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Why Can’t I?

Monday, December 15, 2008

So I totally had this topic all thought-out and planned to post this morning . . . and then time got away from me and I never got around to it.

In a comment on the Friday post, Alexandra wrote:

    “On a totally different note…is it just me? I’ve been really cracking down on my writing…done so much revising on my manuscript…and have studied so much about writing style, show vs. tell, etc., that now I can’t read/listen to a book without picking apart the writing in my mind. It’s becoming more and more difficult to read books that a year ago I really liked.

    ‘Gasp. They really “told” that sentence.’

    ‘He really butchered that point of view!’

    ‘He used the bad “felt” word!!!’

    On the same note, if you’re a big name author can you get away w/breaking the rules? A lot of big name CBA authors (whose names I won’t mention) publish several books a year and are breaking multiple rules all the time. It gets on my nerves a little. To steal a line from ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow,’

    ‘Why, oh why can’t I?’”

I began answering by responding thusly:

    “Yes, ‘big-name’ authors can get away with a lot more rule-breaking than those of us just starting out—for two main reasons:

    1. They started writing/getting published before writing styles changed and editors really started looking for stronger, more active, tighter writing (more showing, less telling, etc.), and therefore the authors are grandfathered-in. Although, I do have to say that some of these types of authors who’ve basically refused to change with the times are seeing their book sales drop as readers become more aware of what’s good writing and what’s weak/lazy writing.

    2. Their books sell based on their brand-name as best-selling authors. People who love John Grisham or Tom Clancy are going to buy their latest titles without even giving a thought to what the story is about or whether it’ll be well-written or not. These authors established themselves not through the strength of their craft, but by the strength of their storytelling. So it all goes back to what every editor panel at every writing conference says they’re looking for: a great story (and they’d really like it to be well written with strong attention paid to the craft).”

And as soon as I posted that comment, I realized there was a lot more that could be said on this topic, in addition to responding to the first part of the comment.

Once we become better informed as writers, once we start learning the craft, yes, reading for pleasure becomes much more difficult—because we’ve been training our brains to flag certain things as “bad” or “wrong” when we’re in a creative frame of mind. So that analytical part of us starts encroaching on the creative side when we’re reading and pops up with those notifications that the sentence we just read was written in the passive voice, or that we were told that a character felt something.

In my Reading Goals Revisited post, I mentioned how difficult sitting down and reading has been for me over the past several years. I blame it on graduate school. Each semester, we were required to read four or five novels in our chosen genre and break them down critically—what worked, what didn’t, what we liked, what we would have changed, etc. (Just check out the Critical Reading series on the Writing Series Index page to see just how in-depth critical reading can get!)

I find it easier to lose myself in novels written outside my genre or not CBA-published because I’m able to turn that internal analyst off more easily when I can answer each little critique with the argument that the genre standards are different or the publishing houses in the ABA may not be looking for the same craft-style as CBA houses. With classic literature, or books published before about 1996 or so, the analyst never even wakes up—because it already knows the books aren’t going to be written to the same craft level.

Now, going back to the second part of the comment and the subject of this post—if the best-selling/big-name authors can break the rules, why can’t we?

Simple: because new/unpublished authors have a lot more to prove to an acquisitions editor than someone whose name on the cover of a book ensures at least 100,000 sold units the day the book hits the shelf. But not only that—as we learn these rules/guidelines of writing, it’s making us into better storytellers. If we’re aware that it’s more difficult to show and not tell, we’re challenging ourselves to figure out how to word something in a unique way instead of just taking the lazy/telling way out.

But if J.K. Rowling can become a breakout best-seller with wases and telling and embellished dialogue tags in almost every line of her books, then is it really that important for me to focus on the craft; or can’t I just focus on the story?

Here’s where the topic gets interesting.

