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Writing Advice—Weighing the Advice (Part Two)

March 27, 2015 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified April 8, 2015

2015 Writing Advice Series

Listen or Ignore (Part 1)

Weighing the Advice (Part 2)

Behind the Advice (Part 3)

What About -ing Words (Part 4)

Related Articles

Smiling or Laughing Dialogue

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I touched on bad writing advice in a recent article, and the comments got me thinking about other advice, both good and bad, and had me reading other blog articles about writing advice.

Wow. There’s a whole lot of writing advice out there. And there’s advice contrary to all that advice. And then there’s advice that warns you about all the other advice.

What’s a writer to do?

I suggest you read advice knowing that you’ll find the opposite advice just around the corner. I also suggest that as you read, you determine what the advice giver is really saying and why. Pithy little one-liners make for eye-catching quotes or they fit bullet points, but often a single line of advice is woefully insufficient. Sometimes, many times—most times?—the motivation behind the pithy advice, the catalyst for it, is the key to understanding the advice.

This is one reason my articles tend to be quite long. I’m not content to give one-liners that can be misconstrued or that pretend to fit all circumstances at all times; I try to cover multiple possibilities. Much writing advice is situation specific, so what is almost always true or fitting is still not always fitting for every circumstance. Maybe the advice doesn’t fit a genre or a style or a particular writer’s problem area. Maybe the advice wasn’t intended for a particular situation. And maybe understanding these truths would go a long way toward clarifying advice.

A second reason my articles are quite long is that I try to anticipate the buts—but what about the . . . but my situation is different . . . but what if you’ve got a . . . 

Dig into the intention behind a piece of advice. See if there’s something besides the obvious that could prove useful, something that would make sense of odd or seemingly contradictory advice.

While we’re talking advice, keep in mind that there’s a big difference between general advice, given to all writers, and specific advice shared with one writer about a particular story or even a specific scene, paragraph, sentence or word.

 

An Example

Show, don’t tell may be great advice for the new writer who has produced not a novel but a 300-page report on a character’s actions or interests. A report that takes dialogue out of the setting and simply recaps what was said. A report that highlights summary and ignores scenes.

If the entire manuscript reads like this example, this writer should heed the advice to show more and tell less—

Sam went to the store, then Sam visited his barber. In the afternoon he went by his mother’s house. Sam was a happy man, simple but solid. He loved dogs, his mother, but not his wife. He was average in height, weight, and coloring. He was less than average in intelligence. Sam also loved licorice, the first snowfall, the Red Sox. He didn’t like having to go to work every day.

Sam always said please, he always said thank you, and he never forgot to tip.

On the Wednesday Sam visited his mother—an anomaly since he never visited midweek—he told her he’d quit his job. He also told her he was moving across the country. She was upset, as could be expected. Sam was her only son. When Sam left, she cried.

This recap of the events of Sam’s life is more like a news report and less like a movie or even a highlight reel. The writer who substitutes this report in place of real-time scenes needs to show more, needs to include events with characters playing out in real time and in a setting that can be seen or felt or heard (allowances for truly unusual settings that maybe can’t be touched). This writer needs to recap less.

Yet not every writer has a problem with this same issue.

Tell more and show less might be the perfect advice for the writer who turns every simple action/movement/event into a scene, infusing them with details, emotion, and importance when instead he should have simply straight-out relayed one detail about a character or event, or included a summary rather than a full-blown scene.

Let’s look at an example of when showing is too much.

Bob jogged out to his car with enthusiasm. He smiled, remembering the day he’d seen it on the lot. He’d wanted a Mustang since he’d been ten. Fell in love with the sporty car when the kid across the street rumbled home with one in 1968.

Bob reached out, unlocked the driver’s door, then pulled it open. He slipped into the buttery-smooth bucket seat, placed his feet into the footwell, and gently closed the door. No slammin’ for this baby, he thought. He pumped the gas pedal, put the key in the ignition, and turned it. Yeah, that was the sound he loved. The radio was already tuned to his favorite station, but he pushed the second button from the left, wanting the local talk station. He fiddled with the dial until the announcer’s voice came in clearly, no fuzzy static marring his suave tones.

Reaching a hand to the rear-view mirror, Bob glanced at his image. He brushed a hand over his hair—it wouldn’t do to show up looking like he’d just rolled out of bed, even though he had, only three minutes earlier, just rolled out of bed.

