Bad Advice For Writers
Most advice given to writers is generic and basic. This is because most aspiring writers make the same basic mistakes. But then most aspiring writers never finish the story they’re writing. And most of the ones that do finish, never get round to doing a rewrite. And if you happen to be one of the few who do manage to persevere and are serious about producing a book worth reading (and buying) then, by definition, you aren’t most people.
When you follow generic advice your writing most likely will become better than it was, but that doesn’t mean it’s as good as it could be. Once you reach a certain level you need specific advice. Specific to your writing. And there aren’t people qualified to give you that advice.
For example, flowery, repetitious description is annoying and distracting to read, but that’s when it’s done badly. It is very difficult to show someone how to do it better. It’s very easy to tell them not to do it at all. But that may be the kind of writing they love to write. How can you help them then?
Let’s say I’m writing a story that starts with a woman giving her kids breakfast (cereal, small talk, where are my gym clothes, did you do your homework etc) and then she takes them to school. My intention is to show them as a very normal family, and then on the school run their car is rammed by an SUV full of gunmen who kidnap her kids etc.
So I very deliberately have a mundane breakfast/car opening to contrast with the switch up to action thriller (or whatever the hell it is I’m writing). But a very common reaction to that will be that the start is boring, lacks pace, isn’t engaging, has no hook, agents won’t keep reading, start the story later, begin with the car crash and so on.
And they’d be right, it is boring. Even though I’m doing it on purpose, that doesn’t make it any more entertaining to read for the reader.
But, the reaction that most people have is based on not really knowing what I was going for, or how to make it work the way I was trying to make it work. That doesn’t mean it was a good idea in the first place, but I will only be able to tell if it’s a good idea or not once I write it in an effective way and see for myself.
Anything you write badly will be bad, whether it follows the rules or not.
The fact I’ve done a bad job of realising a scene doesn’t mean the scene needs to be cut. First I have to do a good job of writing it, then I can see if it’s right for the story.
In this case, let’s say I start the breakfast scene with her six year old son insisting he wants to wear his Spiderman outfit to school. And her ten year old daughter decides now is the time to inform her there’s a school outing today and she needs a packed lunch, oh, and also that she no longer eats gluten…
So mommy convince the son he needs to dress like Peter Parker with the Spiderman outfit under his school clothes, and she defrosts bagels in the microwave which she convinces her daughter takes the gluten out…
Does this breakfast scene still achieve my original goal to show a normal family going about their normal life? Is it more interesting than the original version?
My point is there’s always a way to write a scene effectively. Then you can make a informed decision on whether it works for your story.
Obviously the advantage I have here is that I know what my intention for the scene is, so my ability to suggest changes that emphasise that intention is fairly simple. I still have to come up with a solution, but knowing the thinking behind it helps a lot.
That’s where most advice falls short. When people don’t know what the intention is (and that could be because the writing isn’t good enough to make it clear, or because the reader isn’t astute enough to work it out, or both) they tend to fall back on standard, generic dogma.
When someone tells you they think there’s something not quite right about your story, they’re probably right. If they can pinpoint where this feeling started to occur in the text, that is amazingly helpful. When they tell you what you should do to fix it, chances are they have no idea what they’re talking about.
Not that you can’t offer advice, even specific changes to the narrative and structure of the story and even new ideas. But first you need to know what it is the writer is trying to do. What style they’re going for. What their ambition is for their story.
A lot of aspiring writers don’t yet have a clear idea of what it they’re going for, and so get all sorts of conflicting advice based on random assumptions. And writers have to make allowances for this. You can’t expect people to come with good, practical advice that tells you exactly what to do to achieve your goal, if no one has any way of knowing what that goal is.
But bad advice can work to your advantage too. If you keep getting suggestions that have nothing to do with the kind of story you want to write, then there’s no clearer indicator that your current approach isn’t very effective. Yet.