Mark Terry

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Some Writing Bullshit

July 19, 2012
I was going to write about why I think Romney should turn over his tax records, but really, aren't you glad I changed my mind? (Because he's running for president, that's why. Duh!)

Anyway, having been at this writing gig semi-professionally and professionally since 1993 (first time I wrote something and got paid for it), and full-time since 2004, I'm as used to hearing writing advice as the next person. So here's some typical writing advice that is either full-out bullshit, or at least requires a bit more nuance than it's usually given.

1. Write what you know. Well ... no. Write what you're interested in. There's a thing called research. If you're interested in writing about biological and chemical terrorism, read up on it. If you're interested in, oh, I don't know, court intrigues in 6th (or is it 5th) Century Byzantium, do some freakin' research. If you're interested in writing about American life in the year 2135, well, use your imagination.

People that write about what they know often do provide a lot of depth and, shall we say, richness to their writing. They can also be enormously boring because they get carried away with every little  detail. Write what you're passionate about. Or what you might be passionate about.

2. Show, don't tell. Um. Folks, it's good advice, but... that's a movie. Not a book. Books show and they tell. It's hard to get around it. Sometimes you just gotta tell or the book will be 800,000 words long. It's okay to skip the boring stuff with, "She fixed dinner, brushed her teeth, and went to bed. Alone. Again." Rather than show us that. Or skip it altogether if it's not important.

3. Write every day. Well, it's good advice if you're the type that doesn't get anything done or the type that has to drag his or herself to the computer (and if that's the case, consider a different line of work or a different creative endeavor). When I was trying to break in, I wrote pretty much every day. Now, not so much. Since I do it for a living, it's nice to have some breaks from writing. It helps keep me sane. In fact, it helps my writing significantly to have other things in my life. Sometimes I even write about them.

And although this may seem heretical to a bunch of writers, there's more to life than writing.

Let me repeat that just so the message has a chance to sink in: there's more to life than writing.

4. Write to please yourself. Hmmm. Well, yes. But I'm a little bit skeptical that just writing to please myself will completely please readers. And I've read a number of books that seemed terribly unfriendly to readers, that seemed to consciously go out of their way to piss off the readers, to make me think that you might want to keep your readers in mind. And that's for fiction. As a professional freelance writer of nonfiction, I'd be a total imbecile to not write for the readership I'm being paid to write for.

How about you? Any commonly held writing advice that you think is bullshit?


Blogger Eric said...

You hit a lot of my pet peeves, except for "don't start with the weather" advice which has been ignored by practically every writer, including truly great writers, anyway.

Of course the literary types won't agree. One guy I knew kept bugging me to write about something "real" like my divorce. WTF. I'm sure people are more interested in 6th century Byzantium than my divorce.

And of course show not tell is overrated. I've seen laughably convoluted writing where it was obvious the author was straining not to tell, as if there's something wrong with narrating a story.

1:27 PM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Yeah, since divorce is such a rare thing these days, we really need someone else to write about... :)

Some people (okay, they like what they like, fine) just can't understand that many people read to escape, to be entertained, that reading about depressing things like that is, well, depressing.

1:32 PM  
Blogger Stephen Parrish said...

I don't think the "show, don't tell" advice is bullshit. It doesn't mean you never tell; that's absurd. Of course you tell. You tell lots and lots. What it means is that you don't tell when you ought to show.

For example, as a horror novel builds to climax, you don't say, of your protagonist, "She was scared." You show it. That's what the advice means. Beginning writers lean too much on telling, which is why the advice keeps getting pounded into them.

9:42 PM  
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10:09 PM  
Anonymous Jim said...

A somewhat off-topic comment: I finished Sins of the Father this morning and just wanted to say that I think it is the best of your Derek Stillwater series.

7:31 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Thanks Jim. A couple people have told me that. Very nice to hear.

8:26 AM  
Blogger jenipenny said...

It's a matter of subjectivity and personal taste. Edgar Allan Poe's star didn't dim because of telling. At some point, the reader ought to be able to engage his or her imagination. Showing can be okay, and occasionally necessary, but to demand upon it without any rationale other than, "Well that's how we've always done the past 30 years" is hardly substantial reason to continue doing something. I sometimes wonder if writers who beat the show-don't-tell drum have a vendetta against not "getting" more figurative and symbolic literature, thus they altogether attempt to abolish it.

3:05 PM  

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