Throw Away Your Scriptures

No this is not an anti-religion post. It is rather a post about the accumulation of “scripture” and lists of thou shalt and thou shalt not that accrues to anyone trying to learn the fiction (or even non fiction, but that’s different) writing craft.

Look, I understand, it’s scary out there, and not all of us have a little kitten to carry as a shield. (I’ve been carrying Helen around as a security stuffed animal. Because I can.

Recently, in a group, fans were talking about another writers’ work and I and the other multipublished pro writer in the group freaked about what our work might say about us. Or rather she freaked. I just sighed, because I know. I psychoanalyzed my own work before it was out there, and live in fear of someone doing the same. (The idiot who said I wanted a telepathic man and an authority figure didn’t scare me even slightly. That was interpreting plot necessity and cozy tropes for my preference. This still being me, the truth is more complicated and twisty enough to go down a corkscrew without touching the sides.)

So, what we do is scary. It’s scary for what we have to reveal about ourselves. It’s scary for how little control we actually have over it, if it’s to be worth spit. And it’s scary because people might never read it/hate it.

Writers are the most superstitious tribe in the world. Probably worse during trad pub, when people had lucky lamps, lucky pens, lucky typewriters. But then what do I know? I joke that I probably made the guy who wrote Space Station Noir wear different colored socks and rub a bunch of parsley on his nose, because that happened the day I promoed him — without his knowledge — and his sales jumped and he conflates them.

We’re not exactly rational, because so much is out of our control. That’s fine. That’s just what it is.

However, when those superstitions hit our writing style…. well, that’s something else.

I was reminded yesterday when a well intentioned colleague said you should avoid the verb to be in your writing as much as possible of how paralyzing and counterproductive such things can be.

As a newby, back in prehistory, I too heard this and believed it. Absolutely believed it. I remember feeling superior to Mary Higgins Clarke because she used to be so often, while I had virtually eliminated it.

This was somewhere between discovering editing and turning all my stories into unreadable — but utterly clean — pieces of sterile prose. Then figuring out they were that, which explained why they weren’t selling, going back to the originals with better copyeditting, and suddenly selling every story I’d written.

Look, sure, in theory using was makes your prose weak. “The man was angry” is weaker than “Anger suffused him.” But the thing is, humans say “the man was angry’ far more often. So if your entire prose eliminates that form, it bothers the back of the brain. You start feeling it’s subtly wrong. The prose makes you aware of itself. Because humans use the “weaker form” very very often.

And yes, “very, very” is also weak and never do. But humans do. And if you’re writing first person, you absolutely can do it.

There are so many of these rules, most of them when the crazy people in traditional publishing were proclaiming them — one wonders if because they believed them or because they wanted most writers to stop writing? — like “don’t use that” or “Don’t use adjectives” “don’t use adverbs” “said if invisible, don’t use anything else, including whisper or yell, because “people can tell from what’s said'” (Hint, no they can’t.) Etc. etc. etc.

If you have a fetish for a particular one, (other than the verb to be because that will for real make things sound alien if you are really good at avoiding it,) so be it.

But I was a very compliant and desperate writer. I tried to use all of those proscriptions and dictates AT ONCE. And the result wasn’t actually readable. No, not even vaguely. It was technically perfect, and at worst impenetrable. At best it was boring and… “just off.” Not something anyone would read for fun. (I’d give you an example, but they’re all in diskettes, which I found in the basement, the other day. Now I need to find the external drive to read them.)

So I’m going to give you what David Weber unwittingly gave me while talking off the cuff at Liberty con…. 15? 16? years ago: the key out of the prison of all this writing “scripture.”

“In the end, it doesn’t matter if you use a word they say not to; or use a lot of adjectives; or whatever. Your voice is what carries the story. Make sure your voice sounds confident. You’re guiding the reader into your world. Why should he follow you if you’re mincing and scared? Go with full confidence, and they will follow. That’s the only thing that matters.”

