I came here to write something completely different, but because the caffeine hadn’t kicked in yet, and allergies have been playing hob with my sleep, I started reading Amanda’s post from yesterday. And then I started writing a comment, which is half a post long. And then I decided I would just do the post on this.
First, because I know this lot can focus like a laser on the irrelevant part — hey, I can’t throw stones — I actually rather like boiled oatmeal. I prefer it with a sprinkling of brown sugar over the top, but I’ll have it plain and mildly sweetened. Or rather, right now, I don’t have it at all, because well…. Carbs make me break out in eczema, asthma and arthritis, and if I’m going to die from it, I’d rather have corn. Er…. I mean, I won’t have anything carby. I also like cream of wheat. And grits, as long as not savory. I in fact prefer my breakfast to be completely and utterly flavorless except for “vaguely sweet.” But I rarely have books for breakfast.
Speaking of , some months ago, we decided that MGC would no longer be about writing per se. Mostly because blogs for writers have a limited readership, and usually not one that runs out to buy books. But here we are, all of us, defaulting to writing about writing.
To be fair, I think this is human. And partly it was inevitable without cons or workshops, which are, at any rate, becoming scarcer in the age of the internet (or virtual) but which are even more so in 2020 and 2020 Won.
The problem — and this brings us sort of back in the general direction of the topic — is that writers do need time with other writers. As a friend put it years ago, “this business is so crazy that we need to talk to other people who understand how crazy it is.”
Most of the reason established writers go to cons is not — sorry guys — to see their fans. Or if we do, we have a con we go to to see fans (for me, that’s Liberty Con, in Chattanooga, where I can’t walk down a hallway to the next room in under an hour…. because fans.) Most of the reason we go to cons is to hang out with our friends, talk about the latest annoyance//book, and …. oh, yeah, discuss this neat new thing we found that means we can deduct x on taxes. (We are extremely conservative with deductions, because Dan is afraid of getting in trouble, but some of the things colleagues get up to…. I tell you.)
Granted, the business is crazier if you’re trad. But what I found is you also don’t share as much. What I mean is, since trad publishing is by nature abusive, it’s like a convention of abused wives. You are ashamed of what you put up with, don’t want to share the latest abuse from your publisher, and suspect you’re not very good. At best, it turns into bragging about your highs and hiding your lows, unless you’re with very, very good friends.
Indie, OTOH allows you to share everything, and most writers do. “Hey, I discovered a new trick for presenting the story in media res” or perhaps “Hey, did you guys know if you use the keyword popsicle* on your Amazon publication, the book will skyrocket to number one?” (*This is made up and probably not true. Of course, I haven’t tried it. It’s an example of things writers share, though.)
But more importantly, trad or indie, who else can you tell “My damn characters are giving me trouble” without them measuring you for an “I love me” jacket? Other writers though will just grimace and pour you a whiskey or a coffee or at least a Mountain Dew.
So, anyway, writers tend to congregate. Which brings me back to Oatmeal and the curse of workshops.
When I was just breaking in, going to a large, well known workshop was the best way to get in, because the people teaching it could then introduce you to publishers and editors, and you could be vetted (even in those days largely for wrong-think) before they bought you.
Nowadays, still, indies feel like they don’t know what they’re doing, or they feel lonely, and a lot of trad pub writers are teaching how to write workshops. (I probably should, but my internet access can be so flaky here, I routinely lose either camera or voice. Also, it seems to be a “trap” for formerly trad pub writers who start teaching and because it pays better never again write.)
In principle there is no problem at all with this. Writers need writers. And writers can talk to writers. And at some point you need the sort of critique that goes “I can see what you were trying to do, this is why it’s not working” which readers-only are unlikely to give you.
The problem is that in any insular culture strange and bizarre superstitions develop.
In writing this tends to express itself as shibboleths that make no sense whatsoever, or are part of a transient movement within literature, but which the newby, being new, views as absolutes.
For instance when I came in there was the “use only said” for denoting speech movement. Look, I grew up with Victorian books, so I thought I got this. I mean, no one wants their characters to ejaculate, unbidden, in the middle of a sentence. And there are sillier ones too, like “erupted” or “planned.” So, I got the hatred of said bookisms, and hadn’t played with them since I was…. 6? or 7?
