Updated: Aug 10
As a writer, you’ve probably heard plenty of advice along your journey to publication. Advice can be very handy. It gives novices a framework of rules so they can improve on the craft. It gives intermediate writers a challenge. It even makes people feel as if they have come a long way in their writing once they’ve successfully followed the advice to the letter.
But I’ve found at least five pieces of advice that are thrown around like so much confetti. And what I’ve realized is that authors…popular, never-have-to-work-another-day-job-again authors…break these so-called rules, and no one says a thing! That’s right.The very rules editors, agents, critique buddies are claiming to be chiseled in rock I have discovered is really written in sand. So why have these rules been made when they can be swept asunder by frothy waves?
I’ll explain as I submit to you five of the biggest writing myths I’ve read about.
MYTH NUMBER 1: Never use -ly adverbs. That’s just lazy writing.
WHY IT AIN’T NECESSARILY SO: Middle grade authors use many -ly adverbs. As for other genres, I can pick up any book from my book shelf and find an -ly adverb lingering on one of its page, oblivious to the fact that it’s despised by so many in the writing industry. The truth of the matter is, so many novice authors overuse -ly adverbs to the point where the book sounds as if it’s all “telling” and no “showing.” By throwing that rule out there, it prevents wanna-be authors from giving a ho-hum narration. But can the occasional -ly adverb be used? Certainly! Especially if it prevents a sentence from becoming cumbersome or lasting longer than the taste of Wrigley’s Spearmint gum.
MYTH NUMBER 2: Always “show.” Never “tell.”
WHY IT AIN’T NECESSARILY SO: Most books contain some form of “telling.” A narrator might explain why they did something. Or an earlier event might need to be summarized quickly. (Note my use of the -ly adverb here.) The reason why this is a rule…and one that is repeated often, I might add…is because novice writers tend not to understand the difference between talking about what is happening and describing what is happening. The important point to remember is to use descriptive language that engages all of the senses, especially the part of us that becomes visually attuned to the action happening on the page.
MYTH NUMBER 3: Write what you want to write and don’t follow trends.
WHY IT AIN’T NECESSARILY SO: This is great advice if you don’t want to be published. The truth is, publishing houses are looking for the tried and true. If stories about talking octopuses become the next big thing, that is what editors will be buying. If you love to write about lesbian astronauts but lesbian astronauts are not a big hit in the industry, even if your story is amazing, no editor is going to hand over an offer. Sure, there is the Trend Setting Starter…and that may be you and your lesbian astronaut. But more likely than not, your manuscript will see nothing but rejection. If you want a more likely chance to find a home for your novel, you are going to write what has traditionally sold well, or something that is breaking into popularity.
MYTH NUMBER 4: Write what you know.
WHY IT AIN’T NECESSARILY SO: You think Stephen King really brought people back from the dead? Or that J.K. Rowling was a sorceress? Of course not. This is another rule that was made to prevent people from writing stories that have glaring errors. For example, someone might write a story involving politics, but not know the first thing about how government works, thus ruining the story’s credibility. Nowadays, information is at a writer’s fingertips via the Internet and with many hours of research and locating sources for interviews, anyone can write about any subject…and make it sound like an honest portrayal. So even if you’ve never flown an airplane, feel free to make your main character an airline pilot.
MYTH NUMBER 5: Throw out your first chapter.
WHY IT AIN’T NECESSARILY SO: Not every first chapter is terrible, yet the advice is to toss that first chapter out because “the real story begins at chapter 2.” Again, this advice is great for the newbie writer. So many first-timers begin their stories when the main character wakes up in the morning, rubs his or her eyes, and glances at the nightstand clock. The character then has a revelation, and the rest of the chapter explores this revelation. By chapter 2, things really pick up, and usually that’s when the reader feels a stir of interest. It’s no wonder the advice to toss the first chapter is so common. However, if you have started your novel at a place that introduces the problem, the character, and what is in the way of the character solving his or her problem, there’s no need to junk the first ten pages. In fact, the first ten pages may be crucial to understanding the story’s stakes.
So there you have it. 5 writing myths. Sure, every one of these tips can help you write a stronger, more suitable story or novel. But don’t let well-meaning critiquers blast you with these words of advice if you feel you know exactly what your doing and that some rules are all right to break as long as there’s good reason to do so. Remember, each of these rules have been etched in sand. As long as the tide is high and strong, they can be washed away.
(This post was originally published on the LCRW site.)