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Improving the craft, or undermining confidence?

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by deilaitha, Aug 22, 2013.

  1. deilaitha

    deilaitha Sage

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    I have been really struggling with something lately.

    I enjoy reading such things as Writer's Digest, blogs on writing, books on writing, etc. Lately, I have been coming across a lot of negative motivation type articles, by which I mean the writer is encouraged to be better by first being told that they are no good.

    I thoroughly understand that writers need to guard against complacency, but I consider myself to be a 'good writer.' Not fantastic, not the best, not even yet the best I can be, and that I have yet to reach my full potential. So, in the interest of self-improvement, I read articles to help myself become aware of my shortcomings.

    They say that criticism, even the kind that hurts, makes you stronger. Yet after reading a lot of opinion pieces I feel like my confidence has been totally undermined.

    "NO PURPLE PROSE!" So...even a little sprinkle here and there is bad? I agree it can't all be sappy but sometimes the poetic is in order, is it not? Isn't it a matter of opinion and taste? I enjoy reading a little more expressive, bordering on the flowery writing when distributed properly throughout a work. Why should I axe every single instance of it?

    "KEEP IT TIGHT!" So...I can't occasionally or even frequently use the narrative styles of classical literature, but I absolutely must write like Hemingway? If I don't write using absolutely the fewest words possible, does that make me a crappy writer?

    "NO ADVERBS! USE BETTER VERBS!" This one feels really personal for some reason. I like to use adverbs. And sometimes, it seems more appropriate to the sentence to use "walk briskly" rather than "trot." Other times, "trot" seems better. I feel like the implication is that if you use adverbs, you're a crappy writer.

    "IF YOU REALLY LIKE A SECTION OF YOUR WRITING, IT'S TERRIBLE. KILL YOUR DARLINGS NOW." Am I not allowed to like my own work? Really? I am very critical of my work and my self so if I actually am satisfied with something and really like the way it turned out (whether that section is a re-work or just a first-shot), I am proud. But I keep hearing that its a bad thing to like something you wrote. Like I say, I recognize that it can always be better, but is a little self confidence so bad?

    These are just a few things that really stick out to me. I do find some parts of these useful and agree with them in part; however, I find it shocking that these are literary 'sins' and 'musts'. Aren't they just the rules du jour? At one point, say Melville era, it was considered mandatory that novels should be really really really hard to read. Now that's considered ridiculous. There are basic guidelines and really good advice available, but how crucial is it that I follow every single one to the 't'? If people always follow the rules 100% how can you ever make breakthroughs?

    And after reading a lot of advice on writing, I am trying to edit my novel and just looking at the screen and crying, because of these rules of Damocles over my head. Of course I want to improve. Some of the advice is good.

    Yet all of this advice is killing my drive to excel. Why even bother when you MUST do x y and z in order to be good? Why bother when you can't even be pleased with yourself? My whole life has been a struggle against self-hatred and just as I am discovering the ways to accept myself, the love of my life, writing, seems to have this way of saying "you'll never be good enough."

    Why even keep writing? Where is the reward? Where is the drive to excel if you have to follow all of these rules? Great writers don't follow all the rules all the time; sure they employ them but they make exceptions.
    To modify a quote, well behaved writers rarely make history.

    But then there are the articles out there that say if you think think positively for even a moment you are ensuring that you won't see you flaws and then your novel is crap.

    Sigh. I need some thoughts. Right now I am so weighed down that I hate my writing, and it's seeping into my every day life again. Can't stand my mirror, can't stand anything that has to do with myself.

    I know this isn't a therapy site. But how do you guys deal with all of the harsh advice without letting is shake your confidence?
     
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  2. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    First, you have remember that treating those comments as absolutes is a load of bollocks.

    "Purple Prose" is a descriptor people attach to any level of description they don't like. You can be as lean or as descriptive as you like, so long as you do it well. I guess that addresses the "keep it tight" comment as well.