Imagine my surprise at being upbraided for using “a said bookism” in a novel submitted to a workshop. The word? “Shouted.” And in the situation, you really had no other way to convey that without adding unnecessary padding like “Bob’s shout shocked me.” However the teacher — now dead, and never in our field, but a best seller back in the seventies — yelled at me that a good writer could make shouted or whispered evident from the WORDS used. Because it’s not possible, apparently, to shout, whisper or say “shut up” in different tones of voice.
This one is a minor quirk, particularly since as you get better you don’t even really use said anymore, but attribute speech by giving your characters a body and body movement.
Then there is the “no adjectives” movement. Which eventually seems to have become “no adverbs and really nothing that gives your book flavor.” This is a literary school: Minimalism. It is not the only school of writing nor is it, frankly, written in stone as “good.” If you were writing for trad pub, you had to follow their little fads or they wouldn’t buy you. But in fact, while getting rid of “useless words” like “very” or “much” can strengthen the writing (instead of “very tall” for instance try “looming” or “mountainous” for a certain kind of guy) removing it can also remove voice and flavor. Which is why I still use it, when appropriate for tone or rhythm. Which, btw, is not a decision most young writers are equipped to make, not having trained themselves to change sides of the table and read like readers, instead of writers.
By all means, eschew superfluous verbiage, but not at the risk of making your sentence overly complex and or your words obscure. In all things, use moderation and judgement.
In the same way there is a whole “No first person” movement. (I have recently found out that a lot of writers under forty confuse first person with present tense. The English teacher I used to be WEEPS.)
This is something that I have no idea where it started, but you find it in all sorts of places. Someone I know — and you probably do too — goes on a rant every time you give him a microphone, about how only amateurs write in first person.
Look, I was supposed to collaborate with this gentleman a few times (though only once did we get so far as writing a substantial portion of the book) and he’s one of those writers who doesn’t “get” characters from….. somewhere (subconscious, parallel universe, alpha centauri, you figure it out.) So he painfully makes up every single character by taking someone he knows and changing that person.
Now, I won’t say that’s what sank our collaboration (irreconcilable differences is closer) but it was part of what sank it. “Tell me about the person you based this character on.” “I told you. It’s right there in the manuscript.” “No, the real person.” “Well, I hope he’s a real person–” Because it took that long for us to realize the other really wrote that differently.
The problem is he and others like him absolutely refuse to believe other people just receive characters, heaven knows from where. So, the only way they can imagine writing first person is writing about themselves. Which, yes, a lot of new writers do. They put themselves, veiled or not, as main characters. But for the record, the last time I did that I was 8. If anyone thinks Athena is me, they need their heads examined. And as for anyone who thinks Luce is me…. well, you’ll be sorely disappointed.
So they have transformed a sin of some very young (and silly writers) into an absolute proscription. “No first person. It’s amateurish.” Well– the amateurish Robert A. Heinlein and the occasionally amateurish (granted a smaller part of her work) Agatha Christie still outsell any living writer, so I don’t care. If that’s amateur, pour some of that amateurish on me.
As I mentioned in the comment to Amanda’s post: it’s easy, when you’re new, to take these as “laws of nature” and write according to what you’re taught.
The problem is when you apply these shalts and shall nots (and many many others) with no judgement (which you can only train by practicing the craft) you can ruin perfectly good books.
Possibly the best known workshop in the field — which granted used techniques designed to break political prisoners — was so prescriptive and absolutist that when I ran a micro press, I could tell a graduate in three paragraphs. I had a game of not looking at the cover letter till after. But you couldn’t avoid knowing it. These graduates read like boiled oatmeal. It wasn’t “bad” just flavorless and blah.
I’ve also, I think, talked about my first-published short story, which I rewrote every time I got a rejection (and I had 80 rejections before that first acceptance.) and which, when I read it after, read like boiled oatmeal. So I took my first version, corrected word errors and misspellings,a nd it sold the next time it went out.
Because overprocessed writing is like overprocessed food. Nothing interesting about that flavor.
I will confess as a reader I hate present tense btw. But I think that might be a function of my training as a reader. To me, because present tense is “unusual” it continuously calls attention to itself, and makes it hard to get into the story. However, since it’s way more common now, I presume that’s not true for younger readers. At any rate, the last thing I’d do is tell you not to use it.
When you get advice on writing — even my advice — chew it over and see what applies. (Actually when you get advice on anything, including less crazy fields, but, you know…) Because in the end, there’s only so much market for boiled oatmeal. And sometimes we want that chili pepper, no matter how shocking it might be.