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Monday, February 10, 2014

The Letter of the Law


New writers ask a lot of questions. They ask for help. Which is why they get so much confusing and contradictory information -- as well as some downright bad advice.

 

I thought today maybe we should discuss three of the worst pieces of advice new writers receive -- which, ironically, are also three of the best pieces of advice we receive. The key to knowledge is understanding. Too often writers memorize and parrot the opinions of others and thus believe they have absorbed useful knowledge. You have to understand the reasoning behind the rules in order to actually understand the lesson.

 

Look at this way. There is the letter of the law and the spirit of the law. Mathematicians and scientists (and cops) are concerned with the letter of the law. Artists and philosophers (and judges) are those concerned with the spirit of the law. Neither is better than the other. We need both. But the type of writer you become depends on whether you are a Letter of the Law writer or a Spirit of the Law writer.

 

1 - First piece of good/bad advice - Write What You Know.

 

Except you don’t know anything. And what you do know is too boring to read.

 

Why is this good advice? Because beginning writers don’t write anything resembling real life. Their characters are unreal, their plots are preposterous, and their stories take place in a world that bears no resemblance to any planet in any solar system in any uni--well, you get the idea.

 

What the advice really means: regardless of what you write -- fantasy, mystery, historical -- your stories must be grounded in recognizable reality. Your reality. The reality you know. That doesn’t mean the characters are based on your family and friends or (God forbid) you. It means you’ve been living and interacting with people -- or at least observing them -- long enough to have formed a workable construct of how real live people behave in various situations. You take what you know and you apply it to your fiction.

 

It means you do your research and you use your imagination and you apply these things -- these things that you know -- to your fiction.

 

So when you write about life on an ice planet you bring what you know about the cold and the wet and frost bite, and you take your research, and you come up with a fantasy world that for a few hours can seem more vivid and realistic to a reader than her own living room.

 

 

2 - Second piece of good/bad advice - Don’t Worry About the Market, Just Write the Book You Want to Write.


Except you want to sell your book -- and you could potentially enjoy writing all kinds of things.

 

 

Why is this good advice? Because when you try to write something merely because you think it will sell, that paint-by-numbers attitude often shows in the work. You must write what you enjoy reading.

 

That said, of course you want to keep an eye on the market and trends within publishing. You need to know if the market for cozy mystery is glutted. You need to know if gothic is making a comeback. That doesn't mean you won't go ahead and write your cozy gothic, it just means you'll be a lot less frustrated if you know what you're up against.

Most of us have broader reading tastes than plain vanilla. Maybe we like French vanilla. Maybe we like vanilla with chocolate sauce or sprinkles or lavender bits or ground up vanilla bean. Maybe we like vanilla mixed with sherbet or Neapolitan ice cream. Maybe we like vanilla frozen yogurt or ice milk. You get what I’m saying? Romance is a big seller, but maybe romance with chili peppers is a harder sell than romance with lavender sprinkles.

 

The idea that you can’t -- shouldn’t -- be aware of the market and what’s selling and still write the book you long to write is nonsensical. A successful publishing career is built of creative and artistic compromise. Just like all your relationships in life.  

 

 

3 - Third piece of good/bad advice - Don’t Use Adjectives, Adverbs, Any Words Ending in “ly” OR Any Dialog Tag Other Than “said” or “ask.”

 

Yeah, because there is one -- and ONLY ONE -- genuinely “good” writing style -- and it works for ALL fiction, literary and genre.  And coincidentally, it’s also the very same style used for non-fiction. It’s one size fits all. How perfect is that????

 

Why is this good advice? It’s good advice because most new writers tend to overdo all these things. Most new writers get carried away with the “busyness” of their scenes, keeping their characters twitching and jumping with lots of expressions and gestures and glances that mean essentially nothing. Every line of dialog has a tag or a bit of business attached, and these too add nothing. It’s all filler and it is tedious to read.

 

What does this really mean? Adverbs, adjectives and dialog tags are to good writing what salt and pepper are to good cooking. Less is more -- but no seasoning whatsoever is usually pretty bland. Quality rather than quantity of detail is what you’re always aiming for in your writing.

 

 

13 comments:

jean harrington said...

Josh, A sensible set of "rules" for writers. I especially appreciated your take on writing "the book of my heart." Yes, we do want to sell our books so being practical's a good thing to bear in mind.

Anne Marie Becker said...

LOL - Never seen a post on worst writing advice, but I love it. And each point is true. :)

Josh Lanyon said...

There's nothing wrong with being practical! ;-) The thing I always try and remind mentorees is we write for ourselves. We publish for others.

Josh Lanyon said...

