Thursday, February 28, 2013

Everybody Can't Be Right All The Time

A couple of days ago, Jami Gold had a nice post describing her experiences at WanaCon. One of the things she discussed was how to know who to believe when you have receive conflicting opinions about your story—or about writing in general.

As a newbie who has yet to finish his first story, I’m certainly not the most knowledgeable of writers. I still have much to learn, and suspect that will still be the case in twenty years, but after spending the last 3+ years reading books on craft along with writing blogs (a quick check reveals I have over 1300 bookmarked links on writing alone, most of which I’ll probably never get around to rereading), I think I’ve got a bit of a handle on the subject.

And one of the most important things I’ve learned is that not everyone in the world of writing knows what they are talking about. Some bloggers present their personal preferences as rules of writing, despite the plethora of well-received books that ignore these so-called rules. The trick is to listen as much as you can to everyone’s advice and then sit back and decide what works for you.

The following four topics are areas that I find cause the most confusion.

1. Story structure. Very important subject, although I notice a lot of confusion amongst bloggers on the differences between the Hook, the Inciting Incident, and the First Plot Point—all of which are different and all of which have very specific purposes.
Hook – Meant to grab your attention long enough for you to get involved in the story. Example (Star Wars - THE ORIGINAL): The opening sequence. Space battles. Really big ships. Droids. You have no idea what the story is about yet, but you’re willing to wait long enough to find out.
Inciting Incident – The point at which the story or character leaves the “normal world.” May or may not have much to do with the eventual story problem. Example: when R2-D2 convinces Luke to remove a restraining bolt and then runs off, prompting Luke to chase after the little bugger. You still don’t know what the overall story is about yet, but this is definitely not a normal day for Luke.
First Plot Point – Happens at the 25% point in the story. A point of no return where the character either makes a decision or is forced into a decision. Either way, nothing is the same after that point. Example: When Luke returns to find his aunt and uncle dead, and decides he’s going to leave everything behind and join the rebellion.

2. Passive voice versus passive sentences. We’re talking pet peeve here, so bear with me. Passive voice is when the subject of the sentence is being acted upon instead of doing the acting. That’s it. No more, no less.

Example: "The ball was thrown by the boy."

The ball isn’t doing the throwing; the boy is, so this is passive voice. No argument there.

How about: "The ball was rolling down the street."

This is not passive voice, no matter how many people will try and tell you it is. The ball is performing the action so it is active voice. Period. End of story. That’s not to say the sentence construction isn’t passive (read: boring). It would be better written as "The ball rolled down the street." But that’s the difference between passive voice and passive sentences.

How about: "The present was unwrapped."

Passive voice or active voice? The answer is: it depends. If the author meant that the present is being unwrapped as in “The present was unwrapped by the boy,” then it is passive voice. If the author is describing a state of being, as in “the present was dusty” or “the pizza was cold,” then it is not considered passive voice, at least according to Strunk and White. Of course, state of being verbs are also considered a sign of passive sentence construction and should be avoided when possible.

Am I nitpicking here? Perhaps, but I’ve seen so many bloggers confuse passive sentences and passive voice, I just had to say something. And ranting is good for the soul.

3. Showing vs telling. Some authors like to show everything and preach that everyone else should do the same. My advice is to thank them for their advice and then ignore them. Whenever I read a book where the author shows everything, I tend to throw the book across the room long before the end. (Well, not so much now that I have a Kindle) And I know other readers who feel the same way. Don’t believe me? Do a Google search for blog posts discussing why telling isn’t so bad (there are more of them out there than you might think) and scan the comments. You’ll find all sorts of comments about how much of a slog it is to get through “too showy” books.

Showing, within reason, is good. Telling, in moderation, is good too. Too much showing makes you sound like a politician, always skirting around what you’re trying to say instead of just coming out and telling us what’s going on.

4. Deep POV. Some authors swear by it. And that’s fine—as long as they (and you) understand that deep POV is a personal preference and not a rule of writing. I’ve come across far too many blogs and books that suggest if you aren’t using deep POV, you’re doing it wrong. Perhaps that’s true in certain genres, (although I doubt it) but certainly not in sci-fi and fantasy, where deep POV is more the rarity. It’s hard enough to describe the fantasy world you’ve created without handicapping yourself with the use of deep POV. So if you don’t enjoy writing in deep POV, disregard anyone who attempts to convince you otherwise.

Edit:  After reading a nice post on deep POV, it occurred to me to be a bit more specific.  I'm all for getting rid of filter words like felt, thought, and heard; or limiting the instances in which the character thinks of himself by name, along with the other tricks that move the POV deeper inside a character's head.  But not all writers have the same definition of deep POV. Some writers would consider:  "The principal shook his hand." as an example of being too distant to be considered deep POV and would replace it with "  The principal's hand enveloped his." because that's how the character would supposedly experience it.  That's when I have a problem with deep POV.

Of course, these are all just my personal opinions, which means you’re free to pick and choose what you agree with.

And that’s the whole point of this post.

What aspects of writing do you find to have the most conflicting advice?  I'd been interested to know.

BTW, if you know anyone else who feels as confused as I do about all the conflicting information we writers receive, feel free to pass this post on to them.


  1. I should be editing right now, but I heard another two women, one an editor and the other an agent, say they wanted more characterization to care what happened during my book's opening, but they didn't want the heavy stuff I included, so they said maybe I started in the wrong place. What did the guy say? He wanted to know more about the strange flash. They got to see one half page, 13 lines, at that was all. So 5 experts in one panel can't even agree on how to hook.

    I've seen the same misinformation about passive voice. I think I ranted on it once too.

    I hadn't heard about complaints of overshowing, but I doubt I'll get to that point when I still don't show enough.

    Another conference attendee was told the opposite of what I heard about POV rules for middle grade. I heard no more than one. She heard more were allowed.

    Seems like every "rule" changes every year. I hope somebody speaks up in defense of adverbs soon because I still hate that one. If there were enough strong verbs in the English language, nobody would have ever invented adverbs.

    1. Sometimes I wonder how well agents and editors are at guessing what the public wants.

      You should write a post on what you learned and didn't learn at the conference you attended. We'd all be interested in hearing about that.

  2. Hmm. The most important thing I learned was that editors want "comps" in cover letters and agents don't. And I can submit to the Scholastic editor who happens to be executive directer at one of their imprints. But without an agent, I'll have to wait about 6 months to hear back. What? I thought part of the conference benefit was submissions without waiting in line with everyone else who didn't go. But then, those others without agents aren't supposed to submit at all. I guess they do anyway.