Tuesday, January 10, 2006

But, but, but...

How many times have you seen a succinct piece of advice about writing and sat there scratching your head and private parts?
How many times have you had a section of your work savaged by some on-line critic and responded, either in honest bewilderment or with a feral snarl and a mental list of Great Writers who did exactly the same thing, s0-why-is-it-suddenly-so-bad-to-use-an-adverb?
Well, Abu ben Adam, it's like this.
I guess.
Styles change.
It doesn't matter now what Hemingway or Hammet or Hugo did. Nor Mailer, nor Monsarrat.
It doesn't matter that Dickens started out a "Tale" with a "was".
It doesn't matter that Great Writer of Yesteryear began his/her novel with five pages of description.
It doesn't matter a sweetdamn.
What matters is how the current Gatekeepers perceive the styles, the contents, of what will sell.
And all sorts of righteous funks about "it's who you know and who you blow" does not get you anywhere either.
Stuff the "if only's"( if only I lived in NY; if only my cleaning lady's cousin's uncle was an agent) where you scratch.

And it doesn't matter that you've read Dan Brown's DaVinci Code and noticed all sorts of clunky constructions.
(As an aside, I've not read the Code. I read Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, by Baigent, Leigh and Lincoln, so Brown's plot does not entice me. I'm just going by what others have criticised.)
You can't justify and then ignore your own mistakes by clutching to your bosom examples that prove the current best-selling author makes them too.
Sure he does.
So what?
He is published, by hook or crook, and you, perhaps, are not.
I imagine a published writer has a certain leaway that an unpublished one does not, but sulking about it and saying to yourself, "See, see! He uses indiscriminate conversation tags! The second page is all exposition!" is quite non-productive.
Try to encompass what the best selling writer does right, rather than focusing on what he does wrong. Else you will be lost in the woods while yelling "that tree shouldn't be here, you hypocrites!"

Remember, Mamma loves you like a rock.


Tsavo Leone said...

The moral here should be that good work will always find a home.

And yet... still I find my hackles rising when I consider that the so-called arbiters of taste in this issue are part of an industry... a business... and the cold harsh reality of it all is that all they're really interested in is what will sell, and what will make them the most money. Hence Nicole Richie has a deal but someone more deserving does not.

Lest one forget, all of the media is like this though: gravy for the brain, another fix of mind-candy to be sucked down along with the sponsor's beverage and combination meal. It's all about what will sell for the most profit... and it must always ashere to the maxim KISS (keep it simple stupid!). Because we all know that the readers/viewers/listeners aren't anywhere near as smart as those people who decide what they can read/watch/hear...

Maybe I'm just old-fashoioned in this respect, but I believe in merit: a bloody good story is a bloody good story, no matter how 'challenging' it is too read.

After all, Tolkien and Stoker are still selling well...

Carla said...

Maybe the problem arises when advice is treated as if it were a rule? Someone says, intending to be helpful, that he/she thinks adverbs weigh down prose, or that he/she thinks that lengthy description in the first chapter is boring. Someone else reads this and interprets it as a set of rules "Don't use adverbs", or "Don't put description in the first chapter". And then is puzzled/annoyed/upset to find that some other published writer doesn't 'obey' those 'rules', so goes looking for more or different rules in the hope of one day finding a definitive set.

I have to say I don't get the concept of 'rules' in writing at all. Surely if there were a set of mechanical rules someone would program them into a computer, which would then follow them exactly and turn out a stream of reliable, saleable copy. As far as I know (insert comment of your choice about book you dislike here), nobody has yet done this despite the obvious profit potential. Which I interpret as meaning that there's more to a good piece of writing than 'rules', but nobody has yet defined what it is.

Bernita said...

You have to ask yourself though, Tsavo, would either Tolkien or Stoker find an agent or a publisher today?

Exactly, Carla.
Perfect. Thank you.
The advice, I believe, is aimed at the lowest common denominator,the absolute beginner,much like what Mother says to small kids starting school.

Carla said...

As in "Don't spit at the teacher and try not to tie your shoelaces together" ?

Tsavo, there's a discussion on similar lines on the Grumpy Old Bookman blog, if you haven't already seen it. Hopefully (I am a klutz at html) this is the link. He links it to one of his earlier posts, and it's worth scrolling down through his archives as well.

Rick said...

Tsavo - Here's the irony. What, to most of us, distinguishes "real" publication from vanity publication? Answer: The money. Not only the hope that we'll make some, but the pervasive (and IMHO valid) feeling that selling an ms to an advance-paying commercial publisher gives it credibility, whereas AuthorHouse will "publish" any bunch of typed pages you send them along with a check. The advance may be token from a literary small press, but it is still a commercial deal; they're buying it because a professional editor believes there will be people who will pay to read it.

