Thursday, November 10, 2005

How Not To

Every writer has things they won't do when they write. Some of this is taught by that rule-wielding monster commonly known as the high school English teacher.

I've struggled for years with using the word said as a dialogue tag. One of my English teachers insisted that it was a flat word, and demanded we use more exciting "audible" words (like retorted, snapped, shouted, whispered, etc.) I was 13, she was 45; I figured she was right. When I turned pro, I found out very quickly that nearly everyone uses "said" and nothing else (evidently because Stephen King convinced them only said is an acceptable dialogue tag.)

Who's right, my English teacher or Stephen King? Let's put it this way: who's made a gazillion dollars writing books?

One article that I think positively influenced me on what not to write was written by an astronomer named Paul W. Merrill, and originally published in the January 1947 issue of The Scientific Monthly. Merrill was actually spoofing how-to articles by presenting one on the principals of poor writing (as in, how-not-to.) He was pretty funny, too, although he drifted off on a Shakespearean tantrum in the middle of it.

There were three points Merrill made on how not to write that just sounded right to me, as follows:

1. Ignore the reader. "The world is divided into two great camps: yourself and others. A little obscurity or indirection in writing will keep the others at a safe distance; if they get close, they may see too much."

2. Be verbose, vague, and pompous. "Avoid being specific; it ties you down. Use plenty of deadwood: include many superfluous words and phrases."

3. Do not revise. "Have no plan; write down items as they occur to you. Hand in your manuscript as soon as it is finished. Later resist firmly any editorial suggestions. Be strong and infallible; don't let anyone break down your personality."

Holly Lisle tickled me when she wrote a slamming article here that expands on the same theme.

I'm still wrestling with said, but here are a couple of things I've added to my personal how-not-to list:

4. Use a proper opener. Never begin your book with an interesting hook; it's vulgar. Always start with the weather, preferably a variation of It was a dark and stormy night.

5. Be decent. Never stray beyond the boundaries of what is politically correct. Keep things bland, safe, and innocuous so as not to possibly offend anyone.

6. Stay in the herd. Be sure to imitate bestsellers rather than discover your own voice. Clone everything they do so that you sound exactly like them.

What's on your list?


  1. 1) Do not employ humour. Writing for laughs is the last refuge of desperate hacks, and will not be tolerated in real books.
    2) Ensure that a goodly dose of light shines through each and every character. Save depth for swimming pools and graves.
    3) Your antagonist must be an evil bad-ass with no purpose in life other than opposing everything your protag stands for. He or she exists only to stymie, anger and thwart your hero at every turn.
    4) Do not use a short word where nine longer ones will suffice.
    5) Bookmark and refer to it constantly (endlessly, eternally, everlastingly, evermore) even when you have no idea what all those impressive synonyms REALLY mean.
    6) Revisions are for beginners. Only a Big Name Pro can bully their publisher into printing a first draft.

  2. Anonymous4:21 AM

    1. Landscapes, gotta have landscape descriptions
    2. The best driver for a novel is mystery - tell the reader as little as possible abotu WTF's going on, and they'll be sure to read to the end.
    3. The only accceptible male protagonist is a young boy with special powers who angsts whenever he has to hurt anybody. NEVER write about a muscular swordsman who carves up everything in his way.

  3. Anonymous7:32 AM

    1. Play it safe. Never, never write anything that may harm you, your characters, or make your readers uncomfortable. Books are like preschool - no one should get hurt.

    2. Women and girls are ignorant wimps. Boys and men are always tough and intellectual. Sexism rocks! In fact all those pesky “isms” are the foundation of good fiction.

    3. Keep things tidy. No clutter, no bugs, no blood, no deaths. Who wants to see that? If you must have such things, only hint at them. Avoid direct description, except of pretty things. There should be lots of pretty things to describe.

    4. Good characters never make mistakes. Bad characters never do anything right.

    5. All MC's must be gorgeous, wealthy, and have lots of really great sex. Names like Biff and Bunny are preferred to help showcase their elite wonderfulness.

