The Taliban Guide to Better Prose

I know a lot of writers.

Now, most of these writers blog. And, worse, most of them also Tweet and link to other writers’ blog posts with some frequency.

As a result, I see an interminable stream of post titles like, “Zap Adverbs for Kick-Ass Prose!”, “Thirteen More Ways to Kill Exposition,” “Plot like a Hollywood Screenwriter,” “Write for the Market,” “The Seven Types of Subplot,” and so on, a nightmare cornucopia of deranged dogma and rabid rules almost guaranteed to paralyze any new and impressionable writer.

Oh, please. What about, “The Seven Types of Idiot Advice,” “The Wisdom of the Cookie-Cutter,” and “How Dare You Think for Yourself?!” Now those are posts I’d like to see.

So let’s talk babies and bathwater.

Writing, like any other craft, has some rules. And as we know, it’s wise to learn and internalize these before breaking them. But it’s also critical to know the limitations of rules and when to break them. In the same way that a good doctor who sees someone having a heart attack in the street will help them without worrying that they might be sued if the person dies, so a good writer will always interpret most rules as guidelines rather than holy writ. The problem for most beginning and intermediate writers is knowing where the lines are, where exceptions may be made, and—hardest of all—attaining the correct distance to be able to look at their own work with some degree of objectivity.

Let’s address the last first. As well as having a good group of beta readers, I strongly recommend letting a draft cool for at least a month between revision passes—and by cool, I mean don’t look at it, and try not to even think about it. In the meantime, work on a short story, outline your next novel, do research, whatever. This is the single best way to get some distance from your work.

Some rules—a very few—should probably should be treated as inviolable. These include:

  • Don’t switch viewpoints in mid-scene (unless you’re in omniscient)
  • Don’t resort to a deus ex machina at the climax to save your protagonist
  • Don’t bore the reader with lectures, trivial dialogue, or lengthy, excessive description
  • Always deal fairly with the reader and deliver on your promise to them

Pretty much everything else is negotiable.

Take adverbs, for instance. Although it’s true that adverbs can flag vagueness and weaken prose, they exist for a reason. Consider the phrase, “She mostly agreed with him;” this might appear as internal dialogue in a character’s head, and what it means is very clear—that she was in general but not complete agreement. The adverb here (mostly) conveys the meaning with economy and minimum fuss, and any attempt to eliminate it will likely involve a good deal more wordage and burden our prose. Should we eradicate it because some prose Mufti has issued a fatwa? Of course not. This whole foofarraw about adverbs began as good, rule-of-thumb advice and, after endless parroting, has become a mindless mantra (let’s blame Hemingway, as we can for so much else).

Likewise with exposition, the cure is often worse than the disease. The key with exposition is to make sure it’s both interesting and well-timed. Nobody wants a lecture; on the other hand, if the author’s concern over infodumping borders—as many do—on the obsessive, readers will find themselves dissatisfied, even disoriented. I’ve closed and never reopened many a story, including some by well-known authors, because of this. When a reader needs to know something, let them know it. Often the information can be slipped in deftly, but sometimes it’s just more expeditious to tell—yes, tell—the reader what they need to know rather than stand on our heads trying to slip it in under the radar. If the desire for the information is there, the reader will welcome it. Voice can do miracles here, turning an indigestible lump of exposition into a delightful side-trip the reader will be happy to go along with.

Now, I’m a genre writer. And although I make every reasonable effort to write well and polish both story and prose over several revisions, my primary goal is to entertain the reader. I don’t give a damn what the Literary establishment thinks, or, for that matter, what my more rule-obsessed peers think: my goal is to deliver a story that hooks the reader and keeps them turning pages, leaving them with a feeling of having taken a great ride when they finish the book. That’s all that counts. And anyone who believes that exposition and adverbs are going to kill a book needs a reality check.

The truth is that most readers are not writers, agents or editors. They’re not prose wonks. They aren’t swayed by technical mastery or compliance with the latest fashion taught in the prose madrassas. Nor do they care whether a book neatly fits into a genre, category, or reader demographic. Readers want a story, pure and simple. If you don’t believe that, then I guess J.K. Rowling, John Grisham, Dan Simmons, Robert James Waller, Dean Koontz, Dan Brown, and Isaac Asimov were all just flashes in the pan. Because although some of these are terrific writers and others arguably mediocre, all of them have and do flout one or more of the ‘rules,’ flagrantly and often.

In conclusion, I think part of being a professional in any field is to always question received wisdom. Yes, you certainly should learn the protocols and conventions; but slavish adherence to other people’s dogma and assumptions not only limits your range, it also buys into what I believe is an unhealthy mindset. What’s important is to tell your story in the way that best serves the reader.

In the end, the way you choose to interpret the barrage of writerly imperatives coming at you from every corner of the blogosphere is your own business. For myself, I’ve taken to laughing at most of it.

