There’s a Reason It’s Called “Creative” Writing

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.

Utterly Useless Writing Rules

When I was in high school and college, I absolutely hated having the English professors telling me that I had to write a certain way, had to follow certain rules.  After spending twenty-eight years writing, I have come to learn that the only rule that a writer has to be concerned with is keeping their readers’ attention…by any means necessary.  Needless to say, I have come across a few rules that I rarely use, even though some of them were the cornerstone of what I was taught for 16 years of English composition classes.  I have decided to share with my readers and budding authors the rules that I have found to be utterly useless when it comes to writing fiction and other types of written entertainment.  These are not all-inclusive, so there very well could be a follow-up blog regarding even more utterly useless writing rules.

1.  Write what you know:  Anyone who has ever written any type of fiction knows that this is one rule that should have never been written down when it comes to the creation of mythical lands, creatures, characters, the really bizarre, and the really hideous.  The whole point behind skill as a writer is to write in such a way as to make the reader think all this is possible, even though they know there is no such things as goblins and werewolves and zombies.  Readers should question the sanity of the writer, wonder how on earth they know so much about murder and crimes (it’s called imagination and research, in case you didn’t already know), but not actually think that the writer is a serial killer.  If one must write only what they know, then it would mean Stephen King had to become a mass murderer, a psychic, and a traveler of time and space to create the fruits of his imagination.  Likewise, Anne Rice not only met Lestat, but somehow managed to follow him around all the decades of his life.  Of course, this didn’t really happen, but the fact that they didn’t know any of this through firsthand knowledge but had the readers so convinced that these people and events really happened is just a testament to their talent with a pen.

2.  Never write in first person perspective:  I don’t know who came up with this rule, but it’s about as useless on some stories as udders on a bull.  Writing in third person is the better choice if you have a lot of characters and want to explore several points of view and emotions of those characters.  However, there are a lot of stories that sound better and are better told from the first person perspective.  For example, romance stories and erotica are almost exclusively written in the first person perspective because it helps to pull the reader in and put them directly into the thick of the story.  If the story is well written, the reader may even feel as if they have been put center-stage in the storyline and are experiencing everything for themselves.  It is a very personal and oftentimes emotional ride for the reader, something that is very hard to pull off when writing in third person.

3.  If it is possible to cut a word out, then cut it:  This goes back to not BSing your way through a story.  This rule holds true to 99% of writers.  However, sometimes BSing is a good thing, if, and only if, you are talented enough to keep your readers interested. Interest is the key phrase to this rule.  The only thing that matters is to keep your readers reading your every word.  If they are skipping through parts of it, then you are failing as a writer.  Cutting unnecessary words may be necessary at times, and at other times it can be a big no-no.  If it helps the flow of the story, or keeps readers interested, then keep it in the storyline.  If it is just fluff that has nothing to do with the storyline, is not intended to break up the monotony of a storyline, or is just not that interesting to read, then cut it from the work.

4.  Pick a writer you really admire and immolate his/her writing style:  I have no idea if professors still adhere to this rule from days gone by, but this is the first rule I tell authors to avoid.  You do not want to be known as the writer who writes like ‘insert-famous-author’s-name-here.’  Fans of that writer will run out to purchase your work, and, when they discover you do not write exactly like their favorite author, they will never read another piece of your writings.  To make matters worse, with the information age, they can have turned a huge chunk of possible readers against you before anyone even gives you chance, thanks to the power of internet, Facebook, Twitter, Myspace, and weblogs.  If you want to be known as a great author, then find your own writing style, your own voice, and be known for being perfectly you.

5.  Everything must be perfect and follow all the writing rules:  Good grammar, well structured sentences, proper spelling and punctuation is extremely important.  However, a writer shouldn’t be afraid to break a rule every now and again.  A fragmented sentence here and there isn’t going to hurt, so long as it appears in the proper place, like when a character is having an inner monologue.  Putting it in an improper place.  Like here.  Makes little sense.  But if I do this just right.  Like add it here – Wait.  What was I doing? Tina thought to herself.  Well, you get the idea.  Some rules can be broken, if done in such a way that it helps the flow of the storyline and does not hinder it.  Other rules, such as proper spelling, subject/verb agreement, and double negatives should be, for the most part, followed to the letter.

 At the end of the day, the -ONLY- thing that matters, the only goal of a writer, is to be read.  You must keep your readers’ attention regardless, so writing rules be damned.  If that means writing fluffy and flowing words or cutting it down to a little bit of nothing or even taking a hundred mile trip around the point to get to that point, then that’s what you do.  Following any type of rule should only be done if it is helping the storyline and if it is going to keep the readers’ attention.  Because even if your work is only a single page long and written perfectly, if readers skip through any part of it, then you have failed as a writer.