I think it's natural when we start out to look for certainties, definites. But the further we go, the more we see that there is disconcertingly little for "sure" when it comes to the arts.

ameliabishop said...

Good advice :) I know I have been one "newbie" asking for help from anyone who will give me five minutes. Luckily, though I am new to writing, I am not new to life. I realize there is no quick fix, one-size-fits-all answer to anything.
But I have noticed that the people who tend to give this good/bad advice often do so in a superior, condescending way. So their advice is difficult (when you are unsure of yourself) to ignore.

Wynter Daniels said...

Excellent post! You have to know the rules inside and out - before you start breaking them;-)

Josh Lanyon said...

Amelia, so often the people who know the least -- certainly have the narrowest experience -- are the most adamant as to How Things Must Be Done.

Josh Lanyon said...

Ha! That's the truth, Wynter.

Toni Anderson said...

Great post, Josh. Good point, Wynter :) You absolutely should know the rules before you break them. (Have you ever seen Picasso's classical drawings?).
I am loath to give anyone advice beyond 'never stop learning' and 'good luck' :)

Rita said...

Toooo funny Josh and sooo true. It is really difficult for newbies to sort through all crap info out there.

Josh Lanyon said...

Those are both good pieces of advice, Toni.

Josh Lanyon said...

When you start out it's impossible not to believe there is some magical formula, some certain way of doing things that guarantees success.

Thanks for commenting, Rita.

Steve Finnell said...

THE PHARISAICAL MYTH

Are the modern day Pharisees those who believe that you have to follow God's doctrine in order to be saved? The example.
FAITH (John 3:16
REPENTANCE (Acts 2:38, Acts 3:19)
CONFESSION ((Romans 10:9-10, Acts 8:37)
WATER BAPTISM (Acts 2:38, Mark 16:16, Acts 22:16, 1 Peter 3:21)

Are the contemporary Pharisees those who teach that Christians, who make sin a lifestyle, will not enter the kingdom of God? (1 Corinthians 6:6-11, Galatians 5:19-20)

Was the problem with the Pharisees that they kept God's law to the letter and forced others to do the same? ABSOLUTELY NOT! The Pharisees were keeping their man-made traditions, they were not keeping God's law to the letter.


Jesus did not condemn the Pharisees for keeping the laws of God to the letter. It was the exact opposite.


Mark 7:1-9 The Pharisees.....7 'But in vain do they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men! 8 Neglecting the command of God, you hold to the tradition of men." 9. He was also saying to them, "You are experts at setting aside the commandments of God in order to keep your traditions.


Jesus made it very clear that the Pharisees did not keep God's laws to the letter. The problem with the Pharisees were they were keeping their man-made traditions!


Matthew 23:23 "Woe to you , scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others.


Jesus was not rebuking the Pharisees for following God's law to the letter, He was admonishing them for neglecting the law.


Matthew 5:20 "For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.


Jesus did not question the righteousness of the Pharisees because they were living in strict obedience to God's law. They were not even close to following God's laws.


Matthew 16:6-12 And Jesus said to them, "Watch out and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.".......12 Then they understood that He did not say to beware of the leaven of the bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and and Sadducees.


Jesus was not warning of the teaching of the Pharisees because they were advocating strict adherence to the Scriptures. They were teaching from their man-made creed books.



Matthew 23:13-33....33 You serpents, you brood of vipers, how will you escape the sentence of hell?


Jesus did not refer to the Pharisees as serpents and ask them how they would escape hell, because they were following the Scriptures to the letter of the law. THEY WERE NOT KEEPING GOD'S LAWS!


The problem with the Pharisees was they were following their man-made creed books. They were not living in strict obedience to the Scriptures, they were not even close.


John 15:10 If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love; just as I have kept My Father's commandments and abide in His love.


JESUS DID NOT ADMONISH, REBUKE, LECTURE, NOR REPRIMAND THE PHARISEES FOR KEEPING HIS COMMANDMENTS NOR GOD'S COMMANDMENTS TO THE LETTER OF THE LAW. IT WAS JUST THE OPPOSITE!


TEACHING THE BIBLICAL TERMS FOR PARDON ACCORDING THE BIBLE IS NOT BEING PHARISAICAL!


THE MAN-MADE CREED BOOKS OF TODAY ARE NO MORE GOD'S WORD THAN THE CREED BOOKS OF THE PHARISEES.


IF THE DOCTRINE YOU FOLLOW CONTRADICTS SCRIPTURE, THEN, IT IS MAN-MADE TRADITION!


YOU ARE INVITED TO FOLLOW MY BLOG. http//:steve-finnell.blogspot.com

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