Wednesday, July 6, 2011

"Greatest, Dumbest, Weirdest...Whatever" Question

For July, I'm participating in the "Gearin' Up to Get an Agent Blogfest" hosted by Deana Barnhart. This is Week 1. So, here are my instructions:

Take the greatest, dumbest, weirdest...just whatever kind of writing question you have, and post it on your blog Wednesday.


How do you know when/if
all the stuff you're being told about writing
(the 'show, don't tell', avoid adverbs, watch out for 'was' and
all other forms of the word, be careful of info dumping, etc.)
are flaws, and when they are good writing?

I ask because i really want to learn to do this right. This month I've been taking some time off to enjoy some leisure reading after spending weeks working on my WIP to get it ready for my critique group. I've been amazed--after editing and editing the above items in my question--about how much these popular writers do all that stuff. Hence my question.

I'm interested in what everyone has to say on this.

ETA: Roni Loren's post today entitled Death by Critique touches on some of this. You ought to check it out.


  1. This sounds interesting hope you get some good answers.


  2. Interesting question. These are my somewhat rambling thoughts:

    I think you have to look at what you've written, decide what it is you're trying to say, what emotion you're trying to create, and judge how well you've achieveed that.

    Could you achieve it better using a different approach?

    Becasue all those techniques you mention are just tools, and like all tools you need to know more than how to use them, you need to know when.

    It's only when you spend time figuring out what it is you're trying to achieve that you can decide which tool is best for the job.

    Some people don't want to analyse their work like that, others have a natural instinct for it so don't have to. But too many think if they wing it magic will happen by itself, or if they apply a blanket formula that will take care of it.

    You're right, most every author doesn't follow the 'rules', but once you figure out what the point of a scene is, where the focus lies (or should lie) and what effect you want to achieve, then it becomes pretty clear what's appropriate in that particular case. And you have to judge it both on a scene by scene basis, and then as an overview too.

    Hope that made some kind of sense.


  3. Funny enough. I was thinking about a similar thing this week: What makes the rules, The Rules. And how can they be The Rules if so many people break them.

    In fact, I wrote a blog post about it.

    I don't know if it answers your question, but it might give you something to think about.

  4. Like John said, there's those stinkin' rules again. (You'll note that I omitted the 'g' in 'stinking.')

    This is an EXCELLENT question. I'm sure the answers are going to be slanted toward the subjective, but I am dying to hear what you get.

    GREAT post.

  5. Before we go breaking the rules, I think we'd do well to remember 1) that rule breaking is an art that you have to be GOOD at for it to be effective. The path of safety in our writing lies in the rules.

    2) Published authors aren't always right. They make mistakes, too. They can get lazy. They have more leeway to do that, because they're already established. We have to be BETTER than they are if we want to break in.

    3) Ditto what Mood said. :)

  6. I think many of the 'rules' make a lot of sense and cause smoother reading, eliminate distractions, etc.

    Still, there are several aspects of a story or novel that can appeal to us, and language and style are just 1 of them (or 2).

    Plot, characters, believability, atmosphere, emotional pull, world-building, etc. are just as important.

    Truly great novels might get all of these aspects right; good novels usually excel in only a few of them.

  7. World of Poetry--thanks for dropping by.

    Moody--I love your suggestions. I think that's what I've struggled with. The "rules" say one thing but my feeling of the content says another. Sometimes.

    John--loved your post and the post you linked to. Great analogy with the architecture. I guess my hope is to come to understand what will work enough to be creative within the the confines of the "rules".

    Bryce--Yep. Those stinkin' rules!

    Robin--I agree. But I think as I'm reading with the intent to see how the author has crafted the actual writing and not just the plot, I'm thinking perhaps like on Pirates, the rules are just guidelines. I tend to be a literal person. If something is against the rule (no more than two adverbs per page), I find myself pulled to conform. But sometimes my best writing might include more adverbs per page. Or fewer. To the novice, it's tough to know if my instincts are right. If the "rules" are really just guidelines is an author really breaking them or just showing their creativity? Or, as you suggest, getting lazy?

