I hate those catchphrases for writers. You know the ones I’m talking about – “write every day,” “show don’t tell,” etc. No one ever explains how to apply them. What if they don’t work for me? Am I a bad person if I can’t write every day? Which part of the story is “showing,” and which is “telling”?
Over time these pieces of advice make more and more sense. I’ve experienced “eureka!” moments, when a nugget of wisdom finally clicks into place. The onset of NaNoWriMo got me thinking about my writing practice and how I’ve come to understand these common phrases. (I’m not doing it this year but support those who are.) Hopefully my interpretations save you years of frustration.
“Write Every Day”
Writing every day is not realistic for most people. They have jobs and social lives (so I’m told), or they just don’t feel up to putting words on the page that day. Here’s a secret:
It’s fine. You’re not a bad person.
I believe this advice refers to keeping up a regular writing practice. You’re only a bad person if it’s been six months and you haven’t even opened a text document. It’s happened to me before. After a week or even two, I’ll feel antsy about neglecting my writing. Either I need to fix my Work-In-Progress, start a new one, or pick out a book to read. Speaking of which…
I talked about this in another post, so I’ll just tack on an addition. Read bad books along with good ones. I don’t mean you should seek out a book and hope it’s bad. All I’m saying is, if you start a book and roll your eyes at the writing style, don’t put it down right away. Ask yourself why you’re rolling your eyes. Why does this story turn you off? Is it the passive voice, the slow plot? Are the characters one-dimensional? I’ve read a lot of bad books this summer and have no regrets about sticking with them. Noticing writing “don’ts” in someone else’s novel teaches me what to avoid in my own. This leads me to…
“Show, Don’t Tell”
I’ve always despised this “advice” in particular. What the hell does it mean? For the love of God, what’s “show” and what’s “tell”? Aren’t you “telling” the reader the whole freaking story? Can’t a character’s stream of consciousness “show” the readers more of their personality?
Reading bad books helped me see the light. “Telling” instead of “showing” doesn’t ruin the book completely, but the story becomes a chore to slog through. Make sure the character’s internal reactions add to the reader’s understanding of recent actions, and that’s it. I’m also not a fan of the main character making judgments like “he’s so sweet” or “he annoyed me.” It’s okay once or twice, but you need actions to back up the character’s assessments. The last book I read drove me up a wall by repeating the same exact thought every other paragraph.
It makes me think of TV shows. Doesn’t it bug you when the writers say one thing in dialogue and show another through a character’s actions?
Fix this by adding consequences or new actions that support/replace what you wanted to “tell.” I’ve always been a character-and-dialogue person myself so I understand how difficult it can be to build up a plot line.
“Use Action Verbs/Active Voice”
I confess to this crime too. Sometimes you can’t avoid “was” or “had” no matter how you rework a sentence. Sometimes a sentence makes more sense when you use passive verbs. I never liked this advice either, because using active voice all the time feels daunting when you’re not used to it.
I’ve accepted this as a bad habit we all need to break. Too many instances of “was” or “had” grates on the nerves, there’s no way around it.
“Write What You Know”
This one confused me for the longest time. “So I’m only supposed to write about experiences I’ve had? I’m not that interesting!” Now I get it. The expression refers to writing about topics that appeal to you on a personal level. Don’t choose your novel idea based on a trend. If you can’t do what your characters do in your story, at least you’ll have enough interest to research the hell out of it.
Also, whenever possible, base your characters’ actions/choices on what you’ve done or seen others do. Characters should be relatable whether they’re dealing with school drama or using their magical powers to save the world.
Okay, all that’s out of my system. I feel better now.