And if you’re not convinced, go read one of the pulp masters. At the word level, Edgar Rice Burroughs made EVERY mistake against the scriptures of how to write. And yet he was enormously entertaining and remains so, despite changes in language and culture.

Ignore the writing scripture. It was proclaimed by the unholy (well, editors) and it is against the thing itself.

Go write. Write naturally and with great confidence. The rest will fall into place.

32 thoughts on “Throw Away Your Scriptures

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  1. I encountered many of those “scriptures” in a creative writing course—as *exercises*. As in, “Write a story without doing this thing,” or “Go through your story and underline every time you start a sentence with ‘The’.”

    The point was not to say “never do these things,” it was to point out how they can make a piece bland if you rely on them too much. Take adverbs. If you rely on them exclusively (heh) for emphasis, they make the piece one-note, like an over-compressed song on the radio. (Which is another rant.) But if you practice removing them and learning how to have the emphasis without them, they become an extra amplifier when you *do* use them.

    But of course, most people teaching writing channel their inner prescriptivists and decide that is the One True Way.


    In the Neolithic Age savage warfare did I wage
    For food and fame and woolly horses’ pelt;
    I was singer to my clan in that dim, red Dawn of Man,
    And I sang of all we fought and feared and felt.

    Yea, I sang as now I sing, when the Prehistoric spring
    Made the piled Biscayan ice-pack split and shove;
    And the troll and gnome and dwerg, and the Gods of Cliff and Berg
    Were about me and beneath me and above.

    But a rival, of Solutr]/e, told the tribe my style was ~outr]/e~ —
    ‘Neath a tomahawk of diorite he fell.
    And I left my views on Art, barbed and tanged, below the heart
    Of a mammothistic etcher at Grenelle.

    Then I stripped them, scalp from skull, and my hunting dogs fed full,
    And their teeth I threaded neatly on a thong;
    And I wiped my mouth and said, “It is well that they are dead,
    For I know my work is right and theirs was wrong.”

    But my Totem saw the shame; from his ridgepole shrine he came,
    And he told me in a vision of the night: —
    “There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays,
    And every single one of them is right!”

    . . . . .

    Then the silence closed upon me till They put new clothing on me
    Of whiter, weaker flesh and bone more frail;
    And I stepped beneath Time’s finger, once again a tribal singer
    [And a minor poet certified by Tr–ll].

    Still they skirmish to and fro, men my messmates on the snow,
    When we headed off the aurochs turn for turn;
    When the rich Allobrogenses never kept amanuenses,
    And our only plots were piled in lakes at Berne.

    Still a cultured Christian age sees us scuffle, squeak, and rage,
    Still we pinch and slap and jabber, scratch and dirk;
    Still we let our business slide — as we dropped the half-dressed hide —
    To show a fellow-savage how to work.

    Still the world is wondrous large, — seven seas from marge to marge, —
    And it holds a vast of various kinds of man;
    And the wildest dreams of Kew are the facts of Khatmandhu,
    And the crimes of Clapham chaste in Martaban.

    Here’s my wisdom for your use, as I learned it when the moose
    And the reindeer roared where Paris roars to-night: —
    There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays,
    And — every — single — one — of — them — is — right!

    1. Ah, Kipling … he never fails.
      Honestly, I’m almost afraid to follow much so-called “professional writing advice”. Paralysis by analysis. I did very well and wrote what in retrospect I think my best bits of writing, when I just sat back and let it flow.

  3. If you strip everything away of flesh and hair and eyelashes and fancy garments, you’re left with a skeleton.

    All skeletons look pretty much alike, other than size.

    So, put the skin back on, grow the hair, and add fancy dress and you’ll be yourself again.

    1. Heh. I was trained as an athropologist, so I got to look at a murthering *lot* of de-fleshed bodies. Handle them, measure, classify, and so on.

