The Right Rite of Writing Wrights


Anyway. I was recently looking around for writing exercises other than Mary Sue Litmus Tests—like most people I love frivolous quizzes, and if I can also indulge in reflections on my own writing, so much the better. But it brought me into far too close of contact with the little taboos and fetishes people have to spare themselves the effort of writing well.
  • The taboo on adverbs is simplistic, though not without a grain of truth. A better way to express the principle would be, "Never describe an action as 'general verb + adverb' if you can use a more specific word that incorporates the adverb." That is, nobody should "go quickly"—they should "rush". But there's an exception to that rule, and that is that you should usually just say "said". Even then, though, more specific synonyms can be used sparingly—whisper, shout, etc. for volume; snap, growl, purr etc. for tone. Although as Belloc said, nobody should "laugh" things, because you'd sound like a horse; people do it all the time in books but if you did it in real life they'd lock you away.

    I say "said with a laugh" and never look back.

  • Passive constructions. Again, tabooed. Only, what if the agent is less important than the action? The quintessential example of the former is, "My father was murdered by a six-fingered man." Wesley and Inigo have just established about six-fingered men; the question now is why; and to say "A six-fingered man murdered my father" lacks a certain gravity.

    Avoiding passive constructions is important in business and journalistic writing because passive constructions tend to conceal agents, and therefore allow a mindset where the actions of said agent are just things that happened, not things the person did. But the principle is moot for fiction, though it should only be common in dialogue.

  • People apparently hate descriptions of food, furniture, or scenery; they just want, they claim, enough information to suffice. But know what I say? Think of an anime. Think of Chesterton. Think of Belloc's travel writing (okay, more likely, go read Belloc's travel writing, and then think of it). Notice: many of the best things are descriptions or portrayals of weather, terrain, neighborhoods, food. And the Chesterbelloc manage it without recourse to that godawful verbosity movie writers always use to try and show that a writer character is a good writer. Honestly, red-shift your prose, gentlemen, I got skin cancer from it.

    Anime depicts rain so you can smell it; Chesterton can describe a sunset so you can see it; Belloc can describe a wine so you can taste it (sometimes he just has to tell you its nickname, like that the army-issue chianti they had when he did his compulsory service, as a French citizen, was nicknamed "Iron Filings").

  • "Write what you know." One problem there is, of course, apparently "write what you flatter yourself you know, but actually don't" is a much more popular strategy. And the other is, as TVTropes puts it, MostWritersAreWriters. So a lot of their stories are about writers. And writers...are people who spend a lot of time alone in front of keyboards coming up with nasty things to happen to imaginary people. Why would you tell a story about one of those? You've got an uphill battle getting a sane person to care if a writer lives or dies, sorry.

    I'm looking at you on this one, Steven King.

  • This:
    Is there a gun in your story? Do you feel a need to mention the exact make and model of the gun? The gun may be too important to your story.
    Uh-huh. Riiiiiight. Or maybe you're just, you know, literate, and don't express moderate surprise on being told that there are different sizes of bullets. Where do they keep this list of what things we can go into detail about, and which we can't? Does it offend this jackass to be told the exact breed of a dog or horse? Does he think you're playing 'Enry sodding 'Iggins if you pin down a character's accent more specifically than "British"?

    Besides, the differences between makes and models of guns can be directly plot-relevant.

    For instance, in my werewolf book, the vampire hunting priest realizes that the girl he's talking to is the werewolf hunter who's been hunting his friends, because she's wearing tight jeans, and has a Makarov tucked into them ("tight jeans are a no-no when you're packing heat," as he tells her later). See, he's seen the police reports, and knows the werewolves were killed with silver Makarov bullets. And he recognizes the Makarov 'cause it's bigger than the similarly shaped Walther PP, which would be a much more common gun in a NATO country than a Makarov.

    How exactly the hell does that plot development happen without going into details?

  • This whole idea that writers need to use their themes to ask questions, and make their readers question themselves. Admitting your ignorance is the beginning of wisdom, but it's not the totality of it. Mere questioning might look impressive to the kind of walking gut that doesn't know questions exist, but I know the only purpose of questioning is answering. Nobody likes a tease.

    Proper writing is not about questioning, or making the reader question. Its primary purpose is, of course, telling a beautiful story; if it's not beautiful in at least one sense, then it's bad. Hate to break it to you but "not beautiful" in an aesthetic endeavor is identical with not good. But "themes", grappling with the eternal verities, can serve the aesthetic—both being the Good, the True can serve the Beautiful. But themes aren't about questions. They're essentially the writer saying, "Hey, you know what, I'll show you my answers. I'll have interesting people act them out for you, in a microcosm of the world the answers I've found have revealed to me."

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