    6. The good guys always get along. They're great chums!

    7. Use flowery words and expressions at every opportunity, especially in dialog. Not only is purple prose pretty, it makes great padding if your story's too short.

    8. Whoever the fuck said characters shouldn't curse was lying through their ass. No Bad Words!

    9. If it makes no sense, it only makes you look smart! Baffle them with bullshit! Logic and causality have no place in fiction. Leave that for textbook writers.

    10. Coddle your characters. They'll love you for it.

  4. You characters should be either 100% good or 100% bad. They're either willing to jump in front of a bus to save a child or push the child in front of the bus themselves. Gray area between pure good and evil will only confuse the reader.

    "Also, when in doubt over the use of the word said, use ejaculated, instead," he ejaculated.

  5. Anonymous8:32 AM

    Research is hard work. Include as much of yours as possible in your novel.

  6. Anonymous8:36 AM

    1. Mirrors: you must use mirrors (lakes, ponds, reflective glass, etc.) to provide character descriptions. After all, the only way you know what you look like is in a mirror, and your characters are the same.

    2. Pure Evil: Villains must have no reason for their actions; they're villains, so it's their job to be bad. They don't need any reason for what they do.

    3. Sweetness and light: Heroes must be perfect. They must have impeccable manners, always say the right thing, and they should strew flowers wherever they go. If they misbehave at all, you need to cut them from the book.

    4. Imagination: Readers would much rather figure out what everything looks like on their own. Don't use any description, because that will just ruin it for the person who paid money to read the story. And you'll probably get it all wrong, anyway.

    5. Names: All character names must contain no fewer than 12 consonants and 7 syllables. This is fiction - no regular, real-life names are allowed. The reader must know this is fantasy/science fiction from the very beginning.

  7. Anonymous10:52 AM

    Always use safe, flat characters. Interesting people distract from the plot.

  8. Anonymous11:22 AM

    Ten Science Fiction How Not To's.

    Science fiction must take place on other planets, with aliens that have unpronounceable names like Xklwffpmlllpquzrrrd.

    All sci-fi must take place in the future.

    All good sci-fi includes fancy handguns called blasters and intelligent and self-aware robots with quirky personalities.

    Aliens should be physically as bizzar as your imagination can come up with, yet mentally exactly like humans.

    The core to a good science fiction plot is an uneducated hero that saves the day from large and powerful, technologically complex bad-guys by pressing just the right button at just the right time.

    All protagonists in science fiction must be human.

    No one can sympathize with an alien so all aliens are there to serve as side-kicks, shooting practice and comic relief, never a main character.

    Sci-fi is nothing more than fantasy with unexplained gadgets in place of magic and aliens in place of mythical beings. It is not a predictor of the future, not a warning sign for some paths we may walk down, not an educational tool, not a way to get people to THINK about where we are going as a civilization. Do not take it seriously.

    The 'science' part of science fiction does not mean you need to include any actual science in the writing. Just make up a good name for a device and use it without any idea of how it works.

    Jurassic park, Frankenstein and Smeila's Sense of Snow are NOT science fiction because there are no spaceship.

    (The above from my blog)

  9. Female characters:
    1. Remember that all strong women are perpetually bitchy. Strong=Bitchy, bitchy, bitchy. They have to snap at everything that moves, especially any unfortunate males who happen to wander within a mile.
    2. If female protag can't be strong (BITCHY!), she must be sweet. Like Disney Cinderella. Like sugar! Children must love her, she must be a virgin and all the little forest animals gather round and sing syrupy songs. Tra-la-la.
    3. The strong (BITCHY) woman will not accept help from anyone, especially a man. Because she's strong. Even if hero is about to pull her out of a pit of vipers, she must snap, "I don't need your help."
    4. Sweet heroine doesn't have to do anything at all. No thinking. No clever dialogue. Because she's sweet and her devine sugary-ness will be rewarded with a big strong man who will save her. Sing little bunnies, sing.

