Literature Basics Week
Okay, so maybe not everything. But there's a lot of stuff that I remember learning in middle and high school that turned out to not actually work for me -- or for pretty much anybody -- as a writer. I'm hoping that if I can lay these lies out for you, we cans turn it around and unlearn some of these bad habits. Because, man, nothing says "noob" like practicing some of these frequently-taught faux pas.
Lie #1: Be super duper descriptive!
Wait, wait, I know what you're thinking. Descriptive language is good, right? You want your reader to know what you're talking about, and to be able to see, smell it, hear it, touch it, taste it the way you do in your head. The problem is that, when it comes to description, a little bit goes a long way. Sometimes, it's about finding a better word to use, instead of a string of adverbs and adjectives to go with your verb or noun. You know, you could say "She skulked through the forest" instead of "She walked sneakily through the heavily-wooded area." See what I mean? Now, that's kind of an obvious one, but when you go to write, here's a good trick to keep in mind: modifiers are evil. They are sneaky and they will slip into your poetry and prose without you even noticing. Your job, as a writer, is to keep an eye on those things.
Modifiers -- like adverbs and adjectives -- are words that describe other words. They should be used sparingly. Otherwise, you're going to have a mess on your hands. When you're writing, always ask yourself, do I need this word? Or is there something simpler and equally descriptive that I could use here?
SO HERE'S THE TRUTH: Use descriptive language and sensory details, choosing words carefully. Every word you put on the page should be a word that NEEDS to be there.
Lie # 2: Show off your vocabulary!
Some writers I've run into have a penchant for tossing around five dollar words. It's almost as if they want the reader to know that they totally nailed the vocab section on their SATs. The thing is, creative writing isn't about what you know, it's about telling a story in the smoothest way possible. So why use "loquacious" if you could say "chatty?" Think about how your narrator or point-of-view character would think and speak. Think of how the people around you speak. If you can't imagine someone using that word in a conversation, it's probably a no-go. When it comes to five-dollar words, they should be sprinkled, not poured, into your writing.
SO HERE'S THE TRUTH: If you want your writing to feel authentic, use authentic language. Use those five dollar words sparingly!
Lie #3: Spice up your speech tags!
Here's the thing about speech tags: They should be invisible. The reader should pretty much not notice them at all. I mean, there's a reason that you sometimes don't even need them -- like in an extended conversation between two characters. There are pretty much only two speech tags you will ever need: "said" and "asked." (You can, and should, of course, alter the tense as needed.) You may be able to slip in a "screamed" or a "replied" here and there, but sticking to the basics is always the better option. You don't want your reader getting hung up on speech tags when she should be paying attention to the conversation and the story.
Another word on speech tags: Using simple tags like "said" and "asked" doesn't give you carte blanche to start throwing adverbs around. "She said, angrily" or "he asked, jokingly" is just as much of an offense as not using a simple speech tag. If someone is speaking angrily or jokingly, that should show in the words they're using, and in the body language in the scene. This is a great case of "show, don't tell," which, thankfully, is a lesson from school that you can hold onto.
SO HERE'S THE TRUTH: You will hardly ever need to use words other than "said" or "asked."
Lie #4: Poetry is about your feelings!
No. Poetry is about expressing yourself, sure -- just like any other writing. But it's not about emotions. It's about saying something. It's a narrative between the poet and the reader, and it should be full of images and ideas, not simply the thoughts you would write in your journal with some line breaks thrown in. Yes, poetry -- just like any other writing -- can be emotional. But your job as the writer isn't to emote onto the page. It's to get your reader to emote. Again, this is a place where that whole "show, don't tell" thing comes in handy.
SO HERE'S THE TRUTH: Poetry isn't about any one thing. And all writing should evoke emotions. Use your excellent writing skills to make the reader feel!
Lie #5: Capitalize the beginning of every line in your poem!
This is actually an antiquated form. If you're reading poetry -- and if you're writing poetry, I hope you are! -- you'll notice that contemporary poets only capitalize where they would in a regular sentence. So lines can start with lowercase letters. You capitalize when you start a new sentence, or for proper nouns -- all the usual suspects. But when you start a new line, and the previous line didn't end with a period, no, you don't need to capitalize. In fact, I'd recommend sticking to the new way of doing things. We both know you're not Shakespeare, after all.
SO HERE'S THE TRUTH: Sure, you can capitalize every line, but it's going to make you look old-fashioned. And not in a trendy way.
Lie #6: Practice writing by writing!
This is actually half true. Yes, you do get better at writing by writing. But you know what's even better? Reading. A well-read writer is going to be a way better writer than a writer who writes every day but never reads. I promise you, this is a fact.
SO HERE'S THE TRUTH: If you're not reading as well as writing, you're doing it wrong.
Lie #7: A haiku is 5-7-5!
Yikes! They really stepped in it with this one. Sure, some haiku these days are 5-7-5, but usually these are referred to as senryu, since they are Westernized and have less to do with nature and brevity and more to do with cramming something into that syllabic format, often with a humorous twist. There's a lot of information out there about haiku, but I'll leave you with this: Writing haiku is more about brevity and observing nature than it is about an exact syllable count.
SO HERE'S THE TRUTH: Haiku isn't about the syllables. Do some research and figure out what style of haiku works for you!
Lie #8: The classics are the right way to learn writing!
Sure, the classics are great. But if you want to write for contemporary readers (like, you know, alive people), it's a good idea to read contemporary work! Enjoy some Emily Dickinson, but make sure you're also checking out Louise Gluck. Feel free to curl up with J.D. Salinger, but don't forget about Jennifer Egan. And, you know, there's lots to be discovered in your local library or bookstore -- not just the bestsellers. Read widely across genre and author background. Read books you like and books you don't like. Just make sure you're reading, and reading more than the tried and true golden oldies.
SO HERE'S THE TRUTH: If you want to improve your craft, read lots of genres and DEFINITELY check out your contemporaries!
Lie #9: Only write what you know!
If this were true, we wouldn't have, I don't know, any fantasy. Or space operas. Or historical fiction. Sure, it takes a lot of imagination and even more research, but writing outside of your comfort zone can be a good thing. Writing what you know can keep you grounded, and using your life experience to keep your writing honest is an excellent idea. But talking to people with different experiences from you, and reading about other lives and other ideas, and imagining schools for young wizards...well, these are all great tactics for writing richer stories.
SO HERE'S THE TRUTH: Start with what you know, use your imagination and your ability to do research to take your writing to the next level.
Lie #10: You're a genius!
Don't pretend someone in your life hasn't told you this. Someone along the line -- a mother, a teacher, a friend -- has probably read your writing and told you that you're going to be a New York Times best-selling author. And it felt good, I bet. But, you know what? If it's someone like a parent, a teacher, or a friend, they might be looking at your writing through rose-colored glasses. And you need someone who's going to be tough on you if you want to improve and have any chance at being a capital A Author. Are you a genius? Maybe. But don't take this "lesson" at face value.
SO HERE'S THE TRUTH: If you don't work hard and seek critical feedback, and learn to take critical (and negative) feedback, you probably won't succeed no mater what kind of talent you have.
Got questions? Leave 'em below! There are exceptions to every rule, and there are plenty of rules that might not make sense, which is why talking to other writers is always helpful. (Another lie: Writers can only be successful when they are holed up in a cabin in the woods somewhere.) And feel free to share some of the lies you've heard before! In the mean time, enjoy the rest of PE: Literature Basics Week!