The Writing Gestapo

Don’t do this! Don’t do that! Don’t you ever DARE think about doing that! Filthy writing muggle! Good writers NEVER resort to that! Dirty, Dirty, Dirty!

I’m not joking when I say ‘if I have to read one more list of so-called ‘rules of writing’, I am going to chin someone.

Yet another one popped up yesterday, with the usual stuff – adverbs bad, only use said so it becomes invisible to the reader (am I the only reader out there who finds that annoying? Even as a kid, the repetition of ‘said’ irritated me. I conform now because so many people tell me its the right thing to do, but it does annoy me just a teeny bit), make every word count etc – and, as usual, half of it conflicted with stuff on other lists and other advice you get (exactly how do I be true to myself and write what I want to write when I’ve also got to do as you say or my writing is worthless?).

I think it all came to a head when, last night, I found myself agonising for half an hour on how to remove the word ‘suddenly’ from a sentence. No matter how much I rewrote, rejigged and revised, that little forbidden word was what it needed – sometimes, things do happen suddenly, and whilst I agree it is a hideously overused word, it is still a word there to be used.  But I know that if I keep it in there, what feels like a million people will all jump on me, screeching ‘NO ADVERBS! NO SUDDENLY! WEAK WRITING!’ until my eardrums burst.

Then there’s the absolute joy of trying to write emotion and not resorting to cliche. And yes *weary sigh, I know too much is a bad thing, but sheesh, whether we like it or not, hearts do pump when you’re scared, people do glance at each other when they  fancy one another and teeth do grit when you’re in pain. When tingling toes, or frazzling hair is a sign someone fancies someone else, I’ll use it. But until then… what? Just WHAT, Mr List? How exactly do I get my characters into a place where the reader believes the might just have a thing for each other without resorting to something my readers recognise within themselves?

I know these lists are meant to be a helpful guide to steer people in the right direction, but when you’re being told ‘don’t use ‘was’, or ‘get rid of all uses of there was / there were / was + ing constructions’, it gets a bit much. Yes,  try to restrict their use and use stronger verbs instead, but get rid of them completely? Seriously – give it a go. Try to remove every single bad thing these lists say are mortal sins from your writing. Because I have tried it, and I ended up with a nonsensical piece of utter shite. And to make that a readable piece, I ended up with a blank page.

Claire has had 3 hours sleep and is in a terrible grump this morning. Let’s just call this ‘The List That Broke The Camel’s Back…’

NB: I will note my amusement in the amount of boobs I had to trawl through to find an appropriate picture for this blog. Who knew a ‘Novel Writing Rules’ image search would deliver boobies? They really do get everywhere…

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10 thoughts on “The Writing Gestapo

  1. Barb says:

    Remember when you were told “show don’t tell” and applied it with zest to all your writing? That is until you realised that if you kept going on like that, you wouldn’t be able to pick up the finished manuscript. Quite.

    A hundred people will probably line up to tell me I’m wrong, but I think these things are aligned to pace. If something dramatic is going on, a couple of cliches can work well. When he’s going to shot the baddie, finally tell the girl he loves her, or present his long worked on chocolate cake for judging, simple phrasing and images work well.

    In the breathing lulls, when the reader has the time to digest your words – then hair can frizz like Medusa. Although hopefully in response to humidity, not romance.

    Sometimes people squeak, bark and cough out words. I think a sprinkling of them adds something.

    • I remember us discussing this in the past, Barb – and I still agree with you! Show don’t Tell… yeah, that’s another one I tied myself up in knots over. The problem as I see it is that these lists were originally compiled as a set of basic guidelines, not a commandments set in stone that Must Be Obeyed. But as time goes on, like chinese whispers, they’ve mutated into these monsters, which people just parrot without thinking now. There just seems to be no wiggle room to take the actual piece of prose itself into consideration; it doesn’t matter whether the so-called rule breaker stands up in the piece (for example, in 85,000+ words, I think I am allowed 3 ‘suddenly’s), you must follow the rules to the letter AT ALL TIMES. Whilst being true to yourself and writing what you want to write, of course.

      Sometimes, ignorance is indeed bliss…

  2. Elizabeth says:

    I honestly think this post might have just saved me from an epic meltdown! I totally agree with this – “advice” is starting to come across like “instruction” or, worse, “orders”. Reading too much of it can stifle the creative process altogether.

    • And my computer just ate my reply. Once I calm down enough to resist the urge to beat this thing against a wall, I shall endeavor to replicate it! Until then *deep, cleansing breath…*

      Needless to say, I totally agree with you. And I’m glad this might have been some help!

  3. Gerry Fenge says:

    If and when the novel gets accepted and editors get their hands on it, expect more of the same. Lots of present continuous (‘He was standing there’) converted to stumpy alternatives (‘He stood there’) – but how about if you WANT it to be a continuous action, or maybe a revealed action (‘She pulled back the curtain and he was etc’)

    It’s unthinking, it’s automatic pilot – but, of course, half the time it’s right. You don’t want your writing to drag. I’m all for pace, but it’s a lot more effective if you can VARY the pace occasionally.

    And, of course, if you don’t like what you’ve written how can you expect anyone else to? So, ultimately, please yourself! (Even if it means indulging in the occasional exclamation mark…)

    • I know, Gerry… and it’s kind of depressing. I have no problem with editing / revising to make something stronger, but this obsession with making everything ‘pacey’ is another bugbear of mine. Why can’t different books have different paces?

      It’s the blanket approach some people have to editing that gets on my wick. The attitude that no matter what they piece,the same cluster of of so-called rules always applies. Your example is one of the things that I’m kind of getting at – yes, ‘he stood’ may very well be a ‘better’ way of doing things… but what if that isn’t what the writer wants? What if ‘he was standing there’ actually, God forbid, is what the writer wants – and not because they are bad writers, but because it actually fits the scene / pace / mood the writer is trying to build?

  4. Gerry Fenge says:

    By the way, I’ve just pressed to Follow this blog. (I’m good, I am.)

  5. Skylark says:

    I’ve just laughed out loud all the way through this – you are so right of course 🙂 How many times have I tied myself in knots so that I don’t tell, don’t use adverbs, don’t ‘was’ all over the place only to have someone crit my work and rephrase a sentence back to its original in all its telling-adverbial-was-ing glory! Yes, these rules stop us from over-using certain writing phrases, techniques etc. but rules are there to be broken 😉

  6. You’ve had that, too? That irritates me so much – I even had one person critique one piece where they bashed me over the head for adverbial-was-ing to kingdom come, and then, a couple of months later, mindful of their advice, I dilligently removed as many incidences of it from my new piece (stupidly thinking ‘this shows progress and how I take critique on board’) only for them to rewrite a ‘better’ version of my piece… with all the sodding adverbial-was-ing back in place! This is why I rarely ask for critiques outside of a small group of trusted people now – too many cooks and all that. 😉

    Thanks for commenting! xx

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