When the car’s roar muted to a rumbling purr, he put it in reverse and backed . . .

Yeah, not fun to read, is it? And what’s especially bad about this particular scene is that Bob is a detective called to the site of a triple murder. Why are we getting treated to any info about his car and him getting into it?

A few suitable transitions from his home to the crime scene that don’t go into all the detail of the example above?

Bob raced to the alley behind the Dunstan Hotel.

Bob brushed his teeth with one hand while he steered himself downtown with the other.

When he pulled in behind the patrol car, Bob . . .

Showing and telling are both good and both necessary. But both showing and telling can be used at the wrong time or to the wrong degree given the other elements of the scene and story. Writers should learn how to show as well as how to tell and learn when one might be the better choice over the other.

From this one example, you can easily see how writing advice (show, don’t tell), especially the unexplained or the unexplored, will not serve every writer in every situation. And while sometimes one piece of advice might fit a writer in almost all things, sometimes the advice is simply situational. A writer who has successfully shown through scenes and told through summary and narrative may still need to show more of a particular event, may be advised to write a scene of dialogue rather than report only the highlights. This is not saying that the writer needs to do this with every dialogue summary, just the one. So this advice would be very specific to one moment in a story, not to the full story. To one scene and not to the writer’s choices as a whole.

Advice about not overusing certain words—just, that, is there, are there—may be what most new writers need to hear, may even be the perfect refresher for experienced writers, but some writers may not need such advice.

And while much advice is geared to the beginning writer, some who’ve written for years can still do with a solid refresher. Maybe an experienced writer never learned some cool little trick that would make the writing of a first draft easier or his dialogue more vibrant or his descriptions more vivid. Maybe a writer doesn’t fully understand subtext or foreshadowing or character motivation.

Writing advice can be useful for the writer at any level of experience and skill.

 

Another Example

Rules about using and not using said for a dialogue tag will be debated for years.

While there is leeway for the use of creative dialogue tags, especially in certain genres, the consensus is that said is almost invisible. It’s not truly invisible, that’s definitely true. For an example of this, I always suggest that writers read Robert B. Parker’s Spenser books. I don’t know if Parker repeated said so often as a style decision, for the rhythm, or if he forgot he’d just used the word—or maybe he overlearned the rules about said or was thumbing his nose at a writing teacher or critic. Who knows why, but he used said a whole lot. And in my opinion, he used it often when no dialogue tag was needed at all.

Again, he may have had a reason for what he did. But said is not invisible in some of his books.

That doesn’t mean that Parker should have substituted other words for his tags. In this case simply reducing the number of tags might have been the best choice. (An example of multiple solutions to one problem.)

Used judiciously and occasionally, said functions more like a punctuation mark than a descriptive word. Like a period, it becomes a nearly invisible trail marker in a sentence. We tend not to read periods, at least consciously. But we follow them. That is, they slide right by, doing their work, without the reader having to consciously think I’ve reached the end of the sentence now.

A good dialogue tag does the same thing; it simply does its work, which is to identify the speaker. Readers don’t have to pause at the tag to appreciate how the spoken words are spoken. As the period does, a dialogue tag using said keeps the reader humming along.

Unusual dialogue tags, on the other hand, are more like commas, especially oddly placed commas but sometimes normal commas as well.

While the period is virtually invisible, commas and the lack of them stand out. A comma in the wrong place and a missing comma can both cause the reader to stutter. They’re not nearly as invisible as are periods, though in some situations it’s true that we hardly notice them. In other circumstances, however, they do stand out. This is why using commas correctly is so very important. When readers don’t find one where they expect it, they can be thrown off; the rhythm of their read may actually change. The same is true when readers find a comma where they don’t expect it.

One goal writers can take on is to make the comma as invisible as the period. You do want to be sure it’s noticed when it’s used in an unusual but necessary way, but you don’t want it to jump out and say I’m here, pause now please or why don’t you stop what you’re doing to see what I’m doing sitting here in this odd place where I have no business sitting.

All this is a very long way for me to suggest that your dialogue tags should function more like a period than a comma. They should be a part of the foundation of a sentence that’s unnoticed and not the flashy part of the sentence—aboveground—that seeks attention.

