Thursday, July 15, 2010

My best advice to new writers

Welcome to the "My Best Advice to New Authors" Blogfest. I was invited by my friend Carrie Bailey to contribute something so here 'tis...

The best advice I ever got for writing was actually given to me as an actor and that is to SERVE THE STORY. Don't waste your readers time with clever phrasing and flowery speech that doesn't move things along. That's not clever and flowery. It's self-indulgent and annoying. It's like a crop duster doing aerial loops. It might be fun for you but you're getting pesticide all over the place.
Okay, maybe not, but you get the idea. Respect your readers; you come to them with a story to tell and they've given you their attention so you can tell it. So dust the damn crops already.

Here's an example. It's from acting, but I think you'll see the relevance. I was in a community theatre production of a Neil Simon play with a guy who decided he was going to incorporate some business into a scene, a shout-out to his favorite college football team. If you're trying to think of a Neil Simon play that has anything at all to do with college football, don't bother because there aren't any. "Why would you do that?", I asked. "Because I have some buddies coming tonight and they'll get a kick out of it", he said. "That is a terrible idea. There's going to be a couple hundred people here and you're going to take them all out of the story so you can get a laugh out of a couple of your drinking buddies?" "Well, nobody said anything when Tanya added that bit where she has trouble sitting in a chair." "That's because it's funny. Her character is an idiot. Struggling to figure out how to sit in a chair illustrates that point. And everybody gets that. On stage in front of an audience is exactly not the place to share inside jokes with your pals." "Well, I'm doing it anyway." I knew he would. And he did. And if you've ever wondered what it sounds like when 200 people who are laughing at a Neil Simon romantic comedy are suddenly force-fed a line from the University of Michigan fight song for no reason whatsoever, it sounds a lot like the kind of complete silence you imagine exists in deep space. Cold, empty and dead. Nobody laughed, including the boob's buddies, who might have left early...if they even showed up.

So SERVE THE STORY. Get rid of anything that doesn't fit that credo. It doesn't mean you have to boil everything down to the point that it reads like a police report of a minor traffic accident. Your audience wants to be entertained. By all means, take time in describing environments in great detail. Give your characters quirky habits. Even make one of them a University of Michigan fan...as long as you SERVE THE STORY. If you come up with something that doesn't, even if you think it's the greatest thing you or anybody else has ever written, get rid of it. This will require you to be honest about your work, but that's a discipline you'll want to develop anyway and this is as good a way as any to do so.
SERVE THE STORY!


Find advice from some really great writers at the "My Best Advice to New Authors" Blogfest.

14 comments:

stu said...

It sounds like an important lesson. I may even get round to learning it at some point.

Jessie said...

SO, true! Which is another reason I'm not a writer. I'm pretty sure I've *never* stayed on topic. :)

Dawn Maria said...

Love it!

Jamie D. said...

Amen. And what a great example of what not to do! LOL

It's all about the story.

Erin Kane Spock said...

That is awesome advice. I have a file full of things I wrote, loved, but ultimately cut because they really do not help progress the real story.

C Bailey said...

Even your post "serves the story" and was seriously entertaining to me.

I have such good taste in Twitter friends. I just have to pat myself on the back.

How did you manage to make post on advice make me smile so wide? Advice isn't funny, is it?

Great work. I have to have permission to post this on Peevish Penman... Please say yes.

WritersBlockNZ said...

Just what I needed to hear! Thanks :) I'm editing and deleting irrelevant scenes so that is something I will keep in mind!

L'Aussie said...

Tough when you're naturally verbose but I know the truth of this advice, entertainly put..:)

Amos Keppler said...

Yes, the story is essential. It is and should be the foundation of most stuff.

I agree completely that there are those writers, film or novels too eager to "dazzle" the reader with his or her "brilliance" with words.

That person has misunderstood quite a bit.

The thing about honesty is also important. I, quite honestly think you did a great job with this article/post.

Why, it's Clark! said...

To everyone who commented here today: Thank you to all of you. I'm so humbled by your compliments and pleased that you found the advice valuable. It's so gratifying to see the spirit of support and collaboration manifested this way. I visited all of your pages today and if I didn't leave a comment, it's only because I couldn't (I have a bad computer) and I will try again later. Thanks again and keep writing.

thegracefuldoe said...

Great post! It's a really important point to remember. When I write I allow myself to be as flowery as I want in the first draft, but when it comes time to edit I chop away anything that doesn't move the story forward.

Icy Sedgwick said...

I couldn't agree with you more! I'm not a big fan of that overly flowery language that feels like someone vomited a thesaurus over their manuscript. I want the pace to crackle, dammit! Good writing does not necessarily mean extensive vocabulary virtuosity - to me, storytelling is far more important. The tales of King Arthur probably didn't rely on OTT eloquence, and they survived anyway...

C Bailey said...

I was surprised how many people did follow around and visit ALL the other articles.

It took me 12 hours to do them justice. Clark, yours just stands out in my memory. I'm so glad you participated.

dandellion said...

"Serve the story" is a great advice. Anything that doesn't lead the scene to the conclusion of the story or doesn't portrait the character and her motivations (actually, doing both at the same time) should be cut off. If you want something in the story, then you have to find a place for it.

While I agree that football song was out of the place, I can witness many actors, writers and directors are doing subtle shout-outs to their friends. But notice the word: subtle. We have all seen dozens of movies and plays where some line in the dialogue means something to actor's or writer's spouse of best friend. The trick is to make it so that nobody else doesn't notice it. The sentence has to slip easily through the ears of the uninitiated, and to wink to the friend. That's the joy and the art of flirting.