Carla and Bernita - I'd go a step further. Writing advice is like diet books, "systems," etc.: The whole industry is predicated on failure. Sometimes it may help an author break through to publication, but that is purely incidental, because published authors aren't the target market, wannabes are.

Dennie McDonald said...

would either Tolkien or Stoker find an agent or a publisher today?

The answer is probably not - but not because of the merit of their work. I have heard editors say (and would deny later) that if they had a fight with their spouse before going into work that they would reject every manuscript that crosses their desk that day. (wrong maybe, but they get pissy just like the rest of us)

In the romance genre - several of the top selling authors today would *NOT* be able to get that same contract because of the "rules". You head hop - sorry no deal. You have eight POV characters - try again.

if you ask me it is a crap shoot - it's all about timing. If your work is good eventually, it *WILL* sell, but it may take schlepping it across editor after editor's desk. I had a friend w/ a somewhat un-marketable book, so she was told by a dozen editors, and she sold it after three years of sending it out

Dennie McDonald said...

oh and...

As to what Carla said about the "rules" right on the nose.

I belong to a large crit group - and we have those adverb killers - but I try to defend them - when you "rules" it down, you are taking that authors voice away and you have a generic who-cares book and that certainly won't sell

Carla said...

Rick - Good point, although the authors of said advice may be genuinely well-intentioned. The analogy with diets is very pertinent; the one rule about weight control is that if you eat fewer calories than you burn you lose weight. Everything else is incidental.

In writing I'd say all a writer can do is ensure that the words on page/screen convey as precisely as possible the intended idea. Words were invented for transmitting ideas from one human mind to another, after all.

Anonymous said...

Amen, Bernita. I'd rather produce strong writing spattered with the blood of my beatings than have a gilded, pristine manuscript adorning my great aunt's spare second-hand closet.

The bottom line is that you have to make modern readers want to read. If they put down your work after the first paragraph, you've lost, even if the ghost of Shakespeare is floating above you enraptured.

Bernita said...

As in, "don't get into fights", Carla, and then you learn that sometimes punching out the bully is the only thing that stops him.

Another bingo,by Rick.

Yes, Dennie, the language nazis and the neo-puritans.
Naturally, one should check and see if one is tripping over adverbs, but holy hell, there's no need to be a pharisee about it.

Carla said...

Dennie - I work in scientific publishing and we have the same type of reviewer, people who explain at great length why one must never begin a paragraph with 'Thus', but who fail to notice that the results don't support the conclusion of the paper. Sigh.

I suppose the attraction and the danger of rules is that they are easy. If you obey and impose rules you don't have to think.

Bernita said...

No danger of that, Jason, you have a rare talent.

And Carla has just demonstrated the truth of her comment about precision.

M. G. Tarquini said...

Here's the deal. I say, follow the 'rules'. See if the writing sounds better. Don't decide right away. Stick it in a drawer and look at in two weeks. Is it fresh? Snappy? Something YOU'd plunk down 25 bucks to buy?

You have your answer.

Rick said...

Carla - The most basic thing I take from the Grumpy Old Bookman piece is that this is not science. (Or engineering.) If it were, someone would write a program that does just what you mention, write decent stories. And we would all be out of a (prospective) job, because people would buy the software, enter the sort of story they want, and hit ENTER.

It is a crapshoot, because agents and editors are also going by gut instinct - experienced gut instinct, maybe, but still instinct.

Miss Snark's Crapometer showed that well. Mostly her comments seemed spot on, but sometimes she missed (with yours, for example). One synopsis she was totally clueless about - in fairness a fantasy, which she doesn't do. She thought it was totally incoherent, when in fact the basic story line was quite clear.

Jason - Good point about having to make the reader want to read it. This explains a lot about "rules" such as not starting with long descriptive passages. People 100 years ago had fewer entertainment options. Also they had only the vaguest idea of what (say) Venice looked like. Readers today have far more reference points to go by.

R.J. Baker said...

And what if you're inclined to dangle a . . . participle?

Bernita said...

Do it in dialogue, R.J.
There's a difference between bad grammar and style. Too much of a good thing - adverbs/adjectives/whatever - is style, maybe poor style, but they are not grammatically "wrong."
~slaps side of face~
Why am I saying this?

ali said...

The Da Vinci Code's just badly edited. It switches tense, and occaisionally moves from 3rd-person POV to 1st-person POV. As well as the clunkiness, and odd typo. But I liked the actual story :).

Didn't Miss Snark post about a flawed competition, where a newspaper sent old books to see if they'd be published today?

AE Rought said...

