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Has the Common Writing Advice Changed?

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Devor, Jan 14, 2018.

  1. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    So, inspired by recent threads, I thought I'd ask this question.

    Has the writing advice changed?

    As I have understood it, much writing advice has typically been about streamlining prose to "disappear" behind the narrative without calling attention to itself. Has that trend been changing?

    Since we've been seeing these meta-debates on writing advice recently, it only stands to ask, what even is the advice we've been discussing?
     
  2. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    It may be changing. These things often seem to be cyclical, and as one style dominates people start moving toward another one for variety. If you look back to the mid 1800s to early or mid-1900s, I don't think many had the aim of streamlining prose so it disappeared. That became a more modern approach, and seems to some extent to correlate to the rise of film and TV. But now so much is written in generic prose, where strictly in terms of prose style one writer might be interchangeable with the next, I think you're seeing works that abandon that approach resonate with some readers. There's plenty of room for both, of course.
     
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  3. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

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    Isn't this in a way something of a sign of the times?

    This may be going outside of the scope of the forums, but isn't there a growing mistrust of authorities within many aspects of or lives and our societies at the moment? Within the writing scene these authorities would be symbolized by the rules of writing, whatever they are, and of the established authors giving them.
    It may not be so much that the rules don't make sense or no longer apply, as it's a reaction against being told what to do.

    There are all kinds of advice and suggestions about how to do things, and when you try to sum them up in 140 characters or less a lot of the nuance and detail is lost. Something that was once a reasonable piece of advice when adequately explained and applied within a certain context gets condensed into the simple directive of Don't Do This.

    At the same time new advice is popping up - appealing and empowering advice like trust your instincts. (nb: I'm not saying this is bad advice).

    It's not difficult to see how this kind of open and encouraging advice gains favor over strict directives.

    If the traditional rules of writing can be summed up as a list of things not to do, and the new advice can be summed up as follow your heart, then yeah, I'd be more than happy to reject that mossy old list and just write whatever I feel like. Especially if the one telling me to follow my heart and trust my instincts is someone who's found great success by doing just that.

    It's clearly possible for others, so it should be possible for me too.
     
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  4. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Auror

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    My advice is follow your instincts if they’re correct, but not to follow your instincts if they are wrong.

    Gump, I’m a genius.

    Or perhaps super genius, just like Wile E. Coyote.
     
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  5. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

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    Thanks Devor :)

    I’ve been wondering the same thing.

    I see (and participate, to my embarrasment) in these debates, and yet I wonder, what exactly are we debating?

    The advice from the well established pros is not consistent with “write generic New York Times” best sellers. Donald Maass is all about strong writer voice and being brave. His “Writing the Breakout Novel” is written for people who have already written a few novels and are ready to move up to something bigger. He says right at the beginning not to read it unless your novel is finished.

    I have found that many publishers and agents I have spoken to are looking for something different. Something that stands out. I have my eye on three small Canadian children’s publishers who are looking for something new.

    When I read my favourite ezines like Crazy Horse, or Strange Horizons, or even Tor, the stuff being published is not this generic “Game of Thrones” copycat fiction we seem to think is being spewed... it is all very artistic, literary, brave fiction with strong writer voice and a focus on deep themes instead of generic “structures”... so to tell you the truth, I’m not exactly sure where this hate on for writer advice is coming from?
     
  6. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Auror

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    All advice is good advice if you take it in moderation... heh heh. Or perhaps that is with a pinch of salt, but not too much salt, which may or not be bad for you depending on which health study you review.

    If “science” can’t even figure out salt, what hope is there to “figure out” art?

    Maass is a fascinating character, and it was fun going to one of his seminars and listening to him and the conversations during lunch and after hours. He would read book intros and see if people were hooked. Now the trick here, of course, is that he read them more dramatically than might someone’s brain starting a new book. So, advantage to being hooked. But still, in conversations after many people were mentioning they weren’t hooked by the intros.