Creative or exaggerated or impossible dialogue tags are definitely attention magnets. They make readers notice. They may make readers slow down or pause. It’s as if they’re saying, Ha. I made you look.

As with every other bit of writing advice, however, there are exceptions. If a writer’s style highlights dialogue tags, then that writer can certainly feature dialogue tags in his stories in a way that works for those stories. And as I’ve already mentioned, some genres allow for creative tags. But for most writers most of the time, dialogue tags should not play a prominent eye-catching role.

And there’s nothing wrong with that.

I never hear writers arguing for a larger role for periods; they simply serve their support function and let the other writing elements perform theirs. The same should be true for dialogue tags. They should serve their intended purpose of identifying the speaker—which they’re quite good at doing—and leave other writing tasks to other writing elements that do a better job of them. Let action beats and the spoken words of dialogue convey emotion and other details. Use simple dialogue tags—he/she/I said, asked—to quickly identify the speaker so the reader can move right along, appreciating what was said and instantly knowing who said it.

Dialogue tags that stay in the background allow the dialogue itself to assume the foreground.

Yes, I understand that words other than said and asked can serve as dialogue tags. But I also understand that some verbs used as tags are ludicrous and can destroy every smidgen of believability a writer painstakingly planted inside his fiction.

People don’t laugh dialogue, not even fictional people. We simply can’t convey I told you it was impossible to pick up jellyfish without getting stung while laughing. Ha ha ha doesn’t sound anything like impossible to pick up jellyfish.

We also don’t gargle, giggle, smile, chuckle, chortle, or grunt long strings of speech. Yes, characters do these things. But the spoken word does not. If you need to convey that a character garbled or giggled through his speech, simply say so.

While it’s typically a sign of good writing for one item, perhaps a sentence, to accomplish multiple purposes—advance plot, reveal character, raise the conflict level, and induce emotion in the reader—some writing components have more specialized tasks. The period has its place and so does the dialogue tag. And the dialogue tag’s purpose is to identify the speaker.

It can be called on for other purposes and it can be used creatively—of course it can—but use it for its strengths and use the other writing elements for theirs. In this way you’re building a story on the strongest foundation.

I could touch on other advice—as I mentioned, there’s so, so much out there. But once again what was going to be a short article turned into a long one, so I’ll begin the wrap-up here.

 

Never and Always

You’re probably safe with guessing that any advice that says to never or always do something is incomplete. I won’t say that such advice is always wrong, though it’s tempting to dismiss all-or-nothing advice (and yes, I get that I’m playing both sides with such a comment). But it’s likely that there’s a hidden kernel that gave birth to the all-or-nothing advice that is true, at least under certain conditions.

So it’s not that you must

never use anything but said for a dialogue tag

always use said in every line of dialogue

never use that

never use the passive voice in fiction

never include a prologue

always introduce your main character by page two

And it’s not that you must follow every witty bit of writing advice willy-nilly, as if such advice fits every circumstance you’ll ever deal with as a writer; it’s not logical to think that all advice fits all writers and all writing projects at all times even though much advice fits many writers and many situations much of the time.

The point is that good writing advice has merit and should be considered.

But what’s good advice, and how’s a writer to know what’s good and what isn’t?

Good advice is counsel and instruction that works in the situations and for the purposes it’s intended for. It’s advice that’s worked for many writers over many years.

It’s advice intended to help a writer create fascinating characters, plots, and fictional worlds that readers want to lose themselves with. Good advice isn’t the newest fad, one guaranteed to make a writer feel good about his crappy writing while telling him it’s okay to throw away the very components that make a piece of fiction good as recognized by familiar or generally accepted measures.

Good fiction is entertaining, enthralling, haunting, compelling, unforgettable, and understandable. If it’s not all of these things, it’s at least some of them. It’s certainly not the rambling musings of a writer who ignores advice on how to plot or how to reveal characters, how to write believable dialogue, how to use setting details to enrich a story’s background, or how to write grammatically so readers can follow the characters through the setting and plot events.

Allow me to suggest that it’s a good idea to check out the intention behind any bit of writing advice. If the intended purpose fits your circumstances, then see what following the advice will do for your writing project. If the purpose behind the advice won’t get at your problem or issue, look for other tips or advice that will help with your need. But don’t then dismiss the first advice as being wrong or useless. It’s likely that it fits another writer’s or another manuscript’s or even another scene’s needs perfectly.