Tsavo says, "The moral here should be that good work will always find a home." I know, at least for me in my soon-to-be-e-published status, that it was the story that sold itself.

And, yet as Tsavo says later, "a bloody good story is a bloody good story, no matter how 'challenging' it is too read" is too true. My first editor edited the hell out of that book, hacking decription and also "terminology general readers wouldn't understand." So, what... the populous, en masse, doesn't want to learn?? Are we as writers supposed to dumb it down and produce fluff because it's easy to swill with a side of realtiy tv fries??

What's my point? I'm not sure other than it ain't easy on either side of the publication line. And, NO, publication is not verification of author status -- sadly, though, for many it seems to be. There are a lot of published books I would not bother with. Alot of successful authors shouldn't be.

Too much thinking these days...

R.J. Baker said...

Berni, sorry I was baiting you.

You are preachng to the chior. I am having a problem singing along sometimes...

Bernita said...

R.J, you have a nice voice, just keep practising.

Yes, Ali, she did.It was so flawed, it proved nothing.

What would you consider verification, A.E?

Gabriele C. said...

Blogger Comments hates me tonight. :-(

So, it's because my father told me to fight the bully that I now don't care much about rules. I have even more than eight POVs in my books, and sometimes omniscient. Hehe. Though I admit that my writing did improve when I took care of that pesky passive voice.

But then, Bernard Cornwell has more 'was' and 'had' on one page than I have in an entire novel, yet I love his books, even his style. And he sells quite a bunch of them, too. ;-)

Bonnie Calhoun said...

I think a lot of the time it's a matter of finding the right editor that likes the voice you put forward.

T...sometimes BAD work finds a home too!

Sorry, I'm late but I was busy all day. My church got robbed overnight!

Bernita said...

I understand that head-hopping within a sentence can cause confusion, ie. the problem being clarity.
But I have never understood this malediction against using different pov.s in a text, Gabriele.
I embrace them as a reader. I WANT to know what the different characters think, feel, perceive.Wotinhell is wrong with several pov's?
Can anyone explain the logic of this to me in simple words?

C'mon, Bonnie, don't drop it like that. Tell us what happened!

Carla said...

Wotinhell is wrong with several pov's?
Can anyone explain the logic of this to me in simple words?

Because the reader has to pay attention, perhaps?

Gabriele C. said...

Bernita, I rewrote the first chapters of Kings and Rebels which were in omiscient, into single POV (Roderic's), after the first critics said omni wasn't used anymore. And I hated the rewritten version. Then I fortunatley found another online place where I was told omni was ok as long as it was done well. So I rewrote the scenes again and liked them a lot better. I admit, good ommiscient is tricky to write, but it can be a very useful POV.

In that particular case I needed to be in the heads of both Roderic and Kjartan, the enemies who respect each other and slowly develop a friendship, and Roderic's father Girart who wants to sacrify Kjartan to his political ambitions, thus forcing Roderic to decide between his oath of fealty and his friendship to Kjartan. In a single POV the emotional density of some of these scenes would never have come across.

I admit the first version jarred (heck, I had just started writing some months before) but the advice not to use omni at all was still a very bad one. When one of those first critics gave the same advice to another writer two years later, I told her a few things, and I'm afraid I wasn't nice. But such things can destroy a writer's personal style.

Bernita said...

My rule: An absolute rule is death.

M. G. Tarquini said...

I use different points of view, but not within the same chapter, unless there's a section break and a defineable reason. Like if the chapter is in A's point of view, and A is talking to B, I don't switch to B unless A walks off the scene or something and there's a time lapse.

I can't stand headhopping. I've seen omniscient done well, but most of the time when I see it in the same section of a chapter it looks like the author didn't know any better.

AE Rought said...


Is there a need for verification?? An author is one who creates images, conveys and expresses thoughts and ideals... To me, an author is simply someone who writes. "I write, therefore I am."

Do the gods need the verification of man to know that they are divine?? (I know stretchy comparison, but work with me here...)

Bernita said...

I'm afraid I tend to hold authors to the same standards as any other profession.That standard may be inconsistent, arbitrary and subject to clever evasion, but it remains an accepted standard or guide.
One can say in his secret soul, I write, therefore I am a writer, and to a degree that is true, and very misleading.
Which is why there are adjectives ( such as unpublished and aspiring, etc.) and classifications ( vanity, small, etc.) and degrees of endeavour and so forth.
Unless someone sees this writing, he may be a liar.
And unless that writing is compared to other examples, it has only personal value and cannot claim any special dispensation.
I may "doctor" a kid's scrape with a band-aid,but that does not give me leave to consider myself a Doctor.
Re the divinity. I'm inclined to think they do. Otherwise, if the same condition applies to all, then no pathology( divinity) applies.

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