Quit Playing by the Rules
Throughout our lives we are given advice and taught the rules to live by. Parents, teachers, guidance counselors, friends and even well-meaning strangers will often tell you a “rule” that you should incorporate into your life. Now, some of these rules, I have always followed and they seem to be working out pretty well. Always look both ways before crossing the street; always wear clean underwear; always spell check; don’t text and drive (like I am that coordinated!).
But some of the rules of writing that have been passed on to me through teachers and other writers have me wondering if they are as absolute as they appear. I have never liked to be told to always do something or never do something. And in writing, if you get too caught up in all the shoulds and should nots, you may get so tangled up that you won’t write anything at all.
For instance, I have heard that you should never use the word said. Instead you should sprinkle your dialogue with words like uttered, spouted, giggled, shouted, cried and the like in an effort to make it more interesting. On the contrary, I have also heard that you should always use the word said. This advisor would have me believe that all the other words used to indicate speech are distracting to the reader. As a reader and a writer, I think the answer lies somewhere in the middle.
Another piece of questionable advice? Never use adverbs. Now throughout school, I was taught that an adverb is a perfectly acceptable part of speech. I do understand that the use of too many adverbs can make for boring writing – ie. he said quietly; she walked quickly; they slept fitfully. In many cases, it is better to describe the verb in other ways – ie. he spoke like a runaway train; she walked with her arms swinging as though they would propel her along; they tossed and turned through the night. Still, a few adverbs sprinkled throughout a 300 page manuscript seems harmless.
You must join a critique group. Another gem that had me in a quandary. I don’t know many writers and I work a full-time day job. I write sporadically at best and find that any time that I am able to allocate to writing, needs to be filled with, well, writing. I know from past experience with online critique groups that I am the type of person who gets so caught up in reviewing and commenting on everyone else’s work, that my work never seems to get written. Therefore, I finally realize that critique groups have their place, but may not be for everyone.
The all time worst advice I ever got about writing? Write what you know. It is pounded into our heads through every creative writing class and book on fiction you can pull off a bookstore shelf. Always write what you know. After being bombarded by this phrase over and over again, I came to the frightening conclusion that I don’t really know anything and stopped writing for years. In truth, I believe that you can know something without personally experiencing it if you do enough research. Now I am not suggesting that you attempt to write a textbook on Quantum Physics if you have only read a few articles about it; nonfiction has an entirely different set of rules than fiction. But if you are only supposed to write what you truly know, then JK Rowling and Stephenie Meyer have a lot to answer for! I doubt they KNOW vampires, hippogriffs, and wizards. What they may have known, though, is love, loneliness and boarding school, and they let their imaginations and research run with the rest.
All these rules can become a jumbled forest of dos and don’ts that can strangle the writer and destroy any chance of them ever completing a story. Rules, as they say, are made to be broken. So I choose to use rules carefully when going through revisions. But in the initial first draft – all bets are off.
Perhaps the most paralyzing piece of advice I ever heard or read was don’t waste your time; the odds are against your ever getting published so why bother. I think people who spout this advice don’t understand one very important thing. I don’t write to get published (though it would be nice) and I don’t write to get famous (yikes!). I write because I love to make a story jump off the page. I love to work that imaginative side of my brain that doesn’t seem to get a good enough work out in my daily life. I write because I love books and reading and stories. And I write because if I didn’t write, I would always feel like something was missing.
What advice have you been given in your writing (or your life) that you have decided to ignore?