How Not To Write

August 12, 2015

rockstar_08-LLike most amateur writers, I wrote a couple of novels that were disastrous, meandering failures before I managed to produce one that at least had an identifiable beginning and end, and something of a coherent narrative. I thought these early attempts were great, at least while I was writing them. I didn’t yet have honest critics to tell me otherwise. Only when I started listening to those tough-but-fair opinions did I start to improve.

I see now that these early monstrosities broke every literary rule in the book. Not that I’m a stickler for rules, especially now that I’ve self-published four novels that probably continue to break a lot of them. Traditional publishers are always trying to convince us outsiders that there are all kinds of rules that we’re constantly violating, and that’s why they dismiss us out of hand. Only they can let us in on the secrets that make their authors successful–and only if they choose to. The only problem with that theory is that I often catch my favorite traditional authors breaking those so-called rules with impunity. They’d laugh at the notion that they should follow any vision other than their own.

Nevertheless, I realize there are common-sense tricks that you can ignore if you like, but at the risk of putting your readers to sleep. One of these is knowing when to “show” and when to “tell.” I once tried to write a novel called Sycophants, about a record and film production company based in New York. Besides not knowing much about the subject matter, I seemed to have a real flair for showing when I should have been telling, and vice versa. For example, there’s a scene in which a dynamic African American preacher bowls over a roomful of mostly white football wives, who never saw his like before. How does the reader know he bowled them over? Because I said so! I thought the reader should take my word for it.

Even worse than this is the wooden dialogue, which sounds about as realistic as a blowhard Senator filibustering by reading the Congressional Record aloud. That sin is compounded when the conversation is supposed to be intimate. For example, here’s the female CEO of the production company taking a telephone call from a boyfriend working on the other coast: “Hello, dearest! Just the man in whose ear I’ve been desiring to whisper all day … if you hadn’t called soon, dearest, I was about to fly off into God knows what stratosphere. You know how essential it is for me to touch base with you at least once a day, to maintain what little ballast I have in my hectic life.”

How do you deal with a pile of unusable crap from your past? Do you write it off, or do you return to it years later and try to salvage what you can? I’m now trying to eke out some story lines from the mess that was Sycophants. It still stings that I went so far off track in the first place. But I suspect there are no short cuts you can take when you don’t know what you’re doing; you just have to do it, and take your lumps.

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5 Responses to “How Not To Write”

  1. Marcus Case Says:

    I can relate to all of this. Every single word. As for the past unusables – if nothing else, I tend to think they’re a useful indicator of lessons learned and progress achieved (so I like to hang on to them). Best wishes from the UK.

  2. lynettedavis Says:

    I can relate to this. I’m still trying to figure out what to show and what to tell too.

    • lgould171784 Says:

      Sometimes trying to find the right balance between “showing” and “telling” is just a feeling. It helps to read and reread your favorite authors to see how they do it. It seems to me, however, that exposition used to be more acceptable in the old days than it is now.


  3. Hope you don’t mind that I’m chuckling here: we all have to learn to write. I’m lucky in that it took me a long time, and I learned along the way from heaps of books and blogs.

    I think I have my balance now – though I still find things I need to teach myself how to do in almost every scene – but I notice what’s going on much sooner, identify the problem, and chase down solutions.

    The self-awareness part – the ability to look at your own writing and see it isn’t right – is the hardest part of writing, and something I suspect the right critique group might handle. Maybe.

    Writing is HARD. And COMPLICATED. If you want quality, you have to learn how to produce it. It also takes TIME.

    Styles have changed (see above comment on exposition), and many of us older writers have to remember we were reared on the classics, and have absorbed the older style. One of my reviewers called me ‘slightly old-fashioned.’ I think that’s what she meant.

    I also think that fiction which stands the test of time will be ‘slightly old-fashioned,’ too.

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