There’s a Reason Why It’s Called “Creative” Writing :
What Advice to Keep, What to Kick to the Curb
I have always made it a habit to point out that when it comes to writing “rules,” I not only break the things, but I stomp all over them with a bloody vengeance. The reason for this is simple. When I was taking English Composition classes in college, my professor was a stickler for English writing rules. It was a shock to my system, having always taken advanced English courses in high school that focused more on creativity than hard and fast ‘rules.’ I thrived in my high school writing classes. I studied Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Charles Dickens in those earlier years, Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, Walt Whitman, and so many others that I simply cannot name them all. We not only read their works and decoded their hidden meanings, but we dissected the written word, discussing what made each style unique and how they differed or remained the same from other styles of the same time period. In essence, I was taught that creativity isn’t just about a good storyline and well-rounded characters; it is also about the style in which you write.
It’s no great mystery that a writer’s job is to keep their readers glued to the written word, enticing them into continuing with the adventure set forth on each page. After all, if you are writing to not be read, then you are a mere critic, not an actual writer. If you have people jumping ahead in the storyline out of sheer desperation to see what happens next, then you can still count yourself as a pretty dynamic writer. However, if your readers are skipping over pages and pages of your work because they are so bored with the writing style that they can hardly plow through the storyline, then you can officially consider yourself a boring read. In other words, if your story reads like a college English assignment, chances of people sitting down and reading it cover to cover are slim to none.
With this in mind, there are several “tips,” “tricks” and “good advice” from some pretty famous authors that have written books on writing that I not only cringe when I think of how wrong they are, I will argue the point until I am blue in the face on just how wrong their “advice” is. Here are just a few bits of “advice” that you are better off not following:
1: Your job as a writer is to seek out harsh criticism.
Personally, I think this is laughable. Your job as a writer is to get read. And if you are being read on a regular basis, trust me, the harsh critics are going to find you. All you have to do is write it and publish it and believe you me, the critics will all come out of the woodwork to rip your hard work to shreds, tell you everything they think you did wrong and should have changed, how they think you can improve as a writer, so on and so forth.
I’ve seen so many “published” and highly credited authors say, “An editor’s job is to point out what needs to be changed, ways to make the writing better and therefore make you a better writer.” Sorry, wrong. Editors aren’t writers, they are critics, and ninety-nine percent of the time, critics wouldn’t know a decent piece of creative writing if it bit them on their collective asses. They are all looking for something that would easily earn an “A” in the college level English composition classes. That’s not what creative writing is all about.
If an editor doesn’t “get” what an author is going for with a story or character or scene, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it can be made better or would be better if it was rewritten to the editor’s specifications. Editors trying to live out their own failed dreams of becoming a well-known author and trashing great unknown writers is the very reason why so many of us have told them all to go take a flying leap off the nearest skyscraper and opting to become an independently published author. I say that if an editor has the right to walk away or refuse a piece unless it is rewritten to their standards, then the writer has the same right to not only defend their choices, but to walk away as well. I have always said that there is a big difference between asking for constructive criticism and bending over to let them give you the royal screwing while you politely ask for more.
This is not to say, of course, that you cannot improve as a writer. No matter how many years you have been writing, there is always room for improvement, be it with tying up loose ends, a more in-depth storyline, or more well-rounded characters. Even the greats of our day like Stephen King and Anne Rice can still improve for one simple reason: The only thing in this world that will ever make you a better writer is to write; anyone who is actively writing is going to naturally get better as they practice and hone their skills.
2: Plot first. No, character first.
Depending on which of the greats you ask, some will tell you that having characters is the most important part of the planning process. Others will argue that a good plotline is needed before you can even begin thinking about character development. To this I say they are all wrong. Both are equally important. But if you can’t grab your readers’ attention and keep them reading, it doesn’t matter how great of a plotline you have or how ‘real’ your characters feel. That’s where that whole ‘creative’ thing comes in again and why finding your own writing style is essential. Think of it this way, how many times have you read a book that had a very weak plotline but you kept right on reading because the writing style was so good that you just simply had to keep reading. Likewise, you have probably read a book that was really poorly written but the plotline was so intriguing that, while you may have skipped over huge chunks, you still stuck with it long enough to find out how it all ended. Having this outcome isn’t ideal, but it’s better than them giving up on reading your work at all. This is why having well-rounded characters, a good plotline, and a very addictive writing style is a winning formula for keeping your audience. Even if your plotline has been done to death, having ‘real’ characters and a great style will keep them coming back for more. To sum up, the best compliment I ever received as a writer was this: “I absolutely hate the genre you write in. I loathe all things supernatural, but I find myself simply unable to put your work down. I am so addicted to your writing style that I have read every single word you have ever published online and in print. I am always being drawn into the story kicking and screaming because I don’t want to find it interesting, and within just a few paragraphs I find that I cannot stop reading until I get to the end.”