    K.C. I like that about the difference between being good and being great. But I don't kid myself. I'll never be great. But I'd like to be the best I can be. Whatever that might be.

  8. I really think all those rules are there to help us streamline, to learn to be better writers.
    Plenty of people who are super successful, don't follow all these rules, but at the same time, I don't think any of the rules are absolute. BUT they're helpful for those of us who are getting started.

  9. All excellent comments and most took the words out of my mouth (fingers maybe? :) since I'm typing my response). I'm in same boat you are Donna. Wish I time to do this exercise, it sounds like a good one.

    Like Jolene said, the rules help us get rid of those unnecessary words and make our writing better. I thought I was doing well until I ran my manuscript through EditMinion. Wow, did I see the glaring errors after that! I cut down the use of was and found better ways to say what I mean, which in turn spilled over into the show don't tell department.

    I think it's a constant struggle for every writer. But those authors already established, it is either a case of the lazies sometimes or just their voice. Who knows? Go with your gut.


  10. Jolene--you're right. I've learned so much already. One thing I need to learn is when my instincts are right ... or not.

    Mel--Did you Roni Loren's post today: Death by Critique? I thought of your comment when I read it.

  11. I had to step away from my desk so that I could consider your question and marinate in my answer. Fantasy writer that am, I can imagine a room with a round table much like King Arthur's Knights, except this room is filled with a multitude of left brained individuals...editors. (The term "left brained" is meant respectfully for anyone who has not read my Emergenetics post.) On the table are two piles, one filled with books lined with all the "errors" and faulty writing you described, and the other filled with perfectly orchestrated novels. Subjective? Yeah. If using adverbs is bad then all my English teachers lied to me.

    I don't have a real answer. What I do know is that when I read a book and it's showing me instead of telling me, I'm sucked into the story. A little info dumping is at times necessary when you're building a world. Sometimes "was" is all you have to work with. When all is said and done there's always an editor looking over your shoulder with ideas on how to make your work shine...figuratively speaking.

    I try to focus on writing the best story I can toss on the table. The rest will come later.

  12. i have 2 tried and true adages when thinking about rules,

    1) everything in moderation
    2) when in doubt, don't

    ie, if you have an adverb and can think of a better way to say it, do. as you read thru, if you see too many "was" jazz it up

    i love answering questions (always take the answers w/a grain of salt =)

  13. I have that exact same issue and question… I feel I have to completely rewrite me manuscript to focus on all the issues you have listed.

    It’s funny, I was thinking about this all night long. It made for a long night—that’s for sure.

    I feel there is merit to all those items, and yet, I see them in every book I read. If those problems persist but are the exception rather than the norm, then I think you’re good to go.
    I am still blown away, it’s my thought to a T… sadly I have no concrete answers, only more questions.

    The bigger problem is programming your mind to write like that: active verbs, showing, true dialog, elegant description woven through the POV and natural plot points.

    Hope you find your way!!!

  14. Laila--I love that. Writing the best story you can. *sigh* But that's also subjective. I know I can't please everyone, so I guess I'll just have to write the kind of books I like to read and hope to appeal to that audience. And get somewhat polished on the journey. =D

    Tara--moderation is a good guide. Although I imagine if someone wants to really do something "out there" moderation wouldn't work. That is so not me, though.

    Jeff--I'm on edit #9 of my WIP and with each edition I'm learning new things to watch for. In fact, since I've been watching it so closely in my own work and on works I'm critiquing now, I'm seeing it in published books. Sometimes it's a "Wow. I love how that was written." Other times it's just a recognition of the things I'm aware of. Such as telling. Sometimes you just need to tell a section. The information is needed, and to show takes up too many words. Makes for an adequate transition. Hopefully.

