Most books, web sites, and instructors that are trying to teach you about writing have some tired old saws that they trot out and are certain, and think you should be too, that they are the gospel for writers. Baloney, say I. Here are some of my quibbles with conventional wisdom.
Write what you know. The problem is, this implies you should write only what you have personally experienced. Agatha Christie, as far as I have been able to discern, never killed anyone. But she knew about village life so Miss Marple has all the right moves. J.R.R. Tolkien didn’t personally know any elves, orcs, or dragons, but he knew a lot about ordinary folk facing extraordinary times from his experiences during World War I, and he had a deep and wide knowledge of European languages and mythologies all of which informed his writing. He did write what he knew, but in ways unrecognizable from his own personal experiences. Early on, Dick Francis wrote about the horse racing world that he knew so well, but he and his wife loved researching new and interesting worlds, and these filled his later works. I have written before about the importance of research. So the questions is, what do you know? You know what you’ve experienced yourself, what you’ve learned from many sources, what you can imagine, dream, create. But if you’re going to write something you don’t necessarily know personally, you can ground that in what you do know–family relations, small town or city life, love, unhappiness, all the rest of human experience. That grounding will make it real. And it never hurts to find a reviewer who has experience with your topic, if you can find one. But if you created the world you are writing in, you are the expert. Use your expertise to know and write about that world.
Another morsel of universal truth, get a copy of The Elements of Style by Strunk and White and adhere to it religiously. Hogwash. The book was published in 1935 by Oliver Strunk and E. B. White who was at the time a student in Professor Strunk’s class at Cornell. That’s the E. B. White of Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little. Problem is, writing has changed a lot since the 1930’s. There is actually a 4th edition published in 1999, and it may have been sufficiently updated to make it more relevant to today’s styles, but the best place to find guidance for how to write is from the publishers you are trying to get to publish your work. They will often cite on their submission page a reference for their preferred style. By all means, get a copy of Elements and read it, but know what you’re getting into. Be aware that times change and so do writing styles and the rules of engagement.
No head hopping. This is the idea that you have to tell the story from one person’s point of view for any given scene. It is not bad advice because it’s less confusing for the reader, but honestly if you are careful, you can tell us what more than one person is thinking in a scene if that is required to tell your story. Jane Austen was able to pull this off, but if you’re not as good a writer as she is, you might avoid, if you can, jumping from one point of view to another within a scene. Still, if it works for the story you are trying to tell, give it a shot.
A million times you will be told: show, don’t tell. Have the action tell the story, not someone telling you what happened. It’s usually good advice, but sometimes you gotta tell folks what is going on and showing them is too darned complicated. But you can tell using clever devices, like Holmes explaining things to Watson. The trusty sidekick or the Everyman who has to have things explained to him (and to us, the readers) is a common device for telling what’s going on. Yes, telling, not showing.
We’ve already discussed Don’t Kill the Dog. But sometimes you have to. You just better have a really good reason. But, you are told, kill your darlings. Killing your darlings is when you have to get rid of some part or character or line in your work that just doesn’t fit or is jarringly out of place. It might have worked at one time, or maybe you worked really hard on it and you’re really proud of it, but it sticks out like a sore thumb and detracts from the rest of the story. The thing is, you don’t necessarily have to kill your dearest. You might just need to rehome her. Write a story where she fits in, where she makes the story work around her. Or give her a makeover so she fits in as she should in your existing story. In the end, it might be that she simply won’t cooperate. Then, by all means, murder her.
There are a lot of other writing rules that might not necessarily be bad advise, but you really should think about them and challenge them if that is essential to your creative process. My point is, advice is not law. If your way of telling the story requires you to ignore, bend, break, mutilate, or otherwise commit outrage on the rules of writing, by all means, give it a try. If it’s bad or your editor becomes apoplectic, you can reconsider and rewrite. But pushing the boundaries can lead to new and innovative creations. You have my permission to push the boundaries. But maybe not your publishers’. They, for good or evil, have the last say.