Thursday, June 2, 2011

5 Phrases That Boil My Blood

The following are phrases that make my blood boil.

Write what you know

This is a darling we should all kill on sight. This phrase makes my blood boil for a reason you might not expect. The reason I strongly dislike this phrase is because of it's sheer pointlessness. Every writer writes what they know. It is literally impossible to write what you don't know. Mind. Blown. You just got raptured. Deal with it.

Rules of Writing

Not really a phrase that people say, but I'm a rebel. I just changed the rules on you.

For all the so called "rules" that we make such a hoopla about, they really don't exist. They're imaginary. They're all made up. They're unicorns. The truth is, we all pretend as if these things are real tangible objects. Yes, they work when implemented--Sometimes. Most of the time. If you're lucky. The rules are effective within the construct we have collectively built. Keywords: we. built.

Rules are our creation. These rules were not bestowed upon Earth before we arrived. We all just agree that things should be a certain way so it doesn't get confusing, which is great. Confusion is bad. But anything man made can be changed, manipulated, rearranged, reimagined, reconstructed, remade. We just don't bother to do it because it's really really hard work. And we human beings love our consistency.

Just to clarify: I'm not advocating that we should in any way disregard the rules of writing. Not at all. I would never suggest any writer to not follow any of the guidelines that would only improve their craft and the experience for the reader, especially if you wish to get published. However, as an artist, once we realize that all of it is an illusion, we free ourselves from the Matrix. And sometimes it's healthy to give yourself that room to experiment. Learn kung fu.

Whether or not you will end up with publishable work is another conversation, which is constantly bandied about all over the Internets, so much so that there's no need for me to regurgitate it here.

"You can not put a grade on true art." -- Lil' B

Never [insert thing you should never do]

Anytime you encounter a phrase with the word "never" in it, it's always wrong. (Unless it's something like: never wander into a Bear's home and use their furniture or eat their food. But we're taking about writing.) Never is nearly forever. That's a really long time to exclude something that is already a part of our ever evolving language.

Maybe the phrase should say: You could try this some other time, but not right now.

Only if you're a genius

It's often said around writing blogs [who?] that one shouldn't write a particular way unless you're a genius. Usually someone will say, "[Genius author] could get away with writing this way because they are a genius."

Well, I guess I have to become a genius then or else I'm screwed because everything has already been done geniuses.

Example from Elmore Leonard's Ten rules for writing fiction:

9. Don't go into great detail describing places and things, unless you're Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language.

Why does Margaret Atwood get to have all the fun? No, I don't think Mr. Leonard was actually saying that only Margaret Atwood is capable of writing those kind of scenes. Nor was he saying that she was the only one that should write them. He was complimenting a fellow great author. But the crazy old Internets have taken this phrase to mean that only geniuses should attempt the crazy, good stuff because only geniuses can pull off the crazy, good stuff. [citation needed] And new writers get lost in the sauce, wondering whatever shall they do?

The interesting thing about this phrase is that people outside of the genius' head tend to recognize the person as a genius more so than the actual genius identifies his of herself as a genius.

Following me? Just like insane people think they're sane. Geniuses think everyone thinks the way they do until we make them aware of how primitive we all are in comparison.

Let me put it another way. Einstein wasn't going around saying, "Hey numskull. I'm a genius. Listen to everything I have to say." He simply spoke his mind, honestly and people listened to him because they recognized the genius in him.

Drawing circles like a boss!

Maybe Einstein is a bad example because he's like a super genius. (And I'm no historian. So my Einstein facts will be at least 1% inaccurate. Maybe more.)

Let's take an author you admire. Think of your favorite author, the one you think of as a genius. You love everything they do. More than likely he or she doesn't think of themselves as a genius. They simply write what they're driven to write, what they love, the story they can't not write. Your genius author probably even has doubts about their work just like we do. We're all just people, man.

I could be wrong, but I don't think that authors, like Hemingway for instance, knew he would be the great almighty Hemingway before he became the great almighty Hemingway. That would take some serious clairvoyance.