      One of the more interesting tests was when we got bone fragments. Had to determine which of them was *human.*

      A lot of kids got stuff wrong. Turns out a certain fragment of deer femur looks remarkable human without the distal ends… *chuckle*

      1. I would guess that unless you’re an expert, one bone or bit of bone looks much like the others.

      2. TINS. The paleontologist at a local museum got a phone call several decades ago. The lady at the other end said they’d found bones in the basement of the new-to-them house, and they were human. Could he please come get them?

        Since human bones and deer bones (and some pig bones) are similar, he asked, “What makes you certain they are human, ma’am?”

        “The skull, and they’re wearing a flannel shirt and corduroy pants.”

        He (not at all) reluctantly informed her that they were too recent for him to help, and gave her the phone number of the county sheriff.

  4. Most “scriptures” are merely guidelines.

    I had to throw away one of avoiding “says” because I hated not having a place to add some more characterization and information on moods and emotions, then I got stuck with the Centipede’s Dilemma of what exact word I’d use in it’s place.

    This time around? Where I can put the right word in, yes. “Says” otherwise. Go through later once I have the story copied in Word and do “find” and work from there.

  5. I like the new (okay, who knows how long since I clicked over, sorry) blog design but I wish that it had the name of the authors displayed before clicking through.

    1. This. I can identify some of the Geniuses from the first couple sentences (usually), but not all of them.

      Not normally a problem, since I want to read all of the posts, but very helpful when I’m backed up on other things and can only dedicate a few minutes to the site. (Right now, I know that I’m going to have several hours in June just paging back, and back, and back…)

  6. One of my particular pecadillos is repetition. I hates it. Hate, hate, hate. Can’t have the same descriptor twice onna page. Can’t start the sentence with the same word too close together. Can’t use the PoV character’s name in sequence.

    It’s what jumps out at me when I’m going back over a first pass edit. Gah!

    Which is why I end up writing easy stuff when frustrated. Noir fiction is extremely formulaic, once you get the tropes down. Bars, thugs, women of questionable repute, colorful characters, byzantine motivations, fistfights, gunfights, plot twists, and cathartic human moments. They’re not hard to throw together.

    But I wanna finish my sci fi! *grumble grumble* Back to the word mines. We get to play in space soon! Zippy little space scooters! Haunted derelicts! Microgravity physics with ginormous objects! Just gotta get there first…

    1. My feeling is that repetition is a tool. Use it deliberately, but watch for it used accidentally, where it might work, or not.

    2. That was one of the “fun” things that I had when writing The Winter Solist. During the big dance number, the big bad is always “elegant” and I had to find every synonym for “elegant” everything that I could think of.

  7. I remember back in high school when I was a writing tutor. I can’t count how many times I had some variation of the following conversation:

    Me: *points to a completely incomprehensible paragraph* Just what were you trying say here?

    Student: *gives a clear, concise explanation of the point they were trying to make*

    Me: Okay, what you just said? Write that down.

    I think half the key to writing well is recognizing that writing isn’t some sort of arcane art. It’s just communicating. It’s a lot like talking, except you write the words down to be read later.

  8. I feel like the safest style/elements of narrative prose advice to give is something like “read a bunch of what you like and find comfortable and then go away and play it by ear.”

    1. Sometimes it helps to try pastiches of the writers you like, though it’s unlikely to be publishable.

  9. Eh, be careful about the use of auxiliary verbs, and use of “to be.” Passive voice (and progressive voice, too) use both.

    Also, with said-bookisms, you should favor ones that can be heard over ones that can’t. Prefer “whisper” or “shout” to “reply” or “comment.” But the ones you should complete avoid are the impossible ones. If it’s not a way to say something, it’s not a substitute for “said.”

    The real benefit is in learning the habit of questioning the words you use and, one hopes, learning to use the most effective word.

  10. “If you were talking to your character, how would you say it?”

    That can help a lot. Read dialogue out loud. (Yeah, people might look at you funny. So what?) If it sounds wrong, it probably is.

    What your characters say is who they are. Try to make them who you want them to be.
    “I can see when you lie, remember? You might as well have LIAR printed across your forehead in big red letters that flash like a neon sign every time you open your pie-hole!”

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