Writing theory

Writing is such a difficult thing to talk about. I’ve made working with the written word my livelihood and my passion, so I’d like to think I know something about it. Read on, and you can decide whether you think I’m full of it or not.

On the old TV show Judging Amy, the character Vincent was a writer. One of the things that made me angry about his character was that he called writing something “mysterious … I don’t know where it comes from when it’s good, and I don’t know where it goes when it leaves.” That’s utter crap. Writing does take talent, yes, and talent is often a mysterious thing. However, real writing is just as much a product of hard work as talent.

There’s only one way to write: one word at a time. You can be a wonderful storyteller, and still not be a great writer. J.K. Rowling is a perfect example. Her Harry Potter series is just a wonderful story, with amazing characters and interesting developments. Millions of children and adults read her novels because they are terrific stories. However, she falls back on what is possibly the greatest no-no of writing: using adverbs or adverbial phrases in dialogue attribution. It’s a small thing, to be sure, but noticeable to anyone who is versed in the mechanics of strong writing.

Do the mechanics of writing matter? Only if you care about your craft and want to get better. I’ve been published in some small literary journals, and I wrote for publication regularly in my former career as a newspaper editor. One thing I can tell you if you want to write: sit down and go at it. The only way to get better at writing is to do it. My theory about writing is very simple, and I’m happy to share it with you here:

1) Use no other verb to describe dialogue than “said.” Yep, that’s a hard and fast rule with me. “He said” and “she said” are about it as far as I’m concerned. If you want readers to understand that your characters are under stress, in pain, happy, or sad, use the actual dialogue to show what you mean. And above all, never use an adverb or adverbial phrase to modify attribution. It’s useless, and it makes you look like you don’t know what you’re doing.

1A) Having said that, there are exceptions to every rule. I don’t mind an occasional “he/she muttered/whispered.” To me, that only makes sense. And if used sparingly, that kind of attribution can be used effectively to build suspense.

2) Mark Twain said, “Never let the facts stand in the way of a good story.” I’ll go one better: Never let your writing stand in the way of a good story. If you want to write, and you think that everything you put down on paper (or on your screen) has to be grammatically perfect, think again. This ain’t math class. One of the wonders of the English language is its diversity. Read some of Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full or Hooking Up. Read anything by Elmore Leonard. It’s a simple rule that sometimes the rules of English grammar just have to be dumped by the wayside to write interesting fiction. That’s not to say they should be dumped aside callously. Before you go trying to break all the grammatical rules, you need to weigh what they mean to your story. Are you writing about high society, where people speak beautifully, with WASP-y accents? Then maybe you should hang with those grammatical rules. They’ll keep you closer to where you’re wanting to go. But if you’re writing something grim and gritty, something set down where the real people like me live, then maybe it’s okay to toss in some slang and gutter talk. A lot of people understand that more than they ever understood a WASP-y accent anyway.

3) Rewrite like a madman (or woman, as the case may be). No one is good on the first draft. Okay, Robert B. Parker is. But he’s the exception to the rule. Once you have a first draft done, your work is just beginning. Go back through. Look for typos, misspellings, other minor things that make your work less than what it could be. Once you’ve fixed those things, then look for ways to strengthen what you’ve written. Look for ways to make it (my apologies to the U.S. Army) all it can be.

4) Don’t let anyone read what you’re writing until you’re finished writing it. If you start this appalling trend, then someone else is getting input into your work. I’ve done this myself. Sometimes the act of creation is such a lonely one, sometimes you’re so lost in the story that you don’t know where to turn, and you show someone else your half-finished manuscript. This is a horrible thing. Write. Let the story go where it wants to go. Finish it out. Then, and only then, show it to someone else for reading/critiquing. That way the story is still uniquely yours, and no one influenced you from the course you wanted to take.

5) Write every day. When I’m writing, I try to write every day. I don’t always have an idea, so I’m not always writing. But when an idea hits, I try to hit at least 1,000 words a day. Sometimes I get caught up in the story and write twice that much. Once or twice I’ve even written more than three times that amount. But it’s important to write every day for two reasons: a) writing every day disciplines you to the page. You get used to it, plain and simple. And b) you get the story out before it starts to wither and die inside your brain. One more benefit: Writing every day makes the ideas come. I’ve got ideas for two more books to follow the one I’m working on now. Scary. But having ideas is better than not having them.

6) Have fun. Writing is work, yes. That’s why it’s important to have fun with it. If you’re having fun, you won’t come to the keyboard or notepad with a sense of dread. If you’re not having fun putting one word down in front of another, then I daresay you’re in the wrong business, partner.

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