I sent a query the other day and got quickly rejected because the size of my book exceeded their maximum. In addition to this perfectly sense-making reason I also got a list of writing tips to improve my writing. It made me feel extremely bad for about a second.
The reason the list of tips made me feel extremely bad was that for that one second — it was a long one — my brain decided I’ve made all the mistakes listed. I knew I hadn’t because I’d read my book, more than once. The list of tips was a general one, focusing on the most common mistakes writers make. But, and here is the problem, those tips sounded like a one-style-fits-all recommendation on how to write.
For instance, one of the tips was to not include a whole phone conversation between characters. The hellos and goodbyes are unnecessary for the reader, the author/s of the list said. Just mention the most important part of the conversation. I dare to disagree with that unless we’re talking about the opening of a scene, where a character is talking on the phone. But if it’s the middle of the scene and someone calls them? Can you cut out the hellos and jump right into the conversation? Probably. Is it wise with regard to coherence? Hardly.
Another tip targeted those poor, poor elements of language, adjectives and adverbs. Yeah, I know it’s usually the adverbs that get the bad rap but here, the authors had gone a step further. Adjectives and adverbs are better omitted most of the time, they said. Really? I expect this advice is for people who like meticulously detailed — and completely unnecessary — descriptions of physical appearances and clothing but this doesn’t make it universally valid.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again from my high horse named Been Reading for Thirty Years and I Read Fast, or BRTYIRF (Oh, look, it looks like a real name!). There is no universal writing advice. Adverbs probably won’t work for tense, dense, thriller writing but even Chuck Palahniuk uses adjectives. Adjectives — and adverbs — exist for a reason and this reason is to add nuance to writing. The advice some publishers dispense sounds like they want news reporting rather than fiction writing, free of nuance.
Well, if you’re not good enough to add nuance through verbs and nouns... I hear the void whisper. I shall call bovine excrement on that. There is one layer of nuance you could add by using smacked instead of hit but that’s just one layer. Nouns are trickier. You can play with them if you’re writing humour (see virtuoso P. G Wodehouse) but how many non-humorous or offensive synonyms for head do you know that you could use in your non-funny epic fantasy trilogy? So there it is: for additional layers of nuance you need adjectives and — oh, the horror — adverbs. Do not be afraid to use them.
That said, a lot of writing tips that publishers and agents offer are good ones. Tips about cliches, for example, are valuable because publishers and agents certainly know more than you about the most common — and tired — cliches and tropes, unless you are a writer/agent/publisher, which many in the business are. But even those tips are best taken with a grain of salt. Because — I cannot stress this enough but I’ll keep on trying — there is no universally valid advice.
Imagine someone telling James Joyce “Here’s how you can make your writing denser, shorter and better” and Joyce heeding the advice. We’d never have Ulysses, which personally I wouldn’t count as a great loss except I wouldn’t have it as an example to use in various writing-related contexts so I guess it will be a loss even for me, as well as for the whole literary world.
Even cliches are sometimes useful, if we are to trust Stephen King and I see no reason to not trust the man. Sometimes they are even necessary to anchor a story in a relatable reality. Take Central Conflict, for instance. I’ve read books without a central conflict, brilliant books. And yet, most books do have a central conflict. Cliche? Definitely. Necessary? Yep, unless your name’s Helle Helle or some other brilliant writer who can make a fascinating story out of the smallest everyday thing. But, just between us, if you look hard enough, you’ll find a central conflict even in these seemingly conflictless works. Cliches work when used appropriately, exactly like adjectives, adverbs or any other element of language.
A lot of advice appears to have to do with density of expression, I’ve noticed. I’m a big fan of density. In fact, I used to have trouble with my early writing because I wrote too densely, which makes sense in light of my work, which is news writing. I had to teach myself to add description beyond the level of the most casual of sketches.
All that advice seems to suggest publishers and agents dislike longer works with copious descriptions and even explanations. Some probably do but as far as commercial success is concerned, J. R. R. Martin anyone? I haven’t read a single book by him because I’m scared of stories about his extensive descriptions but oh, have I heard stories. Ditto Brandon Sanderson. Both are bestselling authors although I’d bet my monthly income both have a taste for adjectives, adverbs, and cliches.
Oh, but that’s epic fantasy, it’s different… the void says. No, it actually isn’t. My copy of Foucault’s Pendulum is 643 pages, excluding the explanatory notes. The average Jeffrey Deaver is about 400 pages and I’m talking 400 pages with a small font, so that’s well over 100,000 words. I won’t even mention Stephen King, the self-confessed overwriter.
It’s not about the genre, it’s about the style and the story you are telling. Also, it’s about how famous you are, of course, but that’s not the point of that post. Granted, sometimes you need to rein yourself in and away from excessive description or, gods forbid, explanations, but most of the time I, for one, have found myself compelled to add details in the drafts after the first one, not remove them. This is my personal tragedy, really. Removing is so much neater and easier than adding.
The one-size-fits-all attitude to anything is a dangerous one. At best, it’s annoying and unproductive. At worst, it could be very damaging and I use the word very fully conscious of its reputation as the most unnecessary word in the English — and I guess any other — language. No word is unnecessary if you use it right. The same goes for all those tropes and cliches you are being warned against by all species of tip-givers.
The good ones will tell you that you can write anything, however cliched the basic idea may be, if you write it originally and well. Originality comes with reading a hell of a lot of books and learning from them. Good writing comes from years and years, and years of writing. I say this as someone at the beginning of this long road.
If you’ve made it this far, I’ve got books to market and I promise they’re coherent, I’ve tried to keep cliches to a minimum and I’ve hunted excess adverbs like a hawk.
For vampires, witches, and dragons click here. Part two is coming later this year, featuring demons.