Advice is everywhere. Whatever you’re doing, whatever your hobby or passion the internet is overflowing with advice and it’s no different for writers. Everyone is telling us what we must or must not do. It’s easy to get carried away and try to take heed of them all, I know I’ve done it.
Now however, I keep a few basic rules in the back of my mind when I’m writing. These are not “my rules” they are sage words from people I respect. There are also one or two “rules” that should, in my opinion, be treated with caution.
Perhaps rule number one should be it’s your story, so tell it your way. I don’t mean ignore all sensible rules of grammar etc. But when you’ve left it alone for a while and then reread it, perhaps have let a few other trusted reviewers loose on it, you’ll know if it works. So, I’ll start with:
Read, read, read
I attend a writing group and a few years ago we had a member who was writing a steamy novel. When asked what they liked to read they replied, ‘I don’t have time to read.’ The silence that followed said it all. Read wide in your genre and outside.
Read well known, successful authors and read self-published authors you’ve never heard of. Read both with a writer’s eye. I’ve read (and reviewed) some great self-published work and others where I’ve had to stop just 10% or 20%. The latter down to the quality, in my opinion, of the writing, or rather lack of it. At least it shows you what to avoid.
The majority of dialogue (perhaps with occasional variation) can be covered with ‘said’. Some times when you see lots of ‘said’ on a page it appears repetitive. However, read it as it is meant to be read and the brain takes it for granted. If the dialogue is right we know how those words have been said.
I read a book recently where there were lots of ‘!’ and everyone was ‘shouting’ (or they ‘shouted’) ‘shouting loudly’ (double trouble – see below). I thought all shouting was loud? Or they were ‘exclaiming’ or ‘bawling’ etc. In most cases ‘said’ would have been enough. I knew from the context and / or the words how they were being said. All that ‘shouting’ was a distraction.
Adverbs – keep them to a minimum. You can’t cut them all out, but you can live without most of them. As above I don’t need ‘shouting loudly’ or ‘creeping slowly’.
I gave up on one book because there were so many adverbs (sometimes two or three a sentence). They are pernicious, they creep in. When you see one ask what would happen if you took it out, or could you write that in a better way. It can be just lazy writing. Find something with lots of adverbs in and try it.
Clichés – avoid them like the plague. As with adverbs they find their way in without you knowing. They go straight from brain to fingers without passing through any form of pre-edit.
It is acceptable for your characters to use them, after all it’s how we speak. However, as a science fiction author and I guess anyone who is not writing in the present, you still need to be careful. Clichés are very much ‘of the day’. I have found modern clichés used out of their time and they stand out, well, like a sore thumb.
Beware of the ‘smoking gun’
Beware of the ‘smoking gun’. Or watch out for the ‘rabbit out of a hat’ ending. If you are going to produce a key item / event / person at the end of the book to tie everything together you have to introduce it / them early on i.e. the gun appears in a bedside draw.
You don’t want to make whatever it is, or he or she is, obvious in its relationship to the ending, but you can’t produce it / them out of nowhere at the end. My books often take unexpected turns as I’m writing, so I go back and add pointers / set them up earlier in the book.
‘If it doesn’t move the story along take it out.’
‘If it doesn’t move the story along take it out.’ Yes, good advice (ish). I have read this many times and was given this maxim when one of my early books was being edited. My own advice is treat this with caution. I agree with the idea of removing unnecessary padding. I don’t go along with the concept that everything has to be ‘moving the story along’.
As a science fiction writer I create alien worlds and I need to describe those worlds as I see them. Then the reader is free to fill in the details (Alistair Reynolds is great at this in my opinion). I don’t give it all in one lump, I deliver it in small pieces.
I see some of this as giving a breathing space and a change of tempo to the story. I’ll describe things that I feel would interest / distract my characters, perhaps in a lull from whatever they might be doing. We do it all the time, why wouldn’t they?
‘Show not tell’
‘Show not tell’. Another piece of advice you see everywhere. I would change it to keep the telling to a minimum. Sometimes you can’t avoid it and again it gives a change of tempo allowing the reader to catch their breath. However, when doing those revisions and you find a piece of ‘telling’ it is worth asking if you could show instead.
So, these are some of the things I keep in my head when writing. If you’ve read Elmore Leonard’s ten rules of writing or Stephen King’s book on writing (if you haven’t I recommend you do) you’ll recognise some. However, as I said in the beginning it’s your story, tell it your way. The readers will let you know whether it works or not.