It seems like every few months on Twitter there’s a pile-on, as one author dispenses what they feel is critical advice in the career of writing. Then, a multitude of other writers push back. It’s due to the nature of social media that the tones of these interactions tend to be combative; as such, the results are rarely positive, for both the dialog within the community and for human interaction in general. Indeed, the way advice is shared also plays into its impact. “Thou Shalls” aren’t generally well-received outside of the sanctuary. But this isn’t about our collective tone on Twitter. I want to talk about advice, its giving and receiving.
Advice is a tricky thing. When it comes from someone we admire, we tend to key into it more. We’ll listen and reflect, perhaps even embrace it. Yet, upon receiving advice from an unknown, or someone you actively dislike, the reactions tend to flare in the opposite direction—regardless of what’s being said. Likewise, it’s not uncommon to want to share advice and help others avoid the mistakes and pitfalls we’ve faced ourselves.
Yet, for some reason, occasional opinions often blossom within the zeitgeist and they become commonly accepted rules. Current trends with dialog tags have gone this direction. Not a week goes past without someone echoing Stephen King’s famous “the road to hell is paved with adverbs,” advice that King himself rarely follows. And a few weeks ago, literary agent DongWon Song made a keen observation on a common adage among genre writers: “Start with the action!”
It’s a refrain I’m sure you’ve heard before, and it’s been repeated for many years. It’s crept into books on writing, I’ve heard my fellow authors mention it on panels, I’ve seen reviewers praise it, and some readers have come to expect it. New authors hear advice like this from someone they admire and then try to force their story into its narrow confines. That can lead to frustration; it’s disheartening when your story doesn’t want to “start with the action.”
It’s not that the advice itself is terrible. It’s the spirit in which it’s presented which implies that there is no other way. The disorientation DongWon mentions is the result of a story being forced. For some books, it might be perfectly acceptable to start with action. But every story is different. Every story has its own agenda. Often, breakout novels succeed because they shirk trends. They do something different and in doing so they stand out. And what are the trends, if not the agreed-upon rules for that particular moment in time?
If you’re new to writing, take heart. There are no hard-and-fast rules for how your story needs to be told. Even language and grammar are malleable. (Collective gasp from the English majors.) Approach writing advice as if you were shopping. Glean what inspires. Ignore what holds you back. No matter how it’s presented, advice is nothing more than someone sharing what worked for them. Let your story dictate its own rules. If starting with action is the right path, then follow it. If that sentence needs an adverb, then use one. Throw an expressive dialog tag into the mix! Give yourself permission to write your story the way it needs to be told. You’ll write a better story and be a happier author.