Warning: Writing is Fun, But Books on Writing Are NOT

I’m curious as to why every person who’s ever written at least one novel believes they can distill writing into “rules” that other writers should follow.

  • Don’t use adverbs; write the action in detail.
  • Don’t explain: show through action instead.
  • Don’t use flashbacks; stay in the moment.

These “rules” are supported by claims that your readers will know something is wrong with your novel, even if they can’t explain it in words, or that your writing will seem lazy, or that you take your readers out of the experience and they’ll want to put your book down in boredom.

Yet how many books have you read, perhaps even your favorite books of all time, that violate these rules again and again, like this little gem:

“He’d forgotten all about the people in cloaks until he passed a
group of them next to the baker’s. He eyed them angrily as he
passed. He didn’t know why, but they made him uneasy. This
bunch were whispering excitedly, too, and he couldn’t see a single
collecting tin.”

Hand this paragraph over to an editor, and he’d slash the adverbs out immediately–“Don’t tell me he eyed them angrily, show me he did it!” or “What does ‘excitedly’ look like? Show me!”

Surprise! The paragraph above was taken from one of the best selling novels of all time: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling.

Does it being a best selling novel make it great? Of course not, but plenty of people love the series, adverbs and all, and Rowling will even spend time explaining things in detail rather than showing it through dialogue or actions. Oh, and I’ve NEVER wanted to put one of her books down because of it.

The same applies to Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin. His characters go on in length about long dead kings, traditions that the inhabitants of his world still followed, and explanations of the environment. And you know what? I love it, and so do plenty of other people.

The same with Steven King’s novels. Seriously, I’m not making this stuff up. Some of the most influential writers of all time–if not all of them–have violated the rules that many of these “books on writing” claim are gospel.

If any aspiring novelists are out there, please take my advice: don’t read books on writing. They’re filled with opinions, not facts, about the craft of writing. There is no one way to write, and men and women have written hundreds of novels before anyone thought to write a “book on writing,” many of which are considered classics.

Write how you want to write; put your heart and soul onto the written page, and forget what those writing books have to say. Look to your favorite authors and learn from their works.

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10 comments on “Warning: Writing is Fun, But Books on Writing Are NOT

  1. I love this post. So true. All of us should keep this as a reminder by our desks. I think that the best advice for writing is to just write. Just write it, and forget what anyone says. Someone out there will like it enough to read it.

    By the way, you might like these two images that I made here, I think that they go with what you are saying here in your post:

    http://www.keepcalm-o-matic.co.uk/i/157874/

    http://www.keepcalm-o-matic.co.uk/d/YT03MDAmYj02MDAmYz1BdmVuaXImZD03MCZlPTQ0JmY9I2MxYmVhMiZnPSNjMTBjMDYmaD1GT1JHRVQgV0hBVCZpPUFOWU9ORSBTQVlTJmo9QU5EJms9SlVTVCBXUklURSBJVCEmbD0mbT1jcm93bi5wbmc=/

  2. Those images are great! Thank you so much for sharing them. I’ll make sure to peek at them every day as a reminder.

    I’m glad you stopped by; your blog is inspiring as well. Molotov Cocktail was brilliant. 🙂

    • Thank you so much, I am so glad that you liked the images and my little story so much. And thank you so much for subscribing to my blog, I really appreciate it. By the way, just in case you or anyone else may be interested, you can make your own images like the two I made here at this website here:

      http://www.keepcalm-o-matic.co.uk/

      Enjoy! 🙂

  3. I know I’m missing the point, but is there a real problem with flashbacks?

    I’ve got a novel I’ve been itching to write for 20 years now, and I’ve just realised it should be a sequel. There’s just so much story to tell. I’m partially aware not all of it needs to be told, but I’m wondering if flashbacks might be appropriate. Although, one strong flashback I thought of opening my novel with, might end up being the end of the prequel (it’s a pretty powerful scene).

    I know LOST gets a bad rap, but I think Season 1, in its entirety, showed some of the best television writing in years. Basically you’ve got this story that advances in the present that involves 12-15 people, and each episode focuses on one character, while telling their back story that ultimately leads, in the finale, to them all boarding that plane. So across these 20+ episodes, you have these back stories that actually cross in a couple places, and they all wind up at the same place. Sure, LOST got real goofy in the last couple years, and the first season was kinda boring compared to stuff that happened later, but how the story was told was just brilliant. It may not be the best use of flashbacks, but it’s the best I’ve seen lately.

    • Flashbacks are totally appropriate; those “rules” I stated at the beginning are the ones I’m against. They come from some well known books on writing.

      You just gave a good example of how flashbacks work on television, and there are plenty of examples of how they work in books. The Shining has some great flashbacks in it, for example.

      I’ve always enjoyed flashbacks; they’ve never taken me out of the moment or lessened my enjoyment of the story. They made me appreciate the characters a lot more.

      Thanks for weighing in by the way. 🙂

      • Okay, gotcha. But I think a good flashback should take you out of the story for a moment. We tell a story in a linear fashion, most of the time, like a raging river you can’t go back, but that analogy really doesn’t support flashbacks. It’s more like climbing a mountain, an endless mountain stretching up into the heavens, and we realise we left something behind, so we rappel down, or however mountain climbers do it (but, I think that’s accurate) and we take a look. Back in the story, the plot is advancing, but we pause as the character reflects. And we follow the character back. But maybe the character isn’t actually reflecting, maybe the flashback is just there to help us understand something.

        Going back to LOST, each character is the sum of their actions, for example anybody but Jack after the first episode. We’ve seen his flashbacks, as I recall the pilot focuses on him, so all we’ve seen of everybody else is just the present actions. And then we come to, say, a Hurley episode, and the show breaks immersion, takes us out of the moment, to show us some of his back story. I believe it started with his job at the chicken restaurant, and this somehow ties into the present, although the ties aren’t clear until the end of the episode.

        I do not mean to nitpick as we seem to be on the same page, for the most part, it’s just that your original post covered flashbacks, and flashbacks are something I’ve been having trouble with in my own writing. Although, are all narrative trips to the past necessarily flashbacks? A prologue isn’t, but a prologue is at the beginning. What else could it be? For example, if the LOST characters didn’t draw from the flashbacks (and J.J. Abrams didn’t use the term as much as he did, or at all) it could be said that LOST didn’t have flashbacks but rather parallel plots (the past and the present). I know I read a book or saw a movie where there are two such parallel plots, and then they end up being the reverse of what we’re led to believe, but I can’t think of it at the moment.

  4. You’ve got quite a bit of insight; I appreciate all of it. Just to clarify on my end, the type of “taking me out of the story” that I was using was the negative kind that creative writing authors use to mean “the reader has lost investment or interest in the story” or “the reader is confused and disjointed by the change in time.” I was trying to say that flashbacks never did those kinds of things. What you were describing were the positive affects of flashbacks, and I certainly agree with you on that, so no need to worry about nitpicking! 🙂

    Some writers even talk out against prologues. Again, that’s their opinion, not mine.

    I’m all for any kind of literary device being used! I say you have the freedom to include whatever device helps you tell your story.

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