    With adverbs, I think it is an awareness issue. If you're using adverb/verb combinations, look for stronger verbs. A lot of times, they will be there. If you look at it and decide that the adverb/verb combination is better, stick with it.

    The idea that if you really like some segment of your own writing it must be bad is sheer nonsense, and I'd treat it as such. If you use that admonition to be on guard against emotional attachment versus objective analysis, then fine.

    How to deal with harsh advice - ultimately, generic advice isn't worth much. It casts too broad a net. So I wouldn't let it impact you at all. Deal in advice specific to you and your work, from someone who understands what you're trying to accomplish, and how.
     
  3. Butterfly

    Butterfly Auror

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    The thing with these rules... is they have been purported to be rules... but they aren't rules at all. They are more like guidelines... pulled together from different writers and their perspectives on writing. They are not musts but things to look out for in regards to the overuse of various aspects of writing.

    Think of them more as tools... to be picked up and used when needed and when appropriate.
     
  4. BWFoster78

    BWFoster78 Myth Weaver

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    I agree with Steerpike that it important to understand the context of those kind of remarks.

    In my experience, beginning writers typically have no idea how bad their writing is. They produce some really horrendous stuff, post it somewhere, and expect people to say, "It's awesome!"

    The fact is that writing well is hard. It takes a long time to get to where you can produce something worth reading.

    IMO, the advice you're reading is meant to forcefully inform apsiring authors that their writing isn't nearly as good as they think it is.

    If you think your writing is awesome and it isn't, you're never going to improve. If you understand your writing has flaws, you can work to fix those flaws. I still have a long way to go as an author, but I feel I'm on the right (write?) track because I've had people forcefully point out my mistakes.

    This is good advice. The only way to know if you're really any good is to get feedback from a source that you trust.

    I'd add this:

    Know your goal.

    If your goal is to produce works that resemble the great literary works of the 20th century, seek out advice on how to write the great literary work of the 20th century. Reading a blog or book that's trying to tell you how to produce a modern bestseller isn't going to help you nearly as much.

    Hope this helps!

    Brian
     
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  5. PaulineMRoss

    PaulineMRoss Inkling

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    Here's Guy Gavriel Kay's take on the whole business of writer's advice:

    On Not Giving Advice | Brightweavings Journal

    What you should always bear in mind is that *readers don't care* about this kind of thing. No reader ever tossed a book against the wall because there were too many adverbs (another writer might, but not a reader). If you kill off your main character, maybe. If the romance doesn't end with a happy ever after, definitely. If you promised zombies and didn't deliver, yes. But not because your character 'walked briskly' instead of trotted. Readers are in it for the story, not the grammar or style.
     
  6. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    Probably won't surprise anyone to learn I think Kay is absolutely right.

    And besides, I think he's one of the best working in the genre.
     
  7. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    FWIW, I'd say you are personalizing general advice. That is, you're reading statements made about writing in general and are assuming you must apply those statements to your own prose.

    If you have written something, submitted it to an agent and/or to an editor, and *they* say you need to tone down your prose, or use fewer adverbs, then by all means take a hard look. Normally, they'll be quite specific and will give examples from your own writing.

    But with these books and online essays, I read them only for the editing pass, never for the initial writing. That is, I'll write and I'll make my prose any color I like, thank you. At first draft, I'm just struggling to get the dratted story told. I'm overcoming obstacles, filling plot holes, reshaping characters and generally cursing the cat. Only later, when I think my story is in relatively good shape, do I remove the writer's hat (why's it always a hat? why not a shirt or gloves?), and try to approach the story the way I think an agent would. Only then do I haul out the guidelines and the rules, mainly because I'm pretty sure the agent is going to be playing in roughly the same ballpark.