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13 Comments

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13 responses to “The Taliban Guide to Better Prose

  1. Great article. Not long ago while reading several of the tips on writing (which included Gaiman’s and Vonnegut’s and were wonderful, of course, I also read David Ogilvy’s (http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2012/02/07/david-ogilvy-on-writing/). He’s an advertising guru (in case you don’t know) and therefore the tips are for business writing. It was still interesting and included hints and good points. It started with a book recommendation, so I clicked on that link and the Amazon look inside feature and read the cut available. There’s a lot of interesting grammar/clarity discussion (nice little chart on active vs passive writing, a rundown of commonly misused words, etc.), but I was fascinated to find the advice on adverbs there. It doesn’t just say “zap adverbs” – what it says is more nuanced than that (it’s on page 13-14 in the book btw: http://www.amazon.com/Writing-That-Works-Communicate-Effectively-ebook/dp/B0040GJDSA/ref=dp_kinw_strp_1). It says use vigorous adjectives and adverbs and get rid of lazy ones. Examples of lazy ones include: ‘very good’, ‘richly deserved’ and ‘awfully nice’ – those that are either for emphasis or are redundant. The vigorous examples, ones that you should keep as they sharpen your point, include: ‘tiny raise’, ‘moist handshake’, ‘rudely turned down’ and ‘baffling instructions’. I actually found that one of the best discussions of the topic I had read 🙂

    • Laura, thanks for commenting. Very interesting and valid distinctions made between adverbs there. The bottom line, I think, is that the more relative the adverb or adjective used, the “lazier” (more vague) it is. Good writing is precise and focused, not fuzzy (although of course dialogue is another matter, since we can employ vague language to highlight character–Wodehouse’s woolly-headed Bertie Wooster would be an example here, as his diction is spangled with “awfully nice”, “very good”, etc).

      I think the biggest danger from the forests and oceans of writing advice on the web is that much of it is too dogmatic, pure black-and white: at worst, it’s brainwashing; which is why it’s nice to see some nuanced thinking. Also of course reading about writing is so much easier than actually writing, so the more distractions there are out there for the new writer to indulge in, the worse.

      • I also think the biggest, elephant-in-the-room hazard for the new writer encountering all this specific, nitpicky, judgmental advice on the detail level of technique is that it becomes very for them to forget that writing success is about STORY, not technique. And yet writing bloggers perpetually overlook that fact, assuming that all writers have the storytelling part down. Since the overwhelming majority of writers is probably far more interested in being read than winning the Booker Prize, it seems to me a far more important topic…and perhaps a much harder one to teach.

  2. I love this post.

    While writing Pretty Much True…, I wrote a couple of short stories and even started a short-lived online literary journal (of work 100 words or less). It was almost as if simply stepping away wasn’t enough, because that would still free me to obsess. It took a new obsession (or at least something that would utterly steal my attention).

    • Kristen, thanks for stopping by and commenting. Do you mean it was hard for you to get the distance you needed to let your novel, “Pretty Much True,” cool, unless you became totally absorbed (obsessed) in something else? I get that.

      • Yes. Exactly that. (Too, I was getting tired of spending so much time with those characters and needed to cleanse the palate, so to speak.)

      • Understood. I’ve not read your book, but reading Reggie’s review of it, I think I understand why: this looks like a book where you go deep into those raw, scary places inside the characters’ lives and hang there for the duration. So, yeah, I get the need to breathe again LOL.

  3. Many things to agree with here, in particular letting a story gel a long time. I’m still pubbing pieces I wrote five years ago. As I’m a genre writer, too, I couldn’t agree more with “my goal is to deliver a story that hooks the reader and keeps them turning pages, leaving them with a feeling of having taken a great ride when they finish the book.” Yet I tear my hair out when my son says, “I go to the movies to be entertained–not to look at it analytically.” Yo, the great unwashed in my audience.

    • Hahahaha! I’m pretty much with your son 😉 I’m guessing though that the real sticking point is that what constitutes entertainment for him doesn’t for you… and as an old fart, I’d likely feel the same as you LOL. A big part of entertainment and carrying the audience along is not breaking the dream. For example, I couldn’t read Dan Brown and I hate the Matrix simply because they did that: the former presented me with black/white stereotypes I couldn’t believe in; the latter pissed me off (as most SF movies do) with stupid effects and especially slo-mo Kung-Fu, which I couldn’t believe in as part of an SF movie. If the fictional dream is broken, the entertainment value crashes. But I’ve yet to see a few adverbs or a well-turned infodump break a fictional dream for me.

  4. A. M. Sligar

    It’s nice to see such common sense advice on writing. I find that one definitely must pick and choose which of the must–abide–by–at–all–costs–rules rules to follow, especially since the gurus often contradict each other, or have over–sharpened personal axes to grind.

    • Thanks, A.M. 🙂 Some of it I think is the internet, but the wild turmoil in publishing, and the ensuing gyrations as agents and publishers try to avoid actually eating their own limbs, has resulted in an ill-conceived panic to identify and codify rules and recipes that work every time and guarantee a bestseller. It’s important to challenge this stuff. In this regard, I’d also Recommend Kris Rusch’s great blog at http://kriswrites.com/business-rusch-publishing-articles/

  5. Bex

    Well that’s ok – I am definately following the rule of not looking at finished first draft before coming back to edit. In fact, I am scared of the bloody thing and can’t stand the sight of it! Will this phase end? Will I be able to revise/edit my book without thinking “WTF did I write that for?”

    Help!

    • LOL!! Bex, it sounds as if you definitely need a break! If you can give it 6-8 weeks before starting a revision, that’s a good time.The fear will likely fade, and you might be pleasantly surprised when you come back to it with fresh eyes. The time not only gives you distance, but you also recharge your writing batteries.

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