Bad advice

Bad advice is one of those topics that comes mind whenever I discover a problem somewhere in my work, and realize I actually understand what that problem means. Sometimes, it’s just that I didn’t realize what exactly the problem was, even after being told about it.

One good example of bad advice comes with technical problems. You know: spelling, grammar, punctuation and so on. I see those sorts of things as mistakes more than actual writing problems. Yes, those are elementary parts of the craft and I shouldn’t be making those sorts of mistakes if I consider myself even somewhat serious. My least favorite is “perhaps you should get a grammar book.” My position is that this is bad advice. It’s simply not helpful for someone who doesn’t necessarily know what the problems are. Not only that, people make mistakes. One of the things I’ve learned, working where I do, is the faster you work, the more mistakes you make. It doesn’t matter how good you are, these happen. So, in your story, or novel or whatever, even re-reading often doesn’t catch these kinds of problems. Why? Well, because, you’re probably working with 50-80K (or more!) words. On top of that, you’re one person who is also intimately familiar with the work and like it or not, you are probably skimming over large portions of text. If, indeed, someone has a truly heinous grammar, the surest way to prevent them from addressing it is to tell them their grammar looks as though a 6-year old wrote it. A better solution, if possible, is to offer to mark up a few pages to point out the mistakes they’re making and perhaps even an explanation as to why it’s wrong. One of my most egregious transgressions are run-on sentences. When I was first told this my reaction was: What the hell does one of those look like? Well, I can identify them now, still make the mistake though.

Another example is something like: “Your characters are flat.” or “The characters don’t really have their own voice.” Again, when I first started, I got this a lot (still get it actually, but I’ve got better ideas on how to fix the problems, and what it means to the story if I don’t) The only thing this advice did was make me ask: In what way? How? The main reason I think this bad advice is because it’s really only unhelpful criticism. For writers who are likely to argue back about any particular suggestion (Don’t pretend you’ve never done this, if you’re trying to be a writer or are, you have.), this sort of advice is going to be summarily dismissed. I can’t say what the correct advice might be for any given situation, except to say that it should be a full-on discussion, pointing out why you think this might be a problem, and a couple of suggestions as to how it could be remedied. Whatever you suggest is almost certain to be shot down in the end, but an alternative solution the writer dreams up is far more likely. For me, this approach helps to illustrate the problem and gives me a sense of what might work for remedies. This sort of feedback usually goads me into some sort of revision, which, inevitably, is better.

The worst advice ever, however, is the writer who refuses, point blank, to take it. Sometimes that’s the right decision, but unless the explanation to yourself is super-clear and actually works to make the story better in some fashion, it’s not. Every writer hands out his or her work to be reviewed and commented upon. A lot of the time all we get back are cliched and unhelpful remarks that don’t actually get at the heart of the problem. If your reviewer has pointed something out, even if it is unhelpful, odds are quite high that an actual problem exists, and you should get a second opinion. When you do get some good quality advice it is essential to consider it. When a reader tells you something that boils down to: ‘your first chapter seems to be building up too much with no pay-off’ (I got advice very much like this and the advice was satisfyingly specific, with suggestions.) you have to listen. Perhaps the best thing to do is set it aside and think about it, but the bottom line is: If you really want to make the best story possible, you have to take advice.

I could totally go on about this topic forever, but I think I’m done with my rant for now. Moral of the story: Advice should be specific and focus on remedies, Advice should be seriously considered. I’ll probably complain more about it at a later date.


It’s not working

The last couple of days, I’ve been plugging away at a chapter near the end of my current story. (No I’m not nearly that far yet, but I’m trying to give myself a road map so I stay on track and make sure I’m laying the foundation for the end I want.) After burning a couple of hours on it last night, I reached the conclusion it’s not working. The dialogue feels forced, it’s hard as hell to write and I can’t seem to transition from one part of the action to the next. Even though it’s not narrator heavy, it may as well be. In the same way you end up with problems when there aren’t enough characters to drive the action and dialogue, too many characters can result in having too much information come all at once. I should call the problem by it by it’s real name The dreaded information dump (sometimes these are necessary and, if done well, good).

Once again, I think back to my work-shopping days and how I was frequently told that I had an information dump problem, and I’m dead certain I told people that as well. It’s an excellent thing to help someone find, but saying “you have an information dump here” isn’t particularly helpful. From the reader’s perspective it’s an easy thing to identify. I feel like it can be harder to see from this side of the page. Even harder yet is finding a way to eliminate the problem, or find a way for it to work. In the situation I’m working through now, the solution is to simply break up the conversation. I’m going to remove a character or two from the problematic scene, and have them go away before bringing in the characters I had to remove. In this way, the dialogue will be split up according to the relevant character instead of trying to work it in naturally, after the fashion of a real conversation with a bunch of people.


Two hours to not finish a paragraph

So, last night I spent two hours cracking away at a single paragraph. It’s not done, and the only way to fix it is to trash it. It’s not that I don’t know what I want to say. I’ve got a pretty clear picture of the scene, actually. The problem, I think, is because it’s all narrator. There’s nothing to drive the scene. It’s not the sort of scene I can just add a character to move things along either. So, what to do? The plan for the moment is to start the scene earlier in the course of events. Then when I get to the narrator heavy bit, I won’t have to say as much and it should flow way better.
This problem is at the heart of a common situation, and one that has trapped one of my unsuspecting employees at my real job in hours of history lesson, when all they really needed to know was two mouse clicks and a hand gesture away: Telling too much, and not showing enough. A common bit of feedback I got when I used to workshop my writing was ‘show, don’t tell.‘ While may have been applicable, it was, and really still is, meaningless. As a new writer, I needed real advice on how to deal with the problem, not that I was likely to take any of it.
So, here’s my advice. You will recognize too much narrator because it’ll be hell to write, or you have 36 paragraphs without dialogue. However, as a fantasy writer, you might, occasionally, be stuck at a point where you need to be narrator heavy. When you are, make sure your character is in motion, interject her thoughts. Otherwise, move the scene around until you hit a point where another character can help you explain whatever it is you need to say. Whatever you do, don’t mistake dialogue for action, it’s only a feature of action.