What Not To Write #1

A friend of mine gave me a book of writing advice on short stories for Christmas.  It was actually a very thoughtful gift :$  Anyway, the book starts out with an introduction, and the author explains that he can’t give you the magic formula for a great short story.  He can merely tell you some pitfalls to avoid.  This is a good approach because it’s much easier to specify what is wrong with a story than it is to define what is right about it.  Not even great authors know or every book they write would be their magnum opus.  

Awhile back I received a critique on a piece where I was told me I was doing everything wrong, and he rewrote a large chunk of my story, butchering my prose and characterization in the process.  He also gave me links to books that would show me how to write because I clearly didn’t know what the hell I was doing.  To be honest, the only thing it did was discourage me.  Only later did I realize that if anyone (including those writing books on how to write) tells you they (or someone else) has the magic formula for writing they are either lying or oversimplifying things.  

Writing has several things in common with ballet.  It takes years of hard work and dedication for even those predisposed to ballet to become great.  I know this because I was training to be a professional ballet dancer.  One doesn’t learn ballet by reading a book on how to dance.  Instead they learn through sweat, tears, and guidance by great teachers.  I’ve had many great writing teachers over the years, McCarthy, Atwood, Orwell, Findley, etc.  Even if I’m not writing I force myself to read every day or else my writing skills regress.  

I may read more writing advice books.  Not sure if they will help, but it’s worth a shot.  Advice books are geared towards helping one with story dynamics and characterization more so than prose.  I don’t know of a better way to fix prose besides reading books with great prose and practicing till you’ve gotten all the purple prose out of your system.  I’ve ignored story dynamics for the past few years in favor of prose, so I’m focusing on that for now. 

More on things to avoid in your writing from the blog, “Writers Helping Writers.”  I might write more of these, which is why this entry is labeled as Part #1.  For the next one I may write about why you shouldn’t kill off a character in the intro or first chapter.  I wouldn’t say I’m qualified to give writing advice, so it’s more like my thoroughly biased opinion which you are free to ignore or disagree with.   

4 thoughts on “What Not To Write #1

  1. I like the books that just give general advice because, as you pointed out here, there is no magic formula. It’s kind of a matter of going with your gut, I think. It is discouraging to have an edit turn into a total rewrite, but it’s one opinion vs. another.

    • Yes, the more experienced I am the more I see that every writer has their own style. Sometimes I feel a bit odd critiquing short stories that are a completely different style than mine because I don’t feel qualified to say what is right or wrong about it. I think ultimately, whether I decide to take someone’s advice on writing depends on several factors. One of them being how good of a writer the other person is. Another is about how the critique resonates with me given a few days or weeks to think about it. Sometimes readers hit upon a shortcoming I had sort of already known about, and then it’s obvious it needs to be changed. If I’m really unsure about a critique I show it to friends and ask them for their thoughts on it. I try not to rewrite other people’s stories unless I know them well and they are okay with it :$ I’m ashamed to say I used to do it quite frequently.

  2. Probably you’ve already got more than enough different opinion on good books on Writing, but here’s my 2c: http://terribleminds.com/ramble/portfolio/confessions-of-a-freelance-penmonkey/

    This book is the shizzle.

    Oh, and another 2c – that guy who critiqued your stuff by re-writing it and pulling it apart is a talentless douche-nozzle, or they wouldn’t be spending their time trying to feel superior by telling others how much better their own work is.

    Oh and hell, another 2c – focussing on story structure is going to be a massive help. Prose will come with practice, but structure has to be learned, and without it even the prettiest words can get an undeservedly harsh reception…

    Keep going!

    • I actually started a reply to this awhile ago, but then my computer crashed and I lost it >_> So I’m starting again XD Thanks for the book suggestion! I shall add it to my list of reading 🙂 It sounds funny as hell XD The short story book my friend gave me is amusing as well so it doesn’t read like a textbook, which makes it fun instead of boring.

      I agree with you about plot dynamics. It’s been something difficult for me to accept because I am a bit shallow when it comes to stories, and pretty prose is enough for me XD I do enjoy a good story though, and most people read something for the story and characters, not the prose. That’s why I took a step back to do short stories. I also try to read stories (including my own) with a more analytic mind. I need all the help I can get in this area! I also got several books from the literature magazine, “Glimmer Train,” so I could get a better feel for what makes a good short story. In a way they are their own separate art form, like poetry.

      Yeah, about that guy that rewrote my story. He does that to everyone XD I felt kind of bad at first, like I was a horrible author that can’t take criticism, but I saw others get upset after he critiqued their work. I’d say I’m not thick skinned or thin skinned when it comes to receiving critiques, but something about his was insulting. So much so that I left that site and never went back because I didn’t want any more interactions with him. I’ve read some of his stuff through Amazon, and it’s not good, so I mostly dismissed what he said. I think what he should have touched on and didn’t is that I tend to use a lot of filler words, and short stories have no room for that. I’ve gotten much better at cutting out the meaningless fluff, but still working on it.

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