Open Letter to New Writers
Being a writer isn’t the easiest thing in the world. There are other professions, careers, jobs where it is easier to define success. In a way, writing is like being a preacher…when with others of the same profession we tend to limit our success in terms of numbers: numbers of baptisms, numbers of books sold, as if numbers truly define what is at the heart of both professions—changing lives.
I’ve been a writer as long as I can remember, from the very earliest scribbles in elementary school to the more elaborate pieces of awful prose in junior high. It took me a while to find my niche, to find a series I’m comfortable with, that I enjoy writing, that’s uniquely me and not a knock off of something else. Judging my merit as a writer solely on how many books I’ve sold doesn’t cut it for me. Approaching success as a writer has to go beyond the cookie cutter approach.
In addition to the constant talk of book sales numbers, there is another tendency among writers on social media that distresses me: the persistent insistence on minutiae as an earmark of a good writer. I will be the first to tell you that you need to proofread and proofread and proofread again. Even the best writers miss things that glare like a searchlight for readers (and that was in the days of only printed material where once it was published, you didn’t get a do-over). Attention to grammar and spelling is a must, simply because you don’t want to jar the reader out of the story world with carelessness on your part. However, some of the things that keep cropping up on social media grieves me as it’s just another “gatekeeper” to keep new or young writers from entering the fray. Tools, meant to be guidelines, are used as absolutes and guidelines are treated as a smorgasbord of tools that can be picked or not as the writer chooses.
Let me give you an example: Omniscient third person and limited third person. Some of the great pieces of literature were written in omniscent third person and while current publishers don’t like it, there really isn’t anything wrong with it if that is what your story needs. The pendulum has swung far with new writers taking the limited third person to mean a different character in every chapter. These multiple POVs are as confusing as the argument that omniscient POV is confusing because the author jumps from character to character on the same page…same argument, just different packaging. If you can keep up with multiple POVs, you can keep up with omniscient. Still, I can follow omniscient easier than trying to stay interested in multiple POVs that change with each chapter. Personally, I want to be invested in one or two characters, not a dozen. Sometimes omniscient works best with multiple characters. Think Lord of the Rings. Basic rule, pick a POV and stick with what works best for your story.
The newest trend is to write in first person and/or present tense, so I’m going to address both simultaneously: don’t. It takes an experienced writer to attempt first person, and few can do it well. (Robert Heinlein and H. Beam Piper are two good classic examples. Karina Fabian’s Dragon P.I. series is a modern example. See Murder Most Picante). If I see a book written in first person, I usually avoid reading it. It’s just not worth the wincing as “I drag a French fry through the ketchup.” There is a reason most of the classic authors wrote in past tense and new writers would be well advised to avoid present tense; however, if that’s your thing, please be aware of a couple of rules of thumb that could save you countless hours of heartbreak with readers. You don’t have to detail every little thing the character does. Example: if your character needs to answer the phone, just answer the phone. Don’t give the excruciating detail of walking across the carpet, picking up the phone, touching the call button and raising the phone to your ear, then answering the call. Ask yourself why. Why am I using present tense? If you are a storyteller, use present tense to tell your kids bedtime stories. If you’re a writer, use past tense because the story has already happened. You are recording it for others to enjoy. Past tense doesn’t require as much sentence manipulation and there’s less anger when the MC dies at the end of a present tense story. There’s also less chance you’ll switch tenses mid-stream.
Last, but not least is the topic of using said, tags, synonyms, and adverbs. Honestly, I can’t believe how many well-intentioned people want to cut useful tools from the English language. Folks, there’s a reason why English has so many beautiful synonyms for “said”. For example (and if you can’t hear the difference as a reader, you haven’t read enough books).
“Leave it there,” he said.
“Leave it there,” he growled.
“Leave it there,” he whimpered.
“Leave it there,” he screamed.
If your mind didn’t immediately go to four different scenes, well, I feel sorry for you. English is rich with synonyms that help set stage, mood, emotion, context, and the list goes on. Don’t limit yourself simply because some know-it-all told you not to use them. Doing so is a knee jerk reaction like the present idiocy that requires everyone to say “my friend and I” even if it’s wrong. *(See end of blog for explanation) Do remember synonyms are like salt and should be used sparingly. Tags are good (writing dialogue without using “said” or one of its synonyms), but shouldn’t be the only tool in your toolkit. Mix it up.
Adverbs are another lovely tool that often gets trashed without thinking. Adverbs can be overused and used as a crutch to tell instead of show; however, sometimes a simple adverb can do the work of paragraphs of useless explanation. As a journalist, I learned long ago that simple is better. Sometimes writers get so caught up in trying to show that they write a convoluted paragraph to explain what could have been said better with a single adverb. Here’s a simple example:
“Don’t touch that,” he said, angrily, as she reached for the rusted lever.
“Don’t touch that.” His voice rose, nearly to a shout, as she reached for the rusted lever; the decibels of his tone rattled the windowpanes and made her cringe in her seat.
Ok, while the description is good and might even have a place depending on the circumstances, with a bit of context you’ll see the adverb serves a purpose. If this is merely one line of dialogue, then the description works wonderfully. However, if this is part of a larger dialogue paragraph or a running action scene where the action is more important, the reader doesn’t want to be jarred out of the scene by needless description. Use the adverb and move on. Save the lengthy description for what’s more important.
Be flexible. Be bold. Be adventurous. There’s more than one way to write; you just need to find your voice. Who knows? If you tell a compelling story, you might set a new style for writing.
*Use “I” before a verb and “me” after verbs. My friend and I are going to the theater. Give my friend and me a chance to show what we can do. Too often teachers and parents auto corrected children and students without proper instruction and a whole generation uses “my friend and I” when they should be saying “my friend and me.”