Stephen King’s wonderful book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, is something every aspiring writer (and maybe every reader) should read. I haven’t read it in quite a while and am due to revisit it. There are many great books on writing–how to, what the writer’s life is like, how to edit and plot, and all kinds of good stuff. I have a lot of these kinds of books and have read most of them and have gotten a lot of books on writing from the library. Some of the books are better than others, but anything that teaches you something useful is good. I haven’t seen too many books on how not to write, so let me see if I can fill a tiny bit of that void with some advice on how NOT to write and even how to not write. (They are different, trust me.)
First how not to write. Don’t write “in the style of” someone famous and much loved unless you’ve really made a study of how that person writes. You can certainly borrow plots (Shakespeare did) and some great stuff has come out of what was started out as fan fiction. But if you want to write in the style of, say Jane Austen, make sure you understand her wicked sense of humor as well as her time and culture. Paying tribute may be a great way to start, but honestly, you have your own voice. Find it. Use it.
Second, don’t slide over plot points. If it’s important to the story, give it some time and effort. Don’t spring stuff out of the blue without some foreshadowing. “Oh, and by the way, she was an orphan with a twin who was raised by witches,” you write in chapter twelve when suddenly, conveniently the twin appears. Readers hate that. It’s like cheating. Find a way to hint at or even tell about something that becomes important later.
Third, don’t pick you mom and your best friend for editors. They will love it no matter how bad it is. Get someone who will be honest AND instructive. “This is terrible” isn’t useful criticism. “I don’t understand this part” or “I wish you told me more about…” is. Part two of this is, don’t ignore criticism of your work. Fix it or explain it or make it better. If one person has trouble with it, likely others will too.
Don’t use “just”. The problem is, once you use “just”, it just invites all its relatives and just starts showing up everywhere, like in every paragraph and sometimes in every sentence. If you just mean “merely” or “simply” or “only”, use those instead if you must. If you mean “right and fair”, “just” is okay. Just do a word search and eliminate them all. Then if you re-read and in spots it makes no sense, just add it back. Just sayin’.
Don’t use cliches. I know everyone says this, but gosh it’s tempting to use the shorthand of cliches. Don’t do it. Don’t describe in exhausting detail things that don’t move the plot along. Don’t use slang unless your audience is familiar with it or unless it is integral to the story and you make it clear by the context what it all means. Don’t kill the dog. Or the kid. Unless that is what the story is about. Make sure you know what your story is about. And stick to it. The detailed sex scene may be earth shattering, but is it relevant? Of course there is a lot more, but this is only a blog post, not a book. Let’s get to how to not write.
You won’t get any writing done if you have no place to do it, no place where you and your thoughts can collude in some level of peace and quiet. And when you insist on not being disturbed because you’re writing, make sure you’re writing. You won’t write if you don’t have a time to write, a time set aside to focus on what you want to say. You won’t write if you put everything and everyone ahead of writing, if you’re never a little selfish, just for a little while. You won’t write if you spend too much time doubting yourself or thinking your work should be perfect on the first draft–it won’t be, but that doesn’t mean anything. You won’t write if you give up, but you also won’t write if you plug away at something that is making you bored and frustrated and disgusted. For Pete’s sake, give it a rest. You can always come back to it. And if you give in to the despair of writer’s block, you won’t write. But it will pass. An idea will mug you when you least expect it, and you’ll get back to writing and abandon not writing, so in your face, writer’s block!
I don’t pretend to know much about writing or how to write well, but I do write. I plan to keep doing it. Hope this helps.
Image: Some writing books. The rest are in the public library. By Marilyn Evans