3: I came across this in a blog article in reference to writing: “She said. She didn’t ‘opine’, ‘conjecture’ or ‘venture’. She said. She can’t ‘smile’ or ‘laugh’. (‘Kill him at once,’ she laughed.) Not physically possible. (She laughed. ‘Kill him at once.’)”
I cannot, for the life of me, understand why this person has such a hard time seeing that the first sentence in the parentheses (“Kill him at once,” she laughed.) is two separate actions. “She laughed” isn’t telling how she spoke, it notes that the character said something and then either laughed or was laughing while she was talking. But again, that’s where the whole creative writing comes into play. It’s called ‘creative’ writing for a reason. You can’t keep people glued to the page if your work reads like a self-aware word processing program wrote it. If you could turn it into your college English professor and it not come back with red pen bleeding all over the thing, then you cannot call what you wrote ‘creative.’
And again, this is not to say that this sentence could not have stood some improvements. Another way of writing this, but not necessarily a better way, would be “Kill him now,” she said with a laugh.
4: Don’t repeat yourself.
I actually got into an argument with another writer because I mentioned the same explanation twice in one of my novels. ‘Why did you bring this subject up again, first in a paragraph and then with the characters discussing it? It was useless banter.’ Why? It’s simple. I didn’t actually mention the explanation twice. The explanation actually started in one paragraph and was finished up by the characters discussing it. I would like to point out that repeating yourself is not necessarily a bad thing. You can’t expect a reader going through several hundred pages of twists and turns to remember something that happened fifty pages or a few hundred pages ago. They are reading this for enjoyment, not to take a test afterwards. They aren’t sitting around taking notes. So if you feel that so much has happened that a reader needs a little refresher, then by all means, wash, rinse, repeat.
5: Whatever you write, make it longer. But cut out every unnecessary word.
This is another one of those things that writers will argue about. Some will tell you that after you write a paragraph or a scene, go back and make it longer. Others will swear that less is more, that there is no need for flowery, over the top descriptions and adjectives because it distracts from the action. I say that length does not matter. Write it, rewrite it, polish it, stop when it’s finished. It’s that simple. Unless you are under contract for your creation to be a specific length, then there are no hard and fast rules. It’s finished when you say it’s finished. If that means you can tell the story in ten thousand words, then that is how long your work will be. If it takes you twice that many, then so be it.
With ‘rules’ that don’t hold a lick of truth to them come ‘rules’ that you should take to heart and vow to incorporate into your style no matter what. And they are pretty simple enough:
1: Learn to spell. Unless you are trying to capture an accent in a dialogue, it is never ever okay, professional, or excusable for misspelling words or using the wrong word.
2: Punctuation and proper grammatical sentence structure. And by “proper grammatical structure” I mean learn to capitalize the first letter in a sentence, use commas appropriately, use end sentence punctuation, and learn when to start a new paragraph. What I don’t mean is that sentences should be a model of English grammar. Yep, it’s that whole creative thing again.
In the end there is only one hard and fast rule as a writer. Get read. Your ultimate job is to keep your readers happy and reading, by any means necessary. And contrary to what every editor out there is going to tell you, no one knows your readers better than you. So if dangling participles keep your audience intrigued, then writing rules be damned.
You may find that after you’ve written your hardest story, a torrent of creativity rushes out, as if it were behind a dam. You may find you need a break from writing for a few days or a week, just to absorb what you went through in the process of letting it out. Whatever happens, you’ll be a freer and better writer at the end, less afraid of taking risks, more able to immerse yourself in the projects you choose. Over the course of three days, I watched my mother transform from someone who thought she had no imagination to someone who was astounded by her own creativity.