    Even then, I only make one pass at that. Then I send my darling off to a critique circle or to beta readers because by then I'm so lost and twisted up the story needs fresher eyes than mine. Those other readers always find so many things that need revision, it's enough to keep me busy for many more hours. By the time all *that* is through, those advice columns are hardly more than distant echoes.

    Or, to be more succinct: fuggedaboudit. Just write.
     
  8. T.Allen.Smith

    T.Allen.Smith Staff Moderator

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    Write with as much or little description as you like. Just be aware that modern audiences are geared towards leaner writing that gets to the point and does so with clarity. That's a generalization though. It's important to understand it as such. If you enjoy heavy imagery & metaphorical description then write in that fashion. You're not so unique a being that there aren't other readers in the world that are just like you.

    Same as above. Write in the style you want. Understand though, you may find it a hard road when submitting to agents & publishers. If you're okay with that, or you're considering self-publishing, it really doesn't matter. It could even read fresh.

    Anyone that's been a member of this forum, for any decent length of time, likely believes this is a peeve of mine. That's true to a point. However, it's also possible that my views on adverbs are a bit misunderstood. It's not that adverbs are bad necessarily, it's that over-saturation of adverbs tends to weaken the power of your writing. Often, replacing an adverb with more concrete descriptors, or just minimizing their frequency can make your writing pop & sizzle, not weakened by unnecessary modifiers. Secondly, it's a spot an author can look to if they want opportunities to enhance the frequency of showing in their writing and reduce the telling. My only personal adverbial absolute is my determination to never use adverbs to modify the verb "said".

    In the end, if the writer feels the adverb is the best choice because it adds something other, more active/stronger words can't, then there's no issue at all. Like stated above, it's an awareness issue. Look at your adverb use and decide in each instance if that's the best way to describe. Make conscious choices.

    I don't agree with this. Yes, writers may look at a story with a plethora of adverbs and think "too many adverbs" before tossing the book aside. Your average reader may put the same book in the trash because the story isn't immersive, it doesn't grab them and make them care. The reason could well be the same. Just because they can't put their finger on the "why", and verbalize it, doesn't mean it won't have a like effect.

    I don't have the same understanding of this concept. Rather, I take it to mean that a writer shouldn't force something into a story just because they love it. That could relate to a specific phrase, an idea, a POV character, whatever. I've definitely been in situations where I had to cut an entire POV, one that I really liked to write, because they no longer fit the story. I believe the concept is intended as a warning not to get too attached, at the expense of story.

    To some degree yes. However, some concepts have been around for quite a long time. Every writer should develop their own guidelines, those that work for the style they incorporate. Every writer should stick to their rules only so far as needed, making conscious decisions to break free of those rules as needed for effect.
    My advice on advice... Absorb what is useful, for you alone. Chuck the rest. Also, keep in mind, when any writer gives you advice, they're speaking from their individual experience. Bits of that advice is bound to be wrong for you. Never feel negative or defensive against that. It's their understanding and that's all.

    The style and voice, that you create, should be unique to you. That takes a lot of writing to develop. Breakthroughs though, are rarely one off instances. Most often they are built off the work of those that came before us.

    There's only one thing we can control in our lives. That is our individual attitude. Either choose to let the negative impressions tear you down, or choose to look at advice as a challenge, an opportunity to experiment and expand. The latter is much more gratifying. It's also the only one of the two that helps you grow.

    For what it's worth, I can tell by the clarity and expression, in your post here, that you are a competent writer. Instead of railing against advice like "No Adverbs!" and allowing negativity to creep in, try employing that technique on a snippet of your writing. Read them yourself. Let someone read them. If that method doesn't work for you....move forward.

    Never be afraid, or too complacent, to experiment.
     
    Last edited: Aug 26, 2013
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  9. Chessie

    Chessie Guest

    Pauline, thanks for that helpful little article. I agree with him, writing and the creative process is hands down a deeply individual thing. Sure, we can all sit here and throw out suggestions on what helped us, but ultimately we have to craft that to match our own process and goals.

