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One Million Words Of Crap And Other Wisdom

If you hang around writing forums (or blogs) at all, you're probably going to see some of the same words of advice repeated several times. But are these pieces of advice meant to be taken literally? Are they even helpful? I thought it might make a fun post to dissect some of them, and get down to what they really mean.

You have to write one million words of crap before you can write well. This is obviously ridiculous, if taken literally. It isn't like words one through one million are horrible and then, suddenly, like a miracle, you are an incredible writer. But I think the idea behind it makes sense: it takes practice to fulfill your potential as a writer. And, just as with anything else, the more you practice, the better you get.

The road to Hell is paved with adverbs. As Stephen King put it, in On Writing. People love to quote this. Probably because it's a great quote. So, clearly, Stephen King is not a fan of adverbs. But it's not that you can't ever use them. As you can see from this post, I'm sure not opposed to them. But the takeaway from this little pearl of wisdom is, cut the adverbs that don't add anything of significance, and know that you'll probably be taking an axe to a lot of adverbs. Similar advice has been given about other types of words: "filtering" words, for example. ("I heard wind rattling my windows." vs "wind rattled my windows.") Or active voice rather than passive. (The active "She stood in front of me" is better than the passive "She was standing in front of me.") And again, it doesn't mean you can never use filtering words or passive voice. Sometimes they're necessary. Just consider them carefully.

Everything's been done already, just worry about putting a unique spin on it. This is the sort of advice that makes me want to prove it wrong, but, honestly, it's probably true, if you're thinking in an overarching sense. Just look at how many, many, many pages there are on tvtropes. It doesn't mean you can't write about any of these things. That would be impossible. It just means, make your story your own. It's your work, your hours of effort, you want it to be yours. But it also means that you shouldn't worry so much about being unique that you cripple yourself. Other variations on this: write the story you want to write; don't worry about trends. These are great pieces of advice too, in a sense, but at the same time, it's not a good idea to pretend trends aren't happening. They can and do affect what sells, and what agents will be tired of seeing in their query inboxes. It's better if you keep all that in mind going in.

Use "said" instead of descriptive dialogue tags. This is a piece of advice I found alarming, when I first started seeing it. It goes exactly opposite what you learn (or at least what I learned) in school. Teachers always are telling you to find descriptive dialogue tags. Don't have your character just say something, have them say it gleefully, or have them shout it, or snarl it, or sing it, or, well, you get the idea. But in novels, that's not the way to go. As with Stephen King's adverb advice, it isn't that your characters can never say something in a descriptive dialogue tag sort of way. But these should be more sparing. They should mean something. What I've heard is that the word "said" is so plain, it sort of slips through your mind. It does its job and leaves the brain free to focus on the more important things going on in the story. (Example: I love J.K. Rowling and Harry Potter immensely, but I know I am not the only one who was immediately pulled out of the story when, in the fifth book, Ron loudly ejaculates some dialogue. Pulled out enough that I remember it was the fifth book without needing to search. Or maybe this says more about the number of times I've read the books...)

Show, don't tell. Possibly the number one most confusing writing advice in the universe? The idea here is that it's not beneficial to the reader if you tell us something like, "she was a funny person." You can tell us that all you want, but it's better if you show us that by actually having her be funny. Or, showing that your characters are in danger by putting them into a scary situation and having them react appropriately is more engaging than just telling us they were in danger. Of course, you can't show everything about everything in your novel, because that would just be tedious. I think the advice is meant to be kind of a reminder to let your words speak for themselves, and to trust your readers.

Start your story where the action begins. This doesn't mean literally start your story in the middle of the action. At least, it doesn't always mean that. Sometimes the right place to start a story is in the middle of a giant explosion, and sometimes (in most cases, probably) it isn't. But no matter what, you want the place where you start the story to be interesting. To hook readers right away, and not let them go.

Hard work always pays off. So, not to be a downer here near the end of the post, but this is a piece of advice that I honestly find...wrong. I mean, it's encouraging. But. As with anything else, there's a lot more to it than hard work. Which doesn't mean that you shouldn't work hard. You should! Because that's an important piece of it all. It's just that you're setting yourself up to be really disappointed if you expect that your hard work will automatically mean easy querying and submission processes, because this is not always the case. However fast or slow it goes, though, it's still going to feel great when it all starts to come together.

Read everything you possibly can. I don't actually have any commentary on this one, I just felt like it should be included. You should read everything you possibly can. I mean, I assume you wouldn't become a writer if you didn't love books. So don't forget about them!

What are your favorite writerly pearls of wisdom?
Kaitlin Ward

Kaitlin Ward is the author of Bleeding Earth, Adaptive Books 2016, and The Farm, coming 2017 from Scholastic.