  15. Hi, Donna,

    I would hope it would always be good writing to show and not tell, limit the use of adverbs and avoid weak verbs, etc. Even though a popular writer might leave these items in a book, I believe he or she would have had an even stronger and more compelling novel for rewriting out these issues. It mystifies me how books with these flaws didn't get The Red Pen. Of course fax machines still mystify me too. :)


  16. I read a lot of the same rules and I try them out. Generally things work out.

  17. Michelle--some little tidbits of back story and parts that transition the characters from point A to point B can be handled very well by telling. As I've paid attention to it in the books I've been reading, I find I like those parts.

    The cop out comes when that's the only way the story is told. Maybe it's like adverbs. They're really not bad ... until they're overused. Telling isn't bad ... in doses.

    Kristi--I've been doing the same thing. I remember the first time I was told to be careful of the word "that". I did a search of my ms. Holy Cow! There were like 1700 of them, so I did a search and replace and evaluated every use. I got rid of two thirds of them.

    My next project is to search for "was" now that I've become aware of that issue. It doesn't mean I won't ever use it--especially in dialogue. But neither am I going to make myself crazy by jumping through amazing linguistic hoops trying to avoid using it.

  18. I've heard it said that the 'rules' only apply to unpublished authors, because when you're unpublished, your target audience is agents.

    Just ask yourself "is this good?" and if it is, don't muck it up.

  19. McKenzie--you made me smile. Don't muck it up is brilliant.

  20. Goodness Donna. After reading everyone else's responses, I don't think I have anything else to add. Great question-great responses.

    Except maybe I can say, I like your profile pic. I don't think I've ever told you that before. It's cute. You're cute.

    That's all.

  21. Yep. I think editing is a little risky, Donna. It can make you ruin you're most lively scenes.

  22. Gosh, I've been dealing with this exact same thing lately! You keep hearing "Watch those 'ly's'" and "that" and "was"...your head spins!

    Then you go read some works from the "pro's". They use them. Sure, they're not all over the place, but they're there.

    I believe it's a delicate balance. You can use them, just don't put them all over the place. One of my favorite quotes is "The Truth is in the tension" and I think that applies to everything - including writing. I don't have any hard rules's a "feel" thing for me. And I'm sure that'll morph and change the more I write.

    And, aren't crit groups amazing?!?!

  23. Man, this is a tough one to figure out. I think the answer is . . . practice. Work with critique partners, especially ones who you think are better writers than you. And then any time someone tells you something sounds awkward or forced, it has to go. But at look at it carefully and see why it feels awkward, then don't do that again. Sometimes putting lots of info in is good, and it doesn't matter what the rules say. Sometimes it's distracting. What matters is how the readers respond to it. So if it's coming off as distracting, it has to go. If the readers are eating it up, it's good writing.

    I think...

  24. Hi Donna! Ok - this might be a total cop-out answer, but I've also heard that it's best to follow the rules for your first book, establish some publishing cred, and then you're "ok" to break the rules. Doesn't seem fair, does it?

    Of course, I personally believe if showing, adverbs, etc. are used sparingly and done really well - you're ok to use any time. :)

  25. Yeah good question! When you find the answer, please let me know! It seems only we new, as-of-yet unpublished writers must follow these rules.

  26. What a thought-provoking question! I think that there's a reason for all these rules, and that's to help you create the strongest piece of writing you can. That said, whether you show instead of telling or use an adverb depends on what your writing and how to use those tools to best tell your story.

  27. Good question. I'm enjoyong reading the answers!

  28. He was sinfully drooling over the quite numerous and very insightful comments above when suddenly it occurred to him, as he was known for his odd sensibilities and quirky demeanor, that he was writing a very lengthy rebuttal type comment that was breaking many of the rules that exist today and thereby possibly illustrating to a point, at least to some of the readers, why we likely desire and most certainly need rules of this nature to exist in the first place.

    Heh, couldn't resist... :) Great topic.

  29. I recommend a good book by Boby Christmas, Write in Style. She gives exercises for you to practice on rewriting sentences. Also, if your character can feel, taste, hear, see or think it, you can describe it.


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