Give yourself permission—thoughts on advice

Give Yourself Permission

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.

No Rules!

Be a Sadist

Be a Sadist

“Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.”

Kurt Vonnegut


One thing I like about this quote is how it challenges both the character and the reader to discover “what they are made of.” That “they” can work on multiple levels—making this quote both straightforward and yet layered.

Interestingly enough, this is just one of Vonnegut’s eight tips for writing (number six, specifically.) He’s not the only writer to dish out eight tips—seems like a comfortable number for a lot of us. You can read all of Vonnegut’s eight and the eight tips from other great authors over at this post.

Writing Appealing Action and Wondrous Worldbuilding

How I Layer Worldbuilding Within Action

Over the last few days, some friends in an online writing group and I have been discussing worldbuilding in our writing. Long time readers will know that worldbuilding is something of a passion for me and my own worldbuilding in The Bell Forging Cycle often draws compliments. So whenever there is an opportunity to chat about creating and exploring secondary worlds I’ll gladly join in.

One question came up and I thought it was interesting: can a writer maintain the breakneck pace of an action story and still worldbuild? As a writer who has written three action-oriented novels, I believe the answer is yes. I figured a quick post would be the perfect way to go a step further and explain how I maintain pace and still write a plot-forward scene that expands a world. Show don’t tell, right? To demonstrate I threw together a quick scene, you can read it in all of its trope-filled glory below.


My opponent was Ver, a kudär, one of the desert dwellers. He wore the leathers of a Stalwart, cut from the backs of the enormous lizards that reside deep in the shifting dunes. His was a caste accustomed to war, violence, and bloody hand-to-hand fighting. That didn’t bode well.

Ver beat his chest and threw a handful of dust in the air above his tattooed head. Around us, the crowd chanted, “VER! VER! VER!” in a steady throbbing rhythm.

I rolled my neck; feeling it pop, and shook my arms to keep them loose. I wondered if I looked nervous. A damned kudär, here, of all places. They tended to stick to the fringes, away from population centers. Kudär didn’t usually fight in sanctioned matches. I’d need to change strategies; perhaps I could—

The gong thummed, cutting off my thoughts. No time.

“Fight!”


So, let’s break it down. Here’s what I am doing in that tiny 143-word scene to expand the worldbuilding without interrupting the pace.

  • I’m establishing the action immediately. A fight is about to go down. Just calling out an opponent introduces the tension. The pace is set, let’s keep it up.
  • Relevance matters. Don’t throw in random details that don’t serve the scene. Keep your reader focused on what is happening in the moment.
  • I begin to hint at some interesting stuff without getting bogged down in details. Everything is focused on the fight and then rolls from there. This is key. As my friend Jim has said, think of worldbuilding as a spice. Like any good chef, you don’t want to over season. Give just enough to enliven the imagination without derailing. Should any of these ideas become critical to the plot, they can get revisited. But for now, keep them lean, so the action keeps moving. But there’s a lot there, consider:
    • The kudär. Who are apparently some sort of desert people?
    • They hunt giant lizards for leather.
    • Apparently, the kudär people operate under some kind of caste system.
    • Ver is a “Stalwart, ” and apparently that means he’s accustomed to fighting.
    • The kudär tend to avoid population centers. It’s rare to see one. Our narrator is surprised, this changes his strategy.
    • This match is somehow “sanctioned.” Which opens up a lot of questions. By whom? Why? What for?
  • I also threw in some personal rituals. Ver slaps his chest and throws dust like Lebron. I find little details like these important. Readers like personal connections. I feel like they go further in establishing character than most writers realize. Everyone has nervous tics or habitual fidgets. Play ’em up.

Seasoning worldbuilding elements throughout your story can help to expand the world. And you can do insert them anywhere. The trick is to layer in your deeper world, while you avoid reveling in it unless necessary. Reveling in detail is often where one finds the dreaded info dump. Remember: in the end, all things must serve the plot.

How about you? How do you enhance worldbuilding in your own work? What tricks do you use? Leave a comment and let us know!


Interested in my other articles on worldbuilding? Check out any of the links below.


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