There is such a thing as focusing too much on craft. I’ve mentioned before that one of the biggest complaints about creative writing programs and writers’ conferences is that it tends to homogenize writers’ voices—in other words, we all start believing that we should never use the words was and felt ever again in our writing, that we should come up with the most dynamic and unique and active verbs we can, that characters should jam their hands in their pockets instead of put them there, or that there can never be any description of the setting that isn’t vitally important to the action going on in the scene.

However, by eliminating passive voice (was) and telling (felt) where we can, we’re strengthening our writing and thus strengthening our stories. By finding dynamic and unique verbs, we’re extending our vocabularies and adding the depth of connotation to the words on the page. By eliminating the unnecessary parts of our writing—or by learning how to incorporate it in such a way that it’s an organic part of the story—we’re keeping our readers reading by keeping the story moving along at a good pace.

Good storytelling trumps good writing craft every time. I’ve read plenty of novels (both as an editor and as a reader) in which I’m totally frustrated by the craft-level of the writing—but I know exactly why it was acquired: because it’s a great story. But how much more fulfilling is it to read a book that has a great story and is well crafted?

Once you learn the rules of good writing, you’ll be able to figure out which ones are right for the way you want to tell your stories and which ones you can ignore. And you know what you’ve discovered at that point in time? Your VOICE as a writer. What is a writer’s voice? It’s the unique and distinctive way that YOU string together words and put them down on the page.

I got one of the best compliments of my writing from one of my local-group members Saturday. She’d just picked up a copy of the first chapter of Stand-In Groom, which I was giving away at the book signing event, read the first line, and said, “That first line is so you.”

So learn the rules. Then figure out how to use them to write like YOU. Then people will be reading your books and asking, “Why can’t I write something that good?”

  1. Gwen Stewart permalink
    Tuesday, December 16, 2008 4:44 am

    Kaye, excellent, excellent post. Your agent blogged about this recently–authors’ voices becoming “flattened” at conferences. My agent blogged a few months back that she sees a lot of manuscripts that are technically almost perfect, but lack heart.

    I’m a newbie, so let’s say that right upfront. 🙂 So what do I know–not much. But it seems to me that in over-focusing on craft one of two bad things can happen: you can scrub your voice out of your work, or you can overwrite–as you said, using strong verbs for everything. For me, there’s something stilted about page after page after page of strong verbs.

    I try to pay attention to the rhythm, tempo and intensity of my stories. When the action warrants it, the language should be stronger. When it doesn’t, I try to downplay it. I think readers understand a character walking across a room, or putting hands in pockets. In my opinion, sometimes they don’t want to be challenged to figure out what it means to “saunter like a ____ across a _____” (fill in descriptive language here). They just want to know that the character got across the room. 🙂

    On the other hand, poor craft will sink your manuscript. It’s such a fine balancing act, and I may be wrong, but I think a lot of voice is revealed, as you say, when the writer decides what craft to apply in each sentence of a novel and which to choose to disregard at that time, for that reason.

    Again, excellent post. I can’t wait to read others’ responses.

    (Disclaimer, in case anyone missed it: what do I know? LOL)


  2. Allyson permalink
    Tuesday, December 16, 2008 1:38 pm

    But how do you know when you’re over writing and when you still need to use the descriptive verbs? I guess that’s whta’s most frustrating for me, that I can’t tell if I’m just following rules because I’ve been told that’s how I’m supposed to be writing or if their making my writing stronger.

    How do you know when you know enough to break the rules or when you still need to stick to them?


  3. Tuesday, December 16, 2008 2:13 pm

    The best advice I can give when it comes to figuring out if you know enough to break the rules or not is:

    If you can fully explain what the rule is and how it works and then can explain how breaking the rule will work better for your story, then you can break the rule.

    Again, I’ll go back to what I said in an earlier comment on Friday’s post—we need to stop thinking of what we’re learning about the craft of writing at hard-and-fast rules and start thinking of them as guidelines, as the braces that support the tunnel that leads to the gold mine—not as the gold mine itself.


  4. Tuesday, December 16, 2008 5:52 pm

    Great post! 😉 Glad to spark a discussion…hehe.

    You answered all of my questions wonderfully. Thanks!


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