It’s August and I’m in the northern hemisphere, so I suppose it’s only natural I’d be thinking about Hell. I mean, we had a bit of rain yesterday and it cooled the embers we’re roasting on somewhat but still, it’s August, which to me is the same as Hell. So here are a few writing tips from Hell. Hopefully, they’ll send cold shivers down my spine as I write them.
Write it only if you know it
Yes, I know you know the rule and I know you also know it can be interpreted from widely to wildly to suit everyone’s needs. Of course, this is wrong. Forget about what some rule-evading individuals who happen to be successful writers say. They are lying because they don’t want you to become as successful as them.
“Write what you know” means exactly that. It means you must write only about things you have personally felt, experienced, and suffered. What? The world will be full of autobiographies, most of them boring? So? There are not enough boring autobiographies in the world, I’m sure. Besides, boring is a subjective category, so there. Write what you know or don’t write at all.
I’m serious. No self-respecting writer should use any adverbs at all. Adverbs are evil. They are for talentless losers who will never be real writers. Real writers do not use adverbs and if the are really good (excuse the adverb) they don’t use adjectives. Writers use verbs and nouns. That’s all you need.
In case you happen to wonder why adverbs are there, stop. They are there to tempt you and nothing more. They are a worthless language category that never helps move a narrative along or make it better in any way. Adverbs are irritating, they can ruin a good story and they also look ugly. No, really, all those -lys? Disgusting. And the ones that don’t end in -ly just to trick you into using them? Ugh.
Be active or die
Passive voice is the Scourge of Satan. If you allow a single passive voice sentence into your story, you’ve killed it. It doesn’t matter if the sentence screams to you in a passive voice. Make it active or make it dead are your only options. Satan, remember? Just another temptation away from the straight and narrow.
Also, passive voice is obsolete. Once upon a time people used it in scientific texts and it somehow spilled over into other texts because it sounds so pompous and once upon a time pompous used to be good. But no more. This is the modern age, people. We’re raising Generation Z — which, well, raises some questions about the future of humanity or what the author who coined “Generation X” was thinking — and we can’t have old stuff like passive voice linger on. It’s active or nothing all the way.
You tell, you’re out
There are those who will, um, tell you that showing only without telling anything makes for a poor reading experience. Of course, they are lying because Satan sent them to tempt you. Or they genuinely believe what they say, in which case they are hell-bound and you don’t want to interact with people like this.
Writing is all about showing and this means you need to forget you ever knew verbs about sensations, mental activity, and — God forbid — feelings. The verb “feel” alone is enough to mess up your story. There is no such verb. The end. And don’t try to go around this rule by crafting elaborate structures like “A wave of relief crushed on the shores of her anxious mind.” Your bluff will be called. (And now I’m going to Hell for sure.)
Cliches are zombies
If writing sins had to be ranked, using cliches would probably come close to the top, if not sit right on it. If adverbs are for losers, cliches are for even bigger losers. The beautiful thing is that cliche no longer means just a phrase that’s worn thin from overuse. Now, it also covers most common phrases used to convey a certain image. You know, people getting wide-eyed with horror, surprise, etc. and things like that. That’s all cliches now, friends, and they’ll take you straight to the hot place if you use them.
So what if eyes widening in reaction to a scary sight or situation is a physiologically accurate process? Try to be at least a little bit original, for God’s sake. Think of something else to convey the scare. And remember, do not use the verb “feel”. If you use a cliche, it will infect your whole story with mundanity and boringness. Do you want that? Well, then don’t make your characters open their eyes widely when faced with a horrible sight. Think of something else. The human body’s reaction to horrible sights is complex, after all.
Okay, I’m done for today. The sun’s coming up and so is the heat, so pretty soon I’ll be in no state fit for thinking deep thoughts. I do have time for a little clarification, though.
There is truth to these rules from Hell. I’ve written about writing rules before and I’ve defended their existence. However, I’ve been seeing people take these way too literally and also take them to extremes (the wide eyes, for example). That’s probably painful and it’s also unnecessary.
There’s a place for adverbs in every story. Just don’t overdo them. Cliches are cliches because they do the job quickly. You could try to convey an image of horror by saying the character’s liver dumped a load of glucose into their system because that’s one of the body’s reactions to stress but are you sure most of your readers would know what the hell you’re on about? I wouldn’t. I just had to google physiological reactions to stress to come up with this example. But a pick-up in the heart rate? Cold sweat? The wide eyes? Everyone will know instantly what you’re telling them.
I’m sure there is also a place for some passive voice in some stories. I honestly couldn’t think of an example from the kind of books I like to read and the ones I write but that doesn’t mean anything. Overuse of any stylistic tool is what can ruin a good story, not using them all in moderation as necessary. That’s why they are there in the first place. Oh, well, I guess I’ll see you in Hell.
P.S. Just thought of a common example of passive voice. “The car was parked at the corner.” If you don’t know who’s done something, passive voice is your friend, even in the most action-packed story. See?