    To the OP: don't worry so much about it, do what feels right. You are already a writer, so have fun on your journey to being an established author. Learn from others but personalize it. If something feels off, respect that in yourself and move on to something that feels better. No one thing works for everyone except listening to ourselves. :)
     
  10. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    It's usually a matter of emphasis. Most of the conversations on these topics usually end up with admissions like "sometimes it's okay" or "it's only purple if it doesn't work." A few people put together rules on styles they like, mostly counter-rules to the way things were being written at the time, and now we hear those a lot.

    Does following those rules improve the skills of the average amateur writer? Maybe, I've really no idea. My own impression is that it's like arguing about the extras on your car without looking at the engine. But to each their own.

    Certainly don't impose rules on yourself if they feel unnatural. Figure out your own voice, and develop techniques to your writing which help that voice come through.
     
  11. Daichungak

    Daichungak Minstrel

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    Keep in mind that opinions are like a particular orifice, in both frequency and odor.

    I have been dealing with the same feelings and doubts lately. I have a few real life friends who love reading and are always eager to give me feedback. My relationship with these people goes much deeper than just reading, writing or any shared interest in fantasy. If I am feeling really down about my work I will send them my latest revision and bask in the glow of their praise until my spirits are buoyed. Being sufficiently recharged I then take my grain of salt, put on my thick skin, and continue learning.
     
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  12. risu

    risu Troubadour

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    Many of the same thoughts have crossed my mind over the past week. I've mentally stewed over the question: "What determines good writing?" Marketability? Enjoyment? Syntax? What makes me smile might not do a darn thing for someone else. Does that mean it's bad? And if someone does say it's poor writing, does that make my tastes wrong? Who gets to be the judge?

    I suppose it goes back to writing what you want to read.
     
  13. The Dark One

    The Dark One Archmage

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    Note to OP...'rules of Damocles'...

    That was a bit purple. I'd cut that.
     
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  14. The Dark One

    The Dark One Archmage

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    Seriously, as others have said, take what is useful to you from the great ocean of advice and ignore the rest. Why take on board something you can't use?

    Having said that, I would also say that leanness and clarity - not just of expression, but also of structure - are likely to be more successful than density and prolixity. Which is a real shame because I like 'dense and prolix'.

    Maybe you are the sort of writer who will one day make a breakthrough and inspire a whole new generation of readers AND writers with your purple, complex, adverb-infested stories.

    Any style is good if done well.
     
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  15. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    I was watching some of Brandon Sanderson's lectures, and I like the point he made about it. He was talking about making writing more concrete, tightening in places, being efficient with word usage, and other 'rules' for writing. He repeatedly prefaced his points with "if you want to do it," and then went on to give his advice about writing.

    His greater point was that for all of these rules, you first have to decide whether that's what you want to do. If you don't want to do it, that's fine. If you do, he was going to tell you how. He mentioned that one difference between his own work and Patrick Rothfuss' work is that Rothfuss will often write for the prose itself, to make the writing beautiful so that it becomes as important as what is being said. He noted that this is a perfectly valid approach, it's just not the one he uses.

    That, in my view, is how the "rules" should always be presented to people in discussion. He did a really nice job of making sure people understood that you don't have to write that way, and that in fact you can write something great with long description that draws attention to itself, or a variety of others styles, and then he proceeded to tell the class how he approaches it personally.

    It's all about finding your style, and what you're good at, or what you have passion for, and sticking with it.
     
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  16. BWFoster78

    BWFoster78 Myth Weaver

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    I gave this a lot of thought last night. Here are the things I came up with:

    1. The worst person to judge the quality of the writing is the writer. For one thing, there's an inherent bias. Only one person in the world would make the exact choices in a story that you favor - you. Only one person in the world will love every choice you make - you. There's also a problem with reading your writing as a reader. It's extremely difficult to do unless you gain a lot of distance.

