Taking Advice: How to Mine Golden Nuggets (OR) A Type-A’s Lament
One of the first things I learned when I made the commitment to be a writer was that not only did I have a lot to learn, but I wasn’t as good as I thought. Not by a longshot. Or a shortshot. Or any kind of shot for that matter. It was the classic “the more you know, the more you know you don’t know” scenario. Humbling, in other words, and daunting.
In addition to the smacking realization that, yeah, my work pretty much sucked, was the contradictory information that rolled out from the various sources from which I sought guidance.
One of the first things I learned was that adverbs torpedo good writing. Adverbs, I was taught—over and over—are to good writing what mayonnaise is to a weight-loss diet: Borne of Satan and to be avoided at all costs. (I once had a mayo meltdown in a Chick-fil-A, but that’s a story for another time. . .maybe next week if I’m up for humiliating myself.)
My effort to avoid the dreaded adverb did indeed result in an improvement of my writing. See, the problem with adverbs is that they tell rather than show. For you non-writers out there, here’s an example of this so you can see it in action:
“Give me my diary, John,” she said angrily.
“Come and get it,” John said cheerfully.
“Give me my diary John. Now.” She narrowed her eyes and gritted her teeth.
John laughed and danced away. “Come and get it,” he crooned.
No argument that the second is more interesting, right? Except that sometimes an adverb is exactly what we want to use. A writer (okay, this writer) might turn herself inside out to eliminate adverbs in short stories and novels when in reality, a little adverb can’t hurt, can it? Stephen King says, yes, and likens adverbs to dandelions:
“I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops. To put it another way, they’re like dandelions. If you have one on your lawn, it looks pretty and unique. If you fail to root it out, however, you find five the next day . . . fifty the day after that . . . and then, my brothers and sisters, your lawn is totally, completely, and profligately covered with dandelions. By then you see them for the weeds they really are, but by then it’s —GASP!! — too late.” —Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
Even Mark Twain eschewed adverbs. He said:
“If you see an adverb, kill it.”
Oh, but wait! The venerable Anne Rice has this to say on her Facebook page:
“I love the noble adverb and always have and always will.”
“Now, lots of people think adverbs are the kiss of death, but I don’t think so. Use them in moderation. Like a McDonald’s cheeseburger, they’re fine once in a while.”
Ah, Kristan Higgins! Is it any wonder I love her? With that quote she gave me a pass on the dreaded adverb, and while I still knock myself out avoiding the little bastards, I’m making an effort not to be so rabid and type-A about it (something over which my critique partner will dance for joy). Problem is that at this point it’s so ingrained that when I’m reading and lost in a story, coming upon an adverb is like hitting a speed bump. I stop and rework the sentence (yes, I do–not joking) to eliminate the adverb before moving on. This habit ruins many a good read for me, but like breathing, I can’t avoid doing it. Those adverbs make my eyes bleed. (The exception is chatty blog posts and dialogue, of course, because everyone uses adverbs in conversation.)
So, my personal take on adverbs? I believe writing is stronger without them and I’ll weed them out like Mr. King’s dandelions. But thanks to Kristan Higgins, if I want to use one, I’ll do it without guilt. Just try and stop me. (Look at me—such a rebel!)
Adverbs aren’t the only things about which contradictory advice is given to new writers. The other biggie is the edict that “real writers write every day.” I’m here to tell you that isn’t true. I’m a real writer. I don’t write every day. I love to write, and I’d like to write every day—in fact, writing flows easier for me if I write every day—but life is full and writing daily isn’t always possible. Also, I’ve learned my personal process over time, and it involves furious spurts of writing (hours and hours, day after day) followed by short periods of downtime. I call it my “simmering” or “percolating” period because although I’m not sitting at the keyboard, I’m plotting and creating and working things out in my brain. It works for me, and after years of trying to squeeze my round process into a square hole I’ve said the hell with it and just embraced the way I work. Still, it was heartening to find these quotes from Anne Rice.
On Anne Rice’s Facebook page, regarding Stephen King’s Top 20 Rules for Writers (which are awesome, of course), Ms. Rice says:
“My caution: if these rules help you, fine; if they don’t, move on. As I see it, there are no universal hard and fast rules for writers. Well, I can think of one: get it done.”
And this one, also from Ms. Rice’s Facebook page:
“I’ve often said there are no rules for writers. Let me share the WORST AND MOST HARMFUL ADVICE I was ever given by others. 1) Write what you know. 2) You’ll have to polish every sentence you write three or four times. 3) Genius is one tenth talent and nine tenths hard work and 4) You’re not a real writer if you don’t write every day. — ALL OF THAT WAS HARMFUL TO ME. ALL OF IT. IT HURT AND IT SET ME BACK. —– So I say again, there are no rules. It’s amazing how willing people are to tell you that you aren’t a real writer unless you conform to their cliches and their rules. My advice? Reject rules and critics out of hand. Define yourself. Do it your way. Make yourself the writer of your dreams. Protect your voice, your vision, your characters, your story, your imagination, your dreams.”
You’re not a writer? Replace the word “writer” in that quote with whatever you are—actor, painter, musician, whatever. Do take classes and workshops. Do read books on your craft written by successful people you admire. Do study and learn and master your art, whatever it may be. But in seeking advice be like a miner panning for gold. Sift and swirl the silt until you uncover gems. Those you treasure may differ from mine, but you’ll know the golden nuggets meant for you when you find them. They’ll be the ones shining amid the dross, the ones that resonate, that make you better. Those are the ones you’ll keep.
Please do some Writing In the Buff! Leave a comment and share advice you’ve received—about anything—that has helped you the most, and what was the source? And when sources you respect offer differing pieces of advice, how do you choose which to follow?
Thanks for reading. See you next week for more of the Naked Truth.
Have a wonderful Wednesday!