Friday, February 05, 2010

Kill Your Idols

Yesterday, over at Do Some Damage, Dave White had a thing or two to say about how a fledgling writer should approach the heaps of writing advice they'll find on these-here innertubes. His post resonated with me, because when I first decided to try my hand at writing, I eagerly consumed every bit of advice I could find, and the wild disagreement on nearly every point damn near paralyzed me.

Here's the thing, though. Most of the advice I was reading wasn't on random writers' blogs; it came from well-regarded books on writing from folks who've proven time and time again they've got the goods. Folks like Block and King and Grafton. Folks a fledgling writer would be nuts to just dismiss.



See, the thing about writing is there's no one way to do it. So like Dave suggests in his post, you've got to learn to take what you can use, and jettison the rest. Easy if it's some quack you've never heard of telling you he's got the secret to bestsellerdom. Tough if it's someone whose writing you admire. But developing the confidence to know what to keep and what to discard is key to actually ever getting anything down on paper.

All of which serves as a rambling preamble to my first-ever regular (okay, semi-regular) (or maybe not that regular at all) (hey, there's a chance I'll do another one sometime; get off my back about it, would you?) feature here at _holm: Kill Your Idols. Kill Your Idols will focus on specific advice from people I dig that for whatever reason just doesn't work for me, and why.

Now, since I've prattled on for like a book and a half already, I'll make the first installment a short one. And since this is about killing idols, I'm gonna aim high. So howsabout we start with this gem from Mr. Stephen King:

"Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule."

Youch. That ain't no mamby-pamby suggestion; that, my friends, is a capital-R Rule. And I'd bet for Mr. King, it's just as iron-clad as it sounds. For me, though?

For me, that rule blows.

Why does that rule blow (again, for me; your mileage may vary)? Here's why: tattered, battered, timeworn, white-hot, and a half a dozen other words that appeared over and over (and OVER) again in my most recent novel, so often in fact that seeing them upon rereading yanked me right out of the story every time and reminded me that it was nothing more than words on a page, and mighty repetitive ones at that. They're all sort of default adjectives for me, words I didn't have to reach too far to find, and although there's nothing wrong with any of them, their sheer repetition made them wince-worthy every damn time.

Now, it's not that I had to use those words; off the top of my head, I can list plenty of synonyms for each of them. But in the moment, when that's what my brain's supplying me, thinking of a synonym is like trying to remember the melody of a song while another one is playing. And when that happens, I reach for my thesaurus.

So does that mean King's wrong? Yes, but only in his formulation of the rule as universal. For him, I bet it works every time. For me, it'd result in a lesser manuscript than if I just ignored it. So I ignore it.

Should you ignore it? How the hell should I know? I'm not in the business of giving writing advice. All I can tell you is what works for me. But if knowing I'm idiot enough not to listen to advice from people who can really write helps you do the same, then... well, I don't know what, then. But I think it would've helped me to get that message when I first put pen to paper (er, fingers to keyboard.)

So there you have it -- my first sorta regular feature. Unless it's not. Next time on Kill Your Idols, maybe I'll dispel some of this nonsense regarding adverbs...