    2. The best person to judge the quality of the writing is the author's intended audience.

    3. The best way I can figure what makes good writing is to determine if it meets its goal. If you wish to entertain your audience, then your writing is good if you entertained your audience. Whether your goal is to inform or to promote a cause or whatever, the measure of goodness if it achieves that purpose with your target audience.

    4. If you're looking for a more universal measure of what makes writing good, I'd say, at a fundamental level, your writing is good if it manages to not bore your audience.

    Hope that helps!

    Brian
     
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  17. BWFoster78

    BWFoster78 Myth Weaver

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    In a way, this viewpoint seems to trvialize what we do as writers.

    Writing well takes an awful lot of work. I'm of the belief that a positive reaction to a story is the result of the author having used all his knowledge and skill and hard work to create that reaction.

    Granted, some issues are more important than others, which I think is what the poster is trying to say. A story without tension is much more likely to be unreadable than a story with too many adverbs.

    Crafting a story that pulls in the readers, grabs their attention, and doesn't let go simply is not an easy thing to accomplish. I'm not sure that many people on this board have been able to accomplish fully such a goal. I know I haven't.

    As I strive to achieve such a goal, it's not easy to know what magical combination of technique and story will get me to it. If I would have come up with an action that connects with the reader on an emotional level instead of taking the shortcut of throwing in an adverb, would that have immersed my reader more fully in the story?
     
  18. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    When it comes to whether readers care, I look at it in two ways.

    It is true, readers don't give a damn about this stuff. There are plenty of very successful books with huge followings that do all kinds of things writers are told not to do - adverb usage, writing that isn't as tight as it could be, and so on. Readers don't care, because the writing works for them, and in the end that's the only thing that matters: does it work.

    On the other hand, if you do these things poorly, or misuse them in ways that new writers tend to, so that the writing doesn't work, readers will care. They might not know or care why it doesn't work, but they'll care that it doesn't and move on to something else.

    You can approach your writing in whatever way you see fit, and you can certainly make writing work even if you completely disregard all the rules that are commonly thrown around. If that's what you want to do, there is nothing at all wrong with it. But to make it work, I think you have to understand the issues, know why people cite the rules and therefore why it is you've decided to depart from them, rather than stumbling along and making the writing bad through lack of skill or knowledge.
     
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  19. PaulineMRoss

    PaulineMRoss Inkling

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    Sorry. That was clumsily worded, and comes across as insulting which was certainly not my intention.

    I was only trying to say that readers are a lot more tolerant of such details than writers, and don't even notice most of them.

    That depends. Sometimes the action construction is clunkier than a simple adverb.

    It's not easy to find the right balance in all this. I read a lot of self-published works, many of them debuts, and while some of them have clearly never read any writer's advice in their lives, others have gone too far the other way, and I can see where they struggled to find the right 'action' phraseology, so the language becomes stilted.

    The books that work best for me are those where: a) I always understand what's going on; and b) I want to know what's going to happen; and c) the characters behave believably; and d) the writing flows, without clunkiness. To write books like that, I think, requires a writer to understand the rules and structure, certainly, but also to step back and see the whole picture. In the end, it's the story that matters not how many adverbs are used.
     
  20. BWFoster78

    BWFoster78 Myth Weaver

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    I don't disagree with any of this. All good objectives!

    My main point was that it's a lot harder to achieve those objectives than many readers realize, and I'm in full agreement that stepping back and seeing the story is of critical importance. I don't think that issue gets discussed much because there aren't easy "rules" for doing it like there are with techniques. Each story is unique and carries its own challenges when talking about the whole picture. Technique issues, on the other hand, share some universal qualities that we can discuss endlessly.

    In that case, it's not the right action!

    Writers are faced with two extremely difficult challenges:

    1. Figure out what to convey.
    2. Figure out how to convey it.

    Each choice is fraught with danger.
     
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