That is, don’t decide that one piece of writing advice is bad simply because it’s not the advice you need at the moment. And don’t decide that all advice is worthless simply because several instances of advice did nothing to help you. Maybe you’re looking at the wrong kinds of advice (perhaps searching for answers in grammar and syntax when it’s a refresher in plotting that you need). Maybe you’re not looking deep enough. Maybe your needs are more complex than one piece of advice can address, and your story requires a multi-advice approach.

And maybe you’re not pushing hard enough to make the changes that would ensure success with the advice you’re given because you don’t want to make the changes.

I don’t mean to sound as if I’m battering you. If you feel that I’m on your case, could you maybe just imagine I’m lighting a fire under you instead? But you know it’s true—sometimes we simply don’t want to do the work that’s needed to fix the problem. And this may be especially true if we’ve spent months or years writing a novel manuscript only to discover it needs major restructuring or rewriting. Or maybe even harder to face, we discover that we are the problem, that we need major training to be able to make the changes that need changing.

Still, no matter what your attitude toward changes, I do want you to consider the underpinnings of writing advice, the purposes and intents of that advice, before you either accept it or reject it.

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Writing problems aren’t always solved easily, and complex stories can’t be put together with a snap of the writer’s fingers, à la Samantha Stephens. The steps to fix a problem in our writing can take more than 30 minutes, more than a quick check of the Internet and the changing of a couple of words. Deep fixes may well take weeks. We can’t always understand all the intricacies of a writing element or a bit of advice after reading one chapter in a how-to book and practicing with one writing exercise. Sometimes our learning and the polishing of skills takes months.

Sometimes we don’t develop the needed skills until we write another manuscript.

Writing fiction is a craft. It takes practice and the learning of skills and yes, it takes training, which means following advice from others. A craft is a set of skills and a love passed from one artist to another.

Don’t be surprised that you can’t learn everything in a month or two or even in a year or two. Don’t be surprised that you can’t learn everything from books. And don’t be surprised that you can’t learn only by trial and error on your own, with no solicitation of advice from writers who’ve gone through it all before you.

Get yourself a mentor if that works for you. Get involved in a professional program of study or devise one for yourself. Allow yourself a couple of years to learn the craft of writing, just as an apprentice of the Middle Ages learned his craft.

Seek out advice and if that advice doesn’t work for your needs, seek out more advice. Peer deep into the advice to get to the core. Ask what the advice is actually trying to accomplish and why. Ask when such advice should be followed and also about the conditions under which it wouldn’t apply.

And consider not listening to advice that includes the word never or always.

Of course, even to that bit of advice there are exceptions. I think the following are safe bits of advice, even with their nevers and always.

Never bore the reader

Never publish a first draft

Always assume you can learn more

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Tags:     Posted in: Beginning Writers, Craft & Style

18 Responses to “Writing Advice—Weighing the Advice (Part Two)”

  1. Haydee says:

    When I come across advice that doesn’t suit me or that I find ridiculous, I just ignore it and move on. Life is too short.
    Not long ago I came across a post urging writers to do away with the ing form altogether. The poster stated that using the ing form weakened the writing. She gave a few limited examples of sentences that had the ing form and then presented the rewritten version without the ing, claiming that the sentences were much stronger. I found the advice ridiculous. The ing has different functions. The poster never explained any of them. Don’t get me wrong, I do agree that in some instances the ing weakens the writing. However, without reading someone’s work is impossible to determine whether that ing form is making someone’s writing weak. In a lot of the cases, the ing is the least of the writer’s problems.
    Advice I tend to ignore:
    only use one exclamation mark per chapter
    don’t start your MS with a dream
    don’t use the word beautiful
    don’t start with a prologue
    don’t use semicolons

    • Haydee, with your example about -ing, you’ve shown quite clearly the need for explanations to be included with advice. (Now I wish I’d included more in everything I’ve ever written.)

      I too have suggested that writers limit their use of -ing words. The majority of verbs in a novel should be in the simple past or simple present, but there’s always a call for other tenses.

      One major problem with the progressive form is that it seems to attract more examples of it. So rather than a single sentence that makes productive use of the progressive, suddenly there are three pages when every third or fourth word is was. Was walking, was thinking, was running, was hoping. And in such cases, the writing does suffer. Overuse does in this case lead to a weaker impact.

