Thursday, October 28, 2010

100% Absolutely True Advice You Should Occasionally Ignore

There are some shining gems of writerly advice put forth so often we’ve begun to think of them as “rules.” Whether you’ve been stalking book industry blogs since before Miss Snark began offering her gin-fueled snarkery or this is your first week reading about writing, you’ve heard these all before. But before you follow one of these “rules” off a cliff, remember another repeated (frustrating) phrase this industry loves: There’s always an exception.

1. Show Don’t Tell

This is a piece of advice so prevalent it has its own Wikipedia entry and it’s generally valid. Nate B did a post on showing here.

However, there are times when showing is just plain boring. Many writers take it too far. For example: At the beginning of a scene, your MC is sitting in coach on a regular old commercial plane. Just tell us that. We all generally know what a plane looks like and we care more about the conversation he’s about to have with the beautiful (show she’s beautiful) woman who is about to sit next to him. Don’t spend a page or more trying to show us the plane to avoid the telling – unless, of course, you have a good reason for describing the plane in detail.

(See! Always an exception, even to the exception)

In general, telling is useful when you’re just trying to get from one setting to another or you’re relaying an event when the details aren’t important. Not everything deserves to be described.

If you bore a reader, your book will suffer the worst possible fate: The reader will close the book, walk away and forget about it.

2. Write What You Know

This is actually always good writing advice, but not when it’s taken literally. It doesn’t mean that, if you’re a white male accountant from Nebraska, all your MCs have to be white male accountants from Nebraska.

We all know what it means to be human. We know drama, heartbreak, elation, betrayal, success, love, hate, guilt, prejudice, fear. That’s the core of your story, no matter the setting or type of character.

3. Butt In Chair

99.9% of the time, this is probably what you need to do. In fact, if you can follow only one piece of advice at a time, it would be this.

BUT. Don’t underestimate the creative power of taking a 30 minute leisurely walk through your neighborhood. Sometimes when you’re completely stuck, you may be getting in your own way by insisting on staring at that blinking cursor. Your brain is smarter than you give it credit for and a quick physical activity break may warm you up so you can jump over those road blocks.

Not to mention sitting for long periods of time compresses your spine and makes you prone to back injuries. With so many of writers working a desk job all day before coming home to write all night, we need all the non-sitting time we can get.

4. Don’t Judge a Book By Its Cover

OK, so this isn’t really writing advice, but it’s advice related to our industry. I love this phrase when it’s used as a metaphor, but hate when it refers to actual books.

Why should you judge a book (especially yours) by its cover?

Because everyone else is going to. No reader is going to pick up a book that looks unprofessional or boring – or misleading. If your reader hates dragons, and there’s a dragon on your cover but not in your book, you just lost a reader.

When you go to the bookstore, how many books do you glance at and immediately forget? How many times have you picked up a book to read the summary because it had an awesome cover? Disregard what your 2nd grade teacher and mommy told you; Covers matter.

2 comments:

  1. As I've always said, the only rule you need to know is that sometimes you need to break the other rules.

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  2. So true about judging books by their cover. I really try hard not to, but inevitably when am trying to pick a book, I just look for neat covers and/or titles first, then read the synopsis.

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