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  1. To me, it's persistence as much as hard work that pays off. It also depends on how you define hard work. Plenty of people "work hard" in that they write an awful lot, but they don't work smart--getting feedback, trying to improve, setting higher standards for themselves. The hard work applies to the submission process as well as to the initial push, too.

    1. This!

      Work smarter, not just harder.

  2. The whole idea behind not using adverbs is that you shouldn't need them. 95% of the time, you should be able to tell a person's tone based on the dialogue alone.

    Also, I didn't realize "was standing" was considered passive voice. I thought passive voice only applied to transitive verbs. (ie "I threw the ball" vs "the ball was thrown by me")

    1. Yep. You could change it to be "I stood." "I was standing" is passive because the standing is being done by someone, instead of someone DOING the standing. :)

    2. Actually, "I was standing" is technically an imperfect past tense verb, not a past passive voice. The subject of the sentence, "I" is not being acted upon by the verb "was standing," but is still the agent of its action. The passive version would be "The standing was done by me," which does, in fact, sound awful.

      Wikipedia knows more about it than I do, though:

    3. It's not necessarily passive voice, but it's a "state of being" verb. It's something that just IS, in the sense that "This is a blog post." It's not going to be anything else. Ever. "I was standing" is suggesting that you were just standing there and you're not likely to do anything else. "I stood" is a stronger word that suggests something else will happen eventually.

      I wrote some stuff on Passive Voice and how to avoid it if you care to read about it. =D

  3. I always loved the "write what you know" because it's taken literally, but it shouldn't be. It's a great piece of advice if you take it in a broader sense. If we took it as, "We can only write stories exactly as we know them" we wouldn't have science fiction, fantasy, or speculative fiction. We wouldn't have Harry Potter, IT, The Wizard of Earthsea, the Dragonriders of Pern, Starwars, Ender's Game, or Wrinkle in Time.

    But those books weren't ABOUT dragons and time travel and people with magic and magical weapons and aliens. Those were the VEHICLES used to describe common human experiences.

    Madeleine L'Engle said this, and the whole "it's all been said before" thing, in her extraordinary acceptance speech for the Margaret Edwards Award in 1998.

    " Often the only way to look clearly at this extraordinary universe is through fantasy, fairy tale, myth. During the fifties Erich Fromm published a book called THE FORGOTTEN LANGUAGE, in which he said that the only universal language which breaks across barriers of race, culture, time, is the language of fairy tale, fantasy, myth, parable, and that is why the same stories have been around in one form or another for hundreds of years.

    Someone said, "It's all been done before."

    Yes, I agreed, but we all have to say it in our own voice."

    Write what you know, but write it however you want to write it.


    1. A very famous author, Salman Rushdie (Author of "Midnight's Children" and "Satanic Verses") once said at a conference that that's the first question all "official" interviewers ask.

      "Is your novel autobiographical?"

      Rushdie recommends you say yes, no matter what, because many interviewers shut down after you say "no." As he put it, "Oh yes, my grandmother was abducted by aliens, so I wrote about aliens." and so on.

  4. I love the thing about using "said"--the first time I heard that I just felt relief! I used to waste so much time trying to think of different dialogue tags and now I just throw in the regular ol' "said" and spend the rest of my time actually doing something productive :)

  5. I fell off my chair the first time I learnt about using just "said" (well, mostly just said). A few writing years down the track and...lightbulb! It makes total sense. It's one of my favourites now.

    I also like advice about using beats as well as dialogue tags. And advice like "eat chocolate while you edit" is also good and helpful.

  6. I have heard all of these again and again and again. And like you said, I've never really had anyone EXPLAIN them to me. At least, not in my myriad of creative writing classes. I figured out "show, don't tell" with "Rivet Your Readers with Deep POV." I figured out passive voice in an linguistics class. I figured out "Nothing is original" while writing my own fiction.

    Sometimes people feel a need to throw advice at writers without really thinking about what it means. I'm glad someone looked at some of those meanings!

  7. Write the book you really want to read and don't worry whether it's already been done..
    A million people have done their version of Romeo and Juliet. It's still a great story. Do it your way.

  8. I recently heard a #1 NYT bestselling author announce to a room of about 500 people that she doesn't read. Seriously, a follow up question asked for her favorite books, and SHE COULDN'T NAME ONE. So yeah, you'd think that, "You wouldn't become a writer if you didn't love books," but unfortunately, some non-book-lovers do somehow.


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Item Reviewed: One Million Words Of Crap And Other Wisdom Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Kaitlin Ward