show alternate points of view. I’ve seen both Terry McMillan and Marian Keyes do this. They’re both brilliant authors, and they used the device well.
But italics are on their way out. I’ve seen agents say in their guidelines they won’t read anything that’s italicized. That’s probably because italics are harder to read and cause havoc with electronic formatting, especially for ebooks.
These days, writers generally use the “deep third person” point of view that allows for inner monologue without dialogue tags. Here’s a great post on deep point of view from Rhay Christou at Writers on the Storm.
7) Good writers never use sentence fragments: all characters must speak (and think) in perfect English.
Oh. My. God. If all your characters speak in complete sentences, they’ll sound as if they’re living inside a school book report.
Where they’re probably cohabiting with those Vulcans from #2.
Even Jane Austen’s characters speak in sentence fragments. Shakespeare’s do to, as in: “But Soft!”
When you write a novel (or a memoir or a play), your aim is to to present realistic characters, not impress your third grade teacher.
I’ve met some people who insist that even fictional five-year-olds must have a perfect understanding of the subjunctive mood and never, ever mistake a gerund for a gerundive.
Do I have to say why this is a recipe for snoozerific, inauthentic, bad fiction?
Or farce. It could make a pretty funny farce. Otherwise, do not listen to these people.
Nobody uses perfect grammar when they speak. Not even Ph.Ds. (My parents both had Ph.Ds: one in English and the other in Classics, so trust me on this.)
The rules for writing fiction are very different from the rules for writing a scholarly essay. If you confuse them, you’re going to end up with a pompous, comical mess.
8) Never use the word “was.”
This is my unfavorite piece of writing advice and you see it everywhere. I wrote a whole post about the “was police” in 2012. They’re wrong. Using the verb “to be” in any tense is perfectly fine.”Was” is not always “passive.” The past tense of the verb “to be” is also used in creating the past progressive tense in English.Passive: “The book was read by me…” Passive voice tends to sound pretentious and annoying. (But sometimes the passive voice is necessary, so don’t try to eliminate it entirely. )
Past Progressive: “I was reading the book when some idiot came in and told me the word ‘was’ is taboo for writers.”
If you change the construction to “I read the book” instead of “I was reading the book” you have no sense of timeline. It would be dumb.
Yes, doing a search for “was” is a handy tip for self-editing. It helps to weed out passive construction (when it needs weeding.) A “was” search can also pinpoint lazy writing habits like starting descriptive passages with “there was.” But there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with the word. People go way over the top with their hatred of the past tense of the verb “to be.”
BOOK OF THE WEEK
“Camilla realizes that here is a gang of modern day outlaws. At first, she’s disgusted by their foul mouths and sexist macho ways, but she comes to see among Peter’s disreputable but loyal friends personifications of all the members of Robin Hood’s gang of old–Little John, Friar Tuck, Will Scarlet and all the rest; yet does she want to play Maid Marian?
[She] finds herself caught up in a web of intrigue, and has no idea who in this surreal world of latter day outlaws she can trust; who are the villains, who are the heroes, and who are both?…it’s a wonderful spoof full of absurd synchronicities with the Robin Hood legend, incongruous happenings, over-the-top yet fully believable characters and a whole series of twists to the plot.
I was particularly impressed by the excellent background details; this US author reproduces the speech patterns of various sections of UK society perfectly.”
…from a review by UK reviewer