      And this goes back to my point about delving deeper into advice to get at the meaning behind the advice. When there’s no hint at what’s behind the advice to do or not do something, the writer has to dig deep or look somewhere else for explanation.

      But I think it’s good for writers to do this, to push beyond the surface rules and advice and explanations. I know I can spend forty minutes or an hour or more delving into an issue when I’m looking up the reasons for rules. And I’m never content with one take on an issue. I want to know why and how and why again. I want the big picture and the little details. I want to be able to tell my clients why one choice is better than four others given the particulars of their genre, setting, scene, characters, style and so forth. I can’t do that effectively unless I know how and why all the parts work and how they influence the other parts.

      Now, while I may spend a lot of time looking at the whys and hows, part of that is so I can share the info with clients and other writers. But I also simply like knowing. I want all the knowledge I can gather regarding writing and fiction. I love seeing how it all works together to produce novels that can take readers to a fictional world for a few hours, a world that becomes real, with characters who become so lifelike that readers think about them, dream about them, and cry over them.

      Simply stated, everything about the craft of fiction writing is cool to me.

      An individual writer may not be able to spend the time researching every issue regarding every fiction element, but I recommend that they do keep pushing. There’s always more to learn. And some of that learning can make it much easier to put a novel together. Some of it helps the writer craft a more entertaining or captivating or resonating story.

      And you know I’m just bursting with comments about a couple of those bits of advice you ignore. But I’m not going to overburden this comment box. (Other than the bit about not using beautiful, I think I’ve addressed all those issues from at least one side.)

      Thanks for diving in here, for showing how this issue plays out in your own writing life. I’m thinking there’s much more to the topic than I’ve covered in two articles. And I’ve even started a third, to address an issue from a comment in the first article.

      • haydee says:

        I apologize for the long post. I just felt I had to explain myself a bit better.

        One thing is to advise writers to limit the use of the ing form and another is to tell people that the ing form is the antichrist of the writing world. I haven’t read your piece on the ing form. However, you said that you advise your clients “to limit” its use, not to stop using it altogether. What really bothered me about the post I read about the ing form was that the poster was saying “don’t use it” like it was some kind of sin. The ing form has more than one function. It isn’t just used as part of the progressive/continuous form of the verb. It can also function as a noun (gerund) and adjective. I find the ing form useful when writing cumulative sentences and when I want to add variety and rhythm to the text by starting a sentence with a gerund phrase rather than with the usual personal pronouns (he,she, it…) or a proper noun. This is not something I like to use a lot because it really stands out, but I’m glad I know that it’s as an option.
        Going back to my point about my ignoring absolutist advice about exclamation mark etc. What I said was that I “tend” to ignore the advice, not that I ignore it altogether. It really depends on how the advice is delivered. For instance, I do understand why some people find exclamation marks juvenile and amateurish. Writers shouldn’t rely on exclamation marks to convey certain emotions or tone of voice in the same way, that writers shouldn’t rely on adverbs to convey the intensity of actions and emotions. However, I don’t accept that a writer is only allowed to use one exclamation mark per chapter. Harry Potter would’ve never made it if that were the case. When writing for children, especially for young readers, exclamation marks are very useful because they help children learn about intonation.
        If a writer is using too many exclamation marks, I don’t believe that just by replacing them with a comma or period, the writing will automatically be improved.
        “You moron!” she shouted.
        “You are the moron!” he countered.
        “I’m gonna kick your butt!” she screamed.
        Replacing the exclamation marks with commas alone won’t help that much here.

        Prologues: I went to the bookshop three weeks ago and read the first 5 pages of over 30 books. More than half of them started with a prologue, and more than half of the books with a prologue started the first chapter with a dream/wake up scene— Ah, the don’t-start-with-a-dream/waking up-scene advice. Yeah, I wouldn’t recommend it myself, but I don’t think it’s black and white, either. I’ve read many engaging stories/novels that start with a dream/waking up scene. The Hunger Games and Rebeca(italics), begin that way. Also, out of all the books I read that started with the prologue-wake up scene combination, the wake up scene was more interesting than the prologue. The prologue came across as an “add-on”, something that was added later to cover up the wake up/dream scene.

