read around the rainbow, writing

Read Around the Rainbow: Writing Advice I Take With a Grain of Salt?

This month’s RAtR topic is…well, what it says above: what writing advice do you take with a grain of salt?

At first I actually wasn’t sure I had a good response to this one, because my immediate instinctive reaction was, “…all of it…?” But then I thought, well, perhaps that’s interesting enough?

I think a lot about – I’m paraphrasing here – Neil Gaiman’s comment that, when a reader (one he trusts) tells him *something* feels off at a spot in a story, they’re likely right, but if they try to tell him exactly how to fix it, they’re likely wrong or at least not quite right.

I also famously loathed, and still do, any peer review assignments in undergraduate writing classes. (I don’t assign them in my courses.) Most people aren’t expert writers – that’s not a criticism; why would we expect them to be, they’re also not doctors or sculptors or a million other things – and aren’t any better qualified to comment than…well, than I am! (And sometimes people think things are errors when they’re not, or even professional copy-editors, being well-meaning, introduce errors…oh, there are reasons I hadn’t, for months, even looked at the published copies of the Character Bleed books, and that is a Story, though to be fair that horrendous disaster happened somewhere *between* the copy-edits that *I* saw, which means I don’t think it was her fault, and then the proofs which I was sent to look over, which were…well. I digress.)

My point is, I don’t trust most people who claim to be able to tell you how to write. Because, look, there are as many ways to write as there are people, and what works for me won’t necessarily be what works for you, and what works for you might not work for Alexis Hall or Jane Austen or V.E. Schwab. And I don’t even write two books the same way, necessarily – Magician took ten years and started in the middle; the Character Bleed books sort of started in the middle of book one but then were more or less linear and light-speed, and “The Hermit of Aldershill Manor” involved me staring at the computer and going, “right, okay, luscious gardens and nakedness, what’ve I got for that…”

For every bit of writing advice out there, you’ll also find the opposite. Delight in adverbs, or kill them all with fire; never use dialogue tags, or just use ‘said’ all the time because readers barely register it; write to a strict schedule because it’s a job, or write when you can wrest time from the vagaries of the universe and be glad of that; try to write to market trends and bandwagons because that’s what sells, or don’t do that because it’s soulless; go with stripped-down concise prose because readers want quickness, or dwell in luxuriant language because some readers want that…

The story you’re working on at the moment will need whatever it needs. And so will you, as a writer. And that will likely change and grow with the next story, and the next. Enjoy that.

This isn’t actually a give advice sort of post, so I shan’t. (I’m not saying there’s no advice to be given – KJ Charles is excellent for commentary on character arcs/plot arcs, for one, and of course there’s James Blish’s famous question to David Gerrold, about who’s hurting, in your story, and how that’s what your story’s really about…oh and also please never use epithets, like “the taller man,” when your POV characters already know each other, and even more so if they’re, for instance, married: when would you ever think of your own husband, in your own internal POV, as “the taller man,” I ask you… *someone in the background meaningfully gestures in my direction and then at the actual topic of this post*…right. Ahem. Sorry.)

….so anyway I think my answer is really, take all writing advice with a grain of salt. Or many grains.

Sometimes you need to break rules in service of the story. Sometimes you don’t. Sometimes your story is plush and verbose and fruitcake-dense and holiday-spiced, and sometimes it’s sharp and clear and sparse as a bare twig above a gravestone. You’re the one who knows what you want it to say. And if you need some models, find the authors who are good at doing the thing you want to do, and read their work, and look at how their words fit together, to do that particular thing.

And if anyone says “you must always do this” or “you must never do this,” they’re likely wrong. Unless they’re saying you should, y’know, have some characters and some sort of overall plot or point. You probably ought to have those. In whatever form that takes, mind you, for your story. (There is 100% such a thing as “no plot, just vibes” – just ask Cat Sebastian. But of course the plot in that case is still a plot, and it is made up of soft gentle cozy internal realizations of feelings…)

Also, the Oxford comma is important for clarity. That’s not advice; it’s just true. *laughs*

Everyone else has probably managed to stay much more on topic, and have much more relevant advice – so, go and read their posts!

Nell Iris

A.L. Lester

Ofelia Grand

Ellie Thomas

Amy Spector

Holly Day

Addison Albright

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14 thoughts on “Read Around the Rainbow: Writing Advice I Take With a Grain of Salt?”

  1. The funny thing about the Oxford comma is that we don’t have it in Swedish, but after having it beaten into me for years and years by my fabulous editor, I’m now finding myself adding Oxford commas in Swedish, too. My Swedish teacher would cry if she knew! 🙂

    I also agree 1000% of your views on epithets. 😀

    Great post! ❤️

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    1. The epithet thing drives me up the wall, I admit! It just doesn’t even make sense for internal POV! *laughs* And I am here to cheer on all Oxford commas! I wonder why Swedish doesn’t have it? That’s a fascinating grammatical development… 🙂

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    1. Yes! One of my academic publishers used to have a policy of *not* using it (the most recent time I worked with them, they had relaxed that) and it was physically painful!

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  2. “there are as many ways to write as there are people,” — spot on! And apparently it can even vary from story to story for the same writer. (I’ll fight that Oxford comma battle with you, too. It’s just true!! 😂)

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    1. Yes! I think all of my full-length novels have been written a little differently – I mean, Magician literally got started and then set aside for ten years, whereas Seaworthy basically wrote itself in every spare moment at white-hot speed. So I think it really depends on the story’s needs, and also on the space you’re in as a writer and what you need at that moment – might be discipline, might be slow contemplation, might be three different outlines, might be none! (And the Oxford comma matters for clarity, darn it! 😀 )

      Liked by 1 person

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