If you are a genius, you won't know it unless you hang around idiots who know a lot less than you or when people declare you a genius because you've accomplished something no one else has, just like your favorite author. But the odds are you aren't a genius. The good news is you don't have to be. Ever heard of Snooki? (That could be bad news depending on how you look at it.)

Readers know what they want

This phrase is incomplete. In it's entirety it should read: Readers know what they want only when they come across it--after the fact, and not in advance of the existence of said material.

Before Harry Potter existed, no reader was shouting, "Why hasn't anybody written Harry Potter yet?  Don't they know I want to read it? The next new author should write Harry Potter. They'll make a billion dollars."

Sounds silly, right? This is the exact reason why you can't write explicitly for readers. They don't know what they want. Readers are great at finding what appeals to them from existing material. That's it.

You have an amazing book idea right now, something I could never think of. I don't know that I want to read it yet because from my perspective, whatever it is, it doesn't exist.

Write with readers in mind, but not for them. Be considerate of your potential readers, but you can't really cater to them because authors don't know exactly what readers want either. If we did, we'd all be instant bestsellers.

There's a middle ground between writing what you love and making that reader-friendly. Find that balance. When you do, let me know where you found it. I need some of that mojo.

Disclaimer: Those tiny wikipedia links [who?& [citation needed] were meant as a joke. I was poking fun at my own weasel words and unverified claims. I hope you got the joke and didn't think I copied and pasted the post from some wiki article or something.


Christine Murray said...

This is a great post. And you're right, you have to write the book you're driven to write in a way that works for you.

Bluestocking said...

Loved this. I hate "write what you know" and all the nitpicky rules that are so context-dependent they are rendered nearly useless. Write the best book you can -- that's all you need to know.

Pam Harris said...

Ooh, great post!! I'm so with you about the "write what you know" bit. If I always did that, my stories would be extremely dull.

Read my books; lose ten pounds! said...

oh true dat to the first one. I just wrote a booka bout a Goth, Im a christian girl and I am so much of a beter person now for writing it!

Lindsay N. Currie said...

Good list! The write what you know speaks most to me. My most recent WIP involved a lot of research into weapons LOL and that's definitely not "me":)

JEM said...

LOVE THIS LIST. So true, and I'm so tired of the "rules." I get it, I do, but enough already! Just tell the durn story.

Stephanie said...

"You just got raptured. Deal with it." I laughed out loud at that. I'm using that whenever possible from now on.

As much as I hate "Write what you know", I think there is a little nugget of truth buried in there. It's not obvious and so causes a lot of grief for beginning writers (me included). I think what it's basically saying is that writers need to write emotional truth. If you want to write a book about a childhood abuse survivor but have no personal experience, you need to research what a person in that situation would be feeling. If you're writing a fantasy about a princess taking the throne after her father is killed, you better know how to convey the grief and fear she'd reasonably be experiencing. It's not something you can fake or just leave out. You gotta KNOW it.

It's not about content so much. If it were, there'd be no fantasy or sci-fi or...anything that interesting. It's about accessing emotional truth that you've either experienced personally or know through some kind of research. That's how I take it, anyway.

Michael L. Martin Jr. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Michael L. Martin Jr. said...

Thanks everyone for commenting.

@Stephanie - Glad I could give you a catch phrase.

You make some great points that I agree with. I write fantasy, and I make a lot of stuff up based on things that I know, like emotional truth that you mentioned.

My point was that all writers do this already because there's no other way to right. If you're not writing what you know, what on Earth could you possibly be writing? What you don't know? That strikes me as a paradox.

By researching a subject you don't know much about, you end up knowing more about it, thereby making it possible for you to write about it.

Scientist (or anyone for that matter) don't know what goes on inside of a black hole. It would be impossible to write exactly what goes on inside a black hole. You could make something up and speculate, but those ideas wouldn't be based on what actually goes on inside of a black hole because no one knows that information. You would be essentially writing what you know, but not necessarily the truth.

If "write what you know" means "write the emotional truth", then maybe the new phrase should be: Write the emotional truth.

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