        My whole point is that people should be careful with advice, especially if it creates biases. I’ve seen writers trying to apply techniques that aren’t suitable for their work/style just because they read somewhere or heard someone say that using this or that was the right thing to do. I’ve also met many wannabes who refuse to follow advice because they think they know best, which brings me to another point: not everybody has the same capacity to understand advice. Writers also has their own style. I know this lady who makes adverbs sound like music. Is this the norm? No, but it happens.
        It’s okay to read advice about writing, but it’s also okay to ignore or reject the advice that isn’t suitable.

        • Haydee, no need to apologize for a long comment—I do it all the time, and it’s good to hear what’s on the minds of writers and editors.

          We’re pretty much in agreement—weigh the advice and determine the purpose behind it and the occasions when it should be followed. You’re right that it’s not all suitable in all circumstances.

          And I see what you mean about some of those prohibitions—the -ing words and other issues. I’m just gonna have to weigh in on a couple of those issues. But since I overshare, I need an article to do it. Maybe I’ll get something up over the Easter holiday.

          This is all good stuff. Feel welcome to share whenever you’ve got something to say.

  2. MK says:

    And this post explains why I think your advice is the most thoughtful and most helpful I have ever come across….. Thank you!

  3. Brenda says:

    Your post hit on some great points. In the past few years I’ve been working on writing skills in the midst of also learning marketing, social media and Photoshop. All in the hope I can produce a middle grade mystery series that readers will enjoy. Your advice was timely in my learning curve as I do, what I hope is, my final editing. So many articles read, advice listened to, and changes made. Your words reminded me that the length of time I’ve taken to get to this point is not a bad thing, but rather a necessary thing. Your explanation as to why your posts are often lengthy really spoke to me. I have always felt that there is very little black and white in life. Thank you for taking the time to write a post long enough to explain that the black/white and never/always rules of writing need some grey/sometimes muddling.

    • Brenda, you’re so right in saying that time is a very necessary ingredient for our fiction projects. And some projects, like some baked goods or roasts, need more time than other projects do.

      I think that I look at black and white a bit differently from the way you do. I think some things are definitely black or white, but maybe not too many of those items can be found in the writing field. Which may be why we’re so drawn to fiction and the possibilities found within it; it’s different from the absolutes we know—or maybe those that we’re forced to deal with—in our real lives. Especially when we’d rather choose gray but aren’t able to do so because of constraints of some kind.

      Of course, our outlooks on black, white, and gray could be solely a function of personality type and the child-rearing practices of our parents and not a true understanding of the world at all.

      As for gray, I think of gray as not necessarily a muddle, though it can be an awful one at times. Yet I see gray as something wholly different from black and white. Not less than either, just other. And definitely a mix of the other two.

      I hope that your series is wildly successful. And I hope that the one after that brings you even more joy, readers, and success. (Yes, I’m looking ahead for you.)

  4. Catherine says:

    I’m always curious to learn and I read many advice on writing over the years. Blogs, books, articles. One thing I’ve come to realize is that most advice givers are unable to distill the difference between themselves and other people and assume that what works for them will work for everyone. Most self-help books are written that way. Hey, it worked for me, it will work for you too. Weeding what works and doesn’t work for us is always the exhausting part and your blog is the only one I follow anymore. It’s never about cutting paths but explaining them and why or when they are good to take or not. I really appreciate it. Your posts are long but comprehensive and give very little leeway to misinterpretation.

    Maybe it would be fun to try a personal version of “Exercises in Style” by Raymond Queneau. Write a 500 words story and rewrite it 99 times each time with a different “bad thing you’re not supposed to do”. One version all in “ing”, one with dialogue tags without “said”, one with showing, one with telling, one with passive voice, one with excessive punctuation. Sometimes seeing the excess can help see what works.

    One last thing I wanted to mention: while I don’t use “he smiled” or “he laughed” as a dialogue tag, I never understand that advice saying that it’s impossible to do so. I do it all the time and see it done in my day-to-day life too. You can smile while saying something and you can laugh and distort the words by laughing them. I agree though that those dialogue tags are clunky. Especially for longer sentences. Pretty much why I avoid them.

    Thanks again for the post!

    • Catherine, I wanted to get back to this comment, but I used your comment about dialogue tags as the starting point for an article and wanted to have that up so I could include the link here. Let me know if Smiling or Laughing Dialogue helps or hinders the dialogue tag debate. And thanks for the article prompt.

