WRITING ADVICE is a little like pregnancy and parenting advice. You have to sift mosquitoes and swallow camels, as we say in Sweden. In other words, you have to work out who to listen to, and what works best for you and your particular circumstances.
As someone who’s made a living dishing out advice, I try to be clear in saying that you need to listen to the advice (or advisor) that resonates with you. And, no, that doesn’t necessarily mean the one that agrees with you.
What many so-called experts lack, in my humble opinion, is nuance. They tend to tell you, in no uncertain terms, what to do and what not to do. Sometimes they’re right, of course, but here’s the problem: To tell a story – any story – you only need one thing to begin with. You need to know who something happened to, and what they did about it. That’s it.
If you’re reading this, I’m going to go out on a limb and assume that writing (or storytelling at least) is your thing. In which case, the next step in telling your story is to write it down. And guess what? I would still recommend that you ignore all the expert advice. All it tends to do for a rookie writer is to make sure their story remains unwritten.
So, what’s my “expert” advice for the budding storyteller then? Simply put, tell the story first and accept that first drafts are messy and full of mistakes, plot holes and typos. And that’s ok. Just like you get dressed and style yourself before you go to a party, you can dress up and style your story before you send it to the ball. (Or you can go all in, like me, and publish your drafts Emperor’s New Clothes style…)
My point is, the advice you can find out there on how to fix up your story is not really useful until you have a story to fix. If you spend your time trying to write the way the “experts” say you should, your story will end up soulless and formulaic. Because you will be so focused on how to write that the actual storytelling will suffer for it.
Case in point, the daily prompt for #InstaWrimo this #preptober Saturday, and one of my least favourite pieces of expert advice that invariably stumps the fledgling storyteller:
Show, Don’t Tell
Let me tell you, for any new writer this is complete and utter hogwash! Hear me out…
Are you making a film or video? Then this is brilliant advice, as the camera can help you set a whole scene in one single image or swoop.
Are you editing the first or second draft (or any number after that really) of your story? Then it’s still good advice. Comb through your text and look for paragraphs that feel, or sound, stilted or stagnant. Are you explaining shit instead of showing? Are you writing things like “He was furious” instead of describing a facial expression or a body posture? Try to paint the picture with your words instead and see if it doesn’t flow better and makes the reader feel more immersed in the story.
Are you struggling to nail down your story for the first time? Then this is not for you! You don’t put your dancing shoes on before your underwear. You don’t put condiments on your food before you’ve cooked it. You don’t put wallpapers on your walls before you’ve prepped them. Writing is no exception from the rule that a comes before b in any step-by-step instruction.
What I want you to do is to chuck the rule books, and the experts, into a dark closet, or drawer, and lock them in there until you need them. Then forget about them. Enjoy telling your story. Allow it to be wonky and wordy and info-dumpy and adverb heavy and full of clunky dialogue. Pour your heart and your brain onto the paper (or into the word processor) and tell the story the best way you can at this point in time.
Just write. Write, write and write some more. Keep going until you feel like you’ve reached The End. Then leave the story to stew while you celebrate your accomplishment. I’d recommend a cuppa and a good story (by someone else), but you do you.
A few days, or weeks, later it’s time to revisit your manuscript. Think about it a little like a DIY projects, or baking a cake or something. You have the base in front of you, but now you want to make it look pretty. And taste good, if it’s a cake. This is where the experts may come in handy. Yes, you can let them out of the closet/drawer now.
Before you consult them, read through your story and highlight the bits that feel “off,” or not good enough, to you. See, now you can use the experts as your consultants. Is the dialogue bothering you? Search for advice on dialogues and see what resonates with you. Is it too clinical? Maybe you can apply the show don’t tell principle there?
As a general rule, show don’t tell applies to emotions. It’s often far more effective to describe the looks, sounds and feelings of someone expressing a certain emotion. It helps us feel with that person. Or fear them. We can share their joy or grieve with them when we feel their emotions. Feelings, however, can get very old faster than you can spell boredom and DNF.
To avoid roasting other writers’ characters, let’s take my Edda as an example. She’s been at odds with the world (for good reasons) for most of her life and it’s made her anxious and testy. I could, literally, write page after page showing you, in excruciating detail, just how fucking pissed off she gets. Or how bloody worried she is. It wouldn’t be much fun to read though.
On the other hand, Edda is a complex character with deep emotions and certain abilities that make her susceptible to other people’s emotions and intentions as well. Many of those experiences can be shown by describing her physical (visual) response to them. They frighten her, make her sick, upset and overwhelm her. But sometimes they also calm her and make her make her feel happy and safe. All of these things normally make human beings do things like change their facial expressions, move their arms, shake their heads, take on different postures etc. It’s visual, and most of us know exactly what these things mean, so we can feel with her or at least understand where she’s coming from when she behaves a certain way.
I have read more than 300 manuscripts by fledgling writers since the start of this pandemic, and an alarmingly high number of them are showing e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g. The reader gets to follow the character as they get up, wash their face, clean their teeth, brush their hair, put make-up on, get dressed etc etc etc. It fills up pages, alright, but it makes it impossible to read the story. All the showing becomes noise. Disturbances you have to skip past or you’ll go bonkers.
It takes time to find the balance that suits your style of writing and the type of stories you (want to) tell. And guess what? Sometimes the best of writers fall into this trap too and start showing way too much that could just as easily have been told. Which means that they either made a conscious decision to flout expert advice, or they lost themselves in their story and for a while wanted to share every little detail with you.
Not mentioning any names here, but a certain vampire romance and a weaving wheel fantasy comes to mind. And both of those stories became hugely successful, so it is entirely possible to go your own way and still find a huge readership. Uncommon, but not impossible.
Right, rant over for today. (Can you tell I have an aversion to advice that stifles creativity and makes people think they’re not good enough?) If you are a new, or aspiring, writer, I hope you take this to heart. Don’t let the advice weigh you down and make you doubt yourself. Every single person has at least one good story in them, and that means you too.
Tell me, have you come across writing advice or “experts” that confused or dissuaded you?
Please share the links to your posts using today’s prompt in the comments below so I can pop in and read them.
© Evalena Styf, 2021
Writing prompt from #NaNoWriMo Preptober InstaWrimo Challenge: 9 October, 2021. “Show Don’t Tell”
The #InstaWrimo is a photo challenge for Instagram, but it works just as well as a daily writing prompt.
Here are the daily writing prompts for NaNoWriMo’s preptober challenge. It’s never too late to start, so let’s get into it. Together.