What Do You Know?

New Mexico SunsetWriting myths. We’ve all heard them. Lately I’ve heard a bunch more and they always leave me laughing and cringing. A friend used to say, “It’s not what you don’t know that’ll get you, it’s what you know that ain’t true.” There’s a lot that folks know which just ain’t true.

The latest came to me as “editors hate head hopping.” This one had me shaking my head. Most editors I know wouldn’t know head hopping from the bunny hop–they’re looking for a good story and good writing. Awkward changes of viewpoint are just that and put you out of the “good writing” category. The moral to this myth busting is learn to handle viewpoint–control it and you better control your story. And changing point of view can be done, and done well.

Next after that was that “omniscient POV” wasn’t used in romance. Not so much a head shaker here as a “WTF?”  And when did this useful tool get banned? (I’m obviously not getting my memos.) Maybe if you go way, way back to the early days of Harlequin romances when they did have rules (such as thou shalt only write from the woman’s point of view), this might have held true as a genre guideline for a specific publisher. But as a writing rule this one falls aside as fast as a couch-potato marathon runner.

But one of my favorites is one I’ve heard over the years, and lord knows where this comes from–“People didn’t use contractions back then.” (Meaning anytime before 1900, I presume.) Very hard to buy into this one since I’ve read the letters from folks ‘back then.’ I think contractions have been around forever, but it does sound nicely old fashioned to leave them out, so I think this one comes from the influence of movies (since if you’ve seen it in a movie, it must be true–right?).

Editors are not immune from myths, either. I once had a editor, to whom I pitched a story with a horse racing background say, “Well, Nora Roberts can write horses, but I’m not sure anyone else can.”  Guess no one mentioned this to Dick Francis (and a good thing, too), or the dozens of other romance writers who have horses prominent in their stories. But, yes, that’s how myths are born–I could have easily passed this on to all my friends as ‘from the editor’s mouth’ commandments.

I’m also going to lump “show don’t tell” in here with another myth to retire. That’s mostly because I love a good narrative–lord, do I love it. A good writer can make story telling sing. The trouble here comes more from young writers telling when they should be showing, so I’d rather make this advice into “show more, tell less” or even, “show your character in action, and tell when you need transitions and information compression.” But that’s too wordy to catch on.

Now it is true that there are craft issues that are going to make it harder to pull off a good book. That’s not a myth. I’ve know folks who want to write epic, sweeping fiction in their first novel, with multiple viewpoints, and socio-economic commentary–and their goal is to get it done in a year. Good bless ambition. And, if you you have the talent, you can do anything, so go for it if that’s your burning desire.

However, the trouble is, most folks don’t know if they have that talent, or they have either an overinflated idea of their talent, or a too ambitious reach. Writing takes time–good writing often takes a gift that comes from both practice and the blessings of a Muse who just happens to smile that day. A great story is not always to your credit–sometimes the character just show up already knowing their lines. And sometimes you just sweat a lot to get that good story.

But that’s where art comes into things. It’s not always under your control. And you still have to put the effort into craft–what you practice does make your skills there strong. But I think a lot of the process is about unlearning what you’ve learned–it’s the stuff you know that ain’t true that’ll get you.

This leaves me preferring to focus my own writing on the story–meaning, I want the technical challenges to be kept simple an to a minimum. A word-smithing challenge that has me spending more time sorting out how to write is not a good thing. I’d rather spend more time thinking about characters. This also means setting aside the myths–and stuffing cotton in my ears when I hear one of those myths floating around. (Stick with Strunk and White and you’ll avoid most myths.)

But maybe there is one myth that holds true–the myth that “there are no rules”. However, I can think of an exception there, too. My one big rule is: Don’t Bore the Reader. And that’s not a myth.

Shannon Donnelly

Now at Book View Cafe:

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What Do You Know? — 5 Comments

  1. In knitting circles we listen to our yarn. Within certain parameters, the fiber tells you what it wants to be. You cast on for a charming baby hat and it is plain within a couple inches that the hat is going to be a complete failure and the yarn would much rather be a peplum blouse.
    It works that way with fiction, too. Sometimes the work simply does not want to be a grand sweeping epic; it wants to be a quirky bromance with detective elements. You start out on the way to Mordor and you wind up drinking pomegranate mojitos with a metrosexual in a bar in San Francisco. At that point to force it back into the fantasy epic is just going to lead to tears. Drink that mojito and listen to your work!

  2. And listen to your characters. How many times have we started out along one path and the character sits down, arms crossed, knees drawn close to the chest and says “Nope. Not gonna do it. It’s stupid and you’re stupid to try to make me do it.”

    Doreen Roberts admits that in one of her early category romances she went through 5 magnificent hunks before she found the alpha geek her heroine needed. But then she had 5 magnificent hunks who each had their own story to tell…

  3. Oh, for sure. In SPEAK TO OUR DESIRES the hero muscled in on page 200 and refused to be the walk-on spear-carrier I thought I had called for. I had to renumber all the pages so that he could be on page 1.

  4. People used contractions back then. Indeed, they used a lot we don’t — like “yr” for “your”. Ink wasn’t cheap, paper wasn’t cheap, and writing all that out would make your hand sore.

  5. And all these “rules” get churned over and over again on Twitter by “experts”. Makes my head hurt. Which makes me wonder…do these people read?