  10. - Enthusiastically describe virtually everything sweetly with a lot of pithy adverbs, clearly tacked cleverly onto your beautifully written and tenderly, gently nurtured descriptions.
    - If you write yourself into a corner, have a clown on a motorcycle (or a writer in a catamaran, or what have you) happen by to give your protagonist a ride. Bigtime writers do it all the time (cough Cussler /cough).

    [An aside on 'said']

    I use it all the time. I use it unless there's a good reason not to. 'Said' disappears into the fabric of the story; the reader doesn't notice it, and the only time the reader needs to notice it is when there is something different: questioning, shouting, etc.

    I don't care if 'said' is flat. It's supposed to be flat. I don't want the reader to notice my clever use of flowery language. I want them to be absorbed in my story.

    In fact, excessive avoidance of 'said' can lead to contrived prose that reads like my first counter-example.

    Not that I should talk, you understand. I am guilty of adverbial abuse.

  11. Never use the word penis. Such blatant use of an actual body part will offend or turn off your reader. Make sure you use creative, descriptive words like manroot, shaft of steel, love rocket and bulbous phallus as many times as possible.

  12. like a cold glass of water to a man dying of thirst, a well-chosen cliched simile will wrap your reader in a cosy, warm feeling of familiarity.

    'Always use adverbs to colour your characters' speech,' he said flamboyantly. 'It's so much easier than rewriting the dialogue to give the same effect.'

    (actually I think Dean pretty much covered that one, but it needs saying over and over again.)

    Never plan your stories. At all. It's much more interesting to let your characters take over and do their own thing. They'll be much more believable that way too.

    Obscure references to seventeenth century French novels are always a good idea - they make you appear enormously intelligent, well-read and erudite. Better still, make reference to your own unpublished works, or writing that doesn't exist. That way no-one will be able to say you got it wrong, and everyone will be agog at your vast intellect.

    If the plot gets into trouble, or you need to bring back a character, never forget the old 'then he woke up and realised it had all been a dream' trick.

    (adding my own thoughts to the 'said' debate): I use 'said' almost exclusively, and I have taken to ruthlessly pruning adverbs tacked on after it as well. I find when I'm reading that I just don't notice the word unless the writer has done something stupid to bring it to my attention. I remember reading a Wilbur Smith novel on holiday, many years ago, and noticing after about a dozen pages that he used a different verb almost every time there was some dialogue. People exploded, laughed, barked, grunted, ejaculated, derided, postulated, posed and many other things, but they never said anything. I can't even remember which book it was, though it was about Africa, but I can remember the endlessly inventive verbiage.

    Likewise you can pick up any of the Harry Potter books and almost every piece of dialogue has an adverb describing how it was said.

    On the other hand, Wilbur Smith has sold a book or two, as has J K Rowling, so what do I know?

  13. Don't bother doing research. It's fiction, dammit.

  14. I can never think of this stuff when I open the comment window. So, I'm just going to have to let it simmer until it turns into a blog entry. Probably not until tomorrow, though. We have a rare opportunity to go out tonight. We're seeing the local production of West Side Story. :)


  15. I'm with Dean and James. "Said" blends in; it lets you know who's talking, without distracting you. The dialogue should be so written as to make anything more specific than "said" unnecessary.

    Two more how-not-tos:
    - If writing fantasy, the bad guys must wear black and nothing but black. That's how we know they're bad guys.
    - Novels are the best way to propagate social or political ideologies. Nobody reads the newspapers or listens to politicians; if you have a message, write a novel.

  16. I'm late to the game. Blame NaNoWriMo.

    This deserves its very own post, preferably when I'm not bone tired. For now, I wanted to make a comment about 'said': I've been trying to use action tags more frequently to indicate the speaker, and then I'll use the occasional 'said' (or another action tag) to keep things straight in the reader's mind.

    Occasionally, I'll resort to 'murmur' or 'whisper'. I never 'ejaculate' ;o)


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