    Now, his real point was going against the “rule” of action or hook openings. But, these skeptical conversations proved if science can’t even figure out salt...
     
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  7. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Auror

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    Also, has writing advice changed?

    I don’t think so, there’s always been (at least) two basic schools: prescriptive and instinctive. Prose disappearing in itself can mean different things.

    Some people mean it should be simple and plain and straight forward. Others mean it shouldn’t confuse or otherwise interupt the reader’s flow... Prose can be beautiful and lavish and not get in the road of the story, which is what I would contend is the problem when some folks go flowery. Creating a flower takes the skill of Dickens or numerous others while laying two bricks side by side might be achieved by pretty much anyone... a quick glance at Patterson and his lackeys.
     
  8. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    That might be part of it then - the writing advice people here give has shifted towards Maas, and he's pretty different from what people have talked about before him.
     
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  9. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

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    I think so? When I joined a few years back there was some.... odd advice being spewed.... show don’t tell, use explosions and car chases as hooks, save character development for later....weird stuff. Frankly, really bad advice. I haven’t seen it so much anymore? I’ve seen a bigger shift of story over prose.., the showcase used to be full of debates on weird ways of increasing tension (fistfights, etc) or simple, nit picky line edits... things have changed to a more holistic approach since then.

    There are still people like me who believe that some tried and true methods like three act story structure, scene/sequal, heros journey, or MRU’s can be super valuable tools if you find you are struggling with saggy middle or a satisfying ending, but the advice has been more in the direction of “here is a tool you might be interested in checking out”... instead of a prescriptive a+b=c.
     
    Last edited: Jan 14, 2018
  10. Michael K. Eidson

    Michael K. Eidson Archmage

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    From my perspective as one who has been reading Writer's Digest for decades, writing advice continues to evolve, so yeah, it's changing. I don't see it as having changed entirely. There are still classic bits of advice continued to be given today, perhaps with a different spin. A lot of times the new advice given is just the classic advice, but with a niche focus.

    If you're talking strictly about writing advice given on MS, I'm not qualified to speak to that, having not been a member as long as many of you.
     
  11. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    The wonderful thing about the Internet is that you can find every advice on every topic. Moreover, information gets repackaged so much, it's hard to tell what's new from what's old. For every "do this" we can find a "don't do that." Cumulatively, it makes it hard to discern trends, except locally (e.g., Heliotrope's observation about advice given here at Scribes). Maybe there has been some shift in emphasis that is genre-specific.

    I tend to gravitate toward essays and books that are more "here's how I work" than "here's how you should work." I have not so much developed how I work as I've become resigned to it. I'm not going to crank out a novel every two months. My prose is going to be a bit ornate, even decorative (pace Ernest Hemingway, who was a grouch anyway). But I'm fascinated by how other people create.
     
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  12. Russ

    Russ Istar

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    If we are using Maass as a marker, you should be aware that he is becoming more and more scientific over the years. He now reads many science journals and books and tries to bring what is learned through science and study to his writing teaching. Writing the Breakout novel is 2002 isn't it? The Maass you get today is not that same Maass.

    If you want to get current writing advice, talk to a bunch of editors and marketing people who are knowledgeable about the industry and ask them what they are buying and what is selling, and how good they are are predicting it. The conversations can be fascinating. I highly recommend good conferences, and sometimes even more productively, the bar at a good conference.
     
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  13. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Auror

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    Maass is heading a little that way, in particular with emotion and studies, but... what he’s looking at is what reaches the gut, which really isn’t scientific. Psych is a pseudo-science anyhow, heh heh. In the 3 day seminar, I’d say what he was directing writers toward was going beyond instinct, pushing personal boundaries.

    I’d call him a rational blend between prescription and instinct, I don’t know that he’s changed much, rather than just looking from a different direction to achieve the same result.
     
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  14. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

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    I really want to talk to this point, because it is a good one.

    Many of us are trying to sell our work. We have gone from writing for fun and exploring into the realm now working our butts off trying to get paid for our work.