      ————-
      I love the idea of writing the same story again and again, highlighting the different bad stuff of writing each time. But you know that even the shouldn’ts can be made to work. I’ve got an article about cliches in which I used cliche after cliche in an example. It seems that some folks liked the overabundance of cliches.

      ————-
      As for writing advice, please don’t rely on just one person (or even a small few) for tips and advice. While I try to cover topics in depth, I can only do so through my own point of view and experiences and knowledge. I can’t cover the full breadth and depth of writing issues.

      I’m sure you’ve read the proverbs that remind us that there’s both wisdom and success in a multitude of counselors. That’s advice worth listening to.

      One person can’t cover every issue you’ll want to know about, every problem that will crop up in your writing. Seek out a variety of advice givers, styles, and issues. Look for opposing advice and investigate it—see what’s being suggested and determine the reasons behind contrary advice.

      Learn all you can from all the sources available to you. You’ll soon discover what’s common in a string of advice, so you’ll be able to trust that what all those advisers say might well be the answer you need. But when you see dissenting advice, if you push deep, it’s likely you’ll find something worth learning in it too.

      There’s a variety of advice, different routes and paths to our end products, because we’re not mixing chemical compounds—one part this to two parts that—in order to create the exact same result every time.

      In fact, we’re trying to create a different result each time.

      Imagine that, use all the same ingredients—dialogue, description, action, character goals and motivations, rising tension, theme, conflict, and so on—and yet expect to get a different but entertaining result every single time. It would be easier to create products that are identical.

      But what need does a reader have for the same book? None.

      So not only do we need to mix our elements in different proportions and pour them in at different times, sometimes we need to pair the ingredients in different ways.

      We need different recipes in the kitchen and we need different advice from people with different approaches for our writing. We definitely need variety, not only in our stories but in our sources and resources.

      I know that you already know all this, but I wanted to add my comment to yours for others who might come along and conclude that they really can get every answer from a single source.

      —————
      Again, thanks so much for your helpful (in more ways than one) comment.

      • Catherine says:

        Thank you so much for your in depth response.

        I understand what you are saying about looking for advice everywhere and not lock oneself to one sort of advice. I’m not closing any windows, but my experience is that all the other places I frequented were filled with egoistical people with agendas (all professional in the industry). I might have been extremely unlucky but you are the only blog I follow anymore because you are genuinely helping the best you can, know your limitations and aren’t afraid to reference elsewhere if the need rises. I promise to not limit myself and still read other people’s advice for variety.

        Advice are like clothes, you try them on and see if they fit. I agree that some are one fit for all. Something like “make the reader care” is hard to miss. What’s the point of writing a story no one cares about? The how to get there is tricky, because if you follow advice to the letter you can make something that works but that loses magic.

        Recently I read such a book. It felt it had followed all the steps rigorously, especially the “give your protagonist higher and higher stakes.” At book four of the series, the stakes now are so high and so ridiculously unnecessary to the character’s growth that I lost interest in the character all together. Following a recipe can really end up like a cookie cutter formula and remove the heart of what could have been good.

        I find that to create something new, you need to know how the old way works first, then you need not to be afraid to innovate and find new ways to break the rules if necessary. It’s all try and errors. But way too many books these days seem to come straight from those advice books on how to write a novel. They bore me to death as they all follow the exact same formula. It’s hard to find the balance between following advice and following your gut. That’s why your article “It ain’t over until the full story sings” was so inspiring.

        I will check the new post on smiling and laughing tags later today. Happy if it could inspire an entire article! :)

  5. you must write with your heart and write in simple way with unique content. this is the effective way of writing.

  6. Beth, your advice on show, don’t tell really hit home for me. Perhaps we should tell more, and show less. Writers, like you said, should learn the hows and the whys of show and tell. I’ve heard it too often said, at least implied, that showing is always preferable than telling. I want to say, No. There are situations when telling may be the best for your story. I think writing in the first person might be one of these. Showing can indeed be overdone. I wonder whether too much showing is the writer trying to impress the reader with his. or her, abilities. Excellent advice you gave.

    • I’m glad it hit the sweet spot for you, Frank. There are definitely times when telling rather than showing is needed. Most of a novel should be showing, with scenes taking up the bulk of the story. But we can’t show everything, and there’s no reason to do so. Thanks for weighing in.

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