    Once you start investigating what is involved in trying to get paid for your work, it is like stepping into the Major Leagues after playing mini-ball. There is no middle ground.

    No magazine, or publisher, or agent are looking for the same thing. You may think you can just write a great story about whatever topic interests you and submit it to magazines, but you will find out really quickly that most ezines have very specific requirements about the types of stories they will buy.

    Here are the submission guidelines for Strange Horizons, for example:

    Fiction Submission Guidelines

    They even have a list of stories they have "seen too often", so prefer you don't submit similar stuff:

    Stories We've Seen Too Often

    Different ezines have totally different requirements. Agents and publishers are the same.

    Unfortunately, if you want to get paid for your stuff, you have to play by their rules.

    Which, in some cases means you write a story based on their requirements, in hopes you get paid for it.

    But you get rejected. And rejected. And nothing lights a fire under your butt more than being rejected twenty five times after you literally poured blood, sweat and tears into what you thought was your masterpiece. You realize pretty quick, you are not good enough.

    So how do you get better? You start reading. Learning rules. Devouring writing book's like crazy. And you start paying attention to the stories you love (or the ones that ARE published) and realize... wait a minute.... they all follow these rules.

    The same goes for self-pub, as we can attest from Chessie, who can speak more to this if she wants. The rules for self-pub are different, but there are still rules to playing the game if you want to get paid. You can't just submit a novel and expect the coin to roll in.

    So Russ is totally correct in this. The rules change depending on what you are writing, who you are submitting to, what the genre is, what the style is, who the audience is.

    But they all have their own rules.
     
    Last edited: Jan 15, 2018
  15. Hallen

    Hallen Scribe

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    I think storytelling techniques continue to evolve. It doesn't necessarily mean that one thing is better than another, or that a particular style of presentation is better than another, but what people are expecting as readers is getting more sophisticated.

    It is no longer good enough to write wonderful prose that forces the reader to examine their closest held beliefs. One must write wonderful prose that immerses the reader into the character. The world is shown through the perceptions of the character rather than the perceptions of the narrator. It is the difference between living the story and being told the story. That is what I mean by "sophisticated".

    So I don't think that your prose has to play second fiddle to the narrative. I think prose is used as it always has been, but it is tighter to the character than ever before to show the character's perception of the world. It's still so very important in a well-crafted story. Nothing can set mood, or tempo, or emotion like an artfully constructed phrase.

    Or, I'm totally off base here and am answering the wrong question.
     
  16. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Auror

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    I would disagree with the sophisticated notion. If anything, the public is flooded with story, but expectations for prose are relatively tame in genre fiction, while literary is just... literary. I give no deference to literary writers when compared to genre, really, the lines are blurring and there’s always good and bad in both camps.

     
  17. Michael K. Eidson

    Michael K. Eidson Archmage

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    I'm reading a book now by an author in Amazon's top 50 authors. The book is full of passive language, so much that I almost put the book down after the first couple of chapters. I see other "writing rules" being violated. Their prose is not anything special. But they're doing okay for themselves. They are not self-published. I wonder how they managed to get their work accepted by a publisher. So either the writing rules have changed, or I misunderstand the rules (quite possible), or there's something else that matters more than the rules.
     
  18. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    This.
     
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  19. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

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    Ok. Can we please define, exactly what rules we are referring to? Before we go any further with this stuff? These debates and questions and conversations about these abstract "rules"... what rules are we referring to?

    Specifically.
     
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  20. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

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    Like, I feel like it is easier to debate this stuff if we have concrete examples and a real, specific, rule we want to discuss.

    If I pull up a short story I see published on Tor, and I say "Gee guys, I'm noticing that this writer is using a lot of passive voice. What is your take on that? Is passive voice okay now?"

    Then we can talk about that.

    Or I pull up another one on Crazy Horse and I say "Hey everyone. I'm noticing that we hear a lot of "show don't tell", but this author is doing a lot of telling... what are your thoughts on this?"

    But all this specific talk of abstract "rules", with no context and no examples is super confusing.
     
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