Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Writing Advice

Stephen Graham Jones* wrote this article called "Ten Obvious Truths About Fiction" over at LitReactor. Then Pablo D'Stair and Sarah D'Stair responded to it in a podcast over at P.S. We Are Better Than You.

They critique the 10 Obvious Truths on a number of grounds, noting that they do agree with Obvious Truth #2 "The reader is smarter than you think," but almost nothing else.

Overall, I side with the D'Stair (their opinions on this are basically identical) critique of this particular piece of writing advice and most writing advice in general. (Although there are some points on which we differ...)

Some objections they bring up with which I wholeheartedly agree: 

1) Jones' piece assumes that there's some generic reader out there. Maybe there is such a thing, but why are we assuming that every writer wants to hook this illusive median reader browsing through the airport bookstore to find something that kills a few hours? There are plenty of writers already writing to the median reader--most of who are failing at this goal--certainly we don't need more of these writers. 

2) Jones' piece seems geared toward writers who play it safe. Don't break conventions! Make sure every page has a hook! Make sure the story keeps its promises! Sure, there are plenty of writers who succeed within these confines, but there are plenty of others who set up completely different confines.  

3) Jones makes the point that readers don't go for vague endings. This gets on my nerves. First of all, I think some of the most satisfying endings in fiction are vague endings. (Pablo D'Stair happens to write some of the finest vague endings around.) So to say that "readers" don't go for it is only true if we're talking about that median reader again. 

Where I disagree with the D'Stairs is about Obvious Truth #8 "Readers can tell when you are trying to be smart on the page." Pablo says, instead, that you should "be as smart as you are." I don't see any reason ever to "try to be smart" (even "as smart as you are") on the page. Sure, there are some writers who I like who I would imagine are very smart, but more often than not, even with writers I like, usually I'd prefer to see less research, less of their education, less of all that shit--save that for writing essays or something.

A good example is Tom Clancy. Clancy clearly did so much goddamned research and then felt like he had to fit it all in, or just he got carried away. Either way, he threw down way too much knowledge. Especially in The Cardinal of the Kremlin. So fuck that. Don't be as smart as you are. Be as smart as your characters are.

I'm sure Pablo knows where more shit than Trevor English.

Also, I'm surprised Pablo didn't shred apart Obvious Truth #1 "The reader should never have to work to figure out the basics of your story." Jones seems to suggest (and not just in #1, but throughout) that the reader should leave the experience with few to no questions. Some writers pull this off beautifully--they load you up with questions and never answer them. I prefer these kinds of writers over the ones who try to tie up everything little thing.

*note that Stephen Graham Jones is a far, far more accomplished writer than I am. So maybe you should take his advice over mine.


  1. Hi Chris! I liked the piece over at LitReactor. It'll mean different things to different writers. The thing about writing on writing is it's a slippery devil to nail down. I guess the only thing I'd add is "Make sure everything you imagine is on the page is actually on the page." This is the hardest thing and why many writers can't see any room for improvement in their own work. It's too hard to see the forest for the trees. My own imagination is all tangled up with the words on the page and the rich fountain of imagery I think has been captured in Times Roman is more like a parched desert.

  2. Hey Chris (apologies in advance for the length)

    I think we actually do agree about the "write as smart as..." thing, you just put it in a more direct way. Sarah (who actually made all the smart points on the podcast, by the way, if you listen I just repeat her, haha) and my point was more that "putting in research" or "writing fancy" should not be mistaken for "smart" and "writing without fanciness" (superficially) should not be mistaken for "natural". Write appropriately to the tone of the story, yes yes, and of course to the character--don't overload with your research (if you did any) or acumen (if it is not in keeping with the voice). But, don't "write down" either--as in, don't assume that using a "flowery" or "more digressive" style, if this is the style you're feeling, will "come of as fancy" and so catch yourself "writing for the common man" in just as snotty a way, instead. Example--even with crime stuff, there could be someone who has a natural flair for a "gritty voice" and so naturally writes that way--it could be clever, snappy, hard, but they don't force it, they just ARE clever, snappy, hard (no research, no fancy stuff, no editing it to "sound that way") and another writer might not naturally think that way, so when they try to "write gritty" they come off sounding the pretender, which is just as pompous as trying to sound "all educated" in a literary piece (educated above your scope, I mean). That is, it's just as bad when someone wants to come off as "street" or "snappy" or "noirish" when they just don't think that way--they can write about "noir" characters etc. but don't need to try to "mimic the way such characters would sound" (think the difference between Patricia Highsmith and Elmore Leonard--it would be stupid for them to try to "be like each other" they each just "wrote how they think" and the stories and characters were expressed perfectly via their tone). Basically, if you are describing a scene involving characters "who don't know as much as you" as you bring up, don't "fake your own intelligence down" just write like you write ABOUT those people, not LIKE them. With Trevor English, as you bring up, sure I don't have him "as a character" make the same sort of thoughts I do or reference the things I'd reference (literature, film etc) but I don't sit around trying to "write him less intelligent than me" I write "intelligently about him". I know he's not me, but I'm the one writing, he's just an imaginary guy. I need to "write as smart as I am": as in the voice of the writer, in whichever style, should only reflect a natural intelligence and style--anything faked is...fake, in either direction.

    Blah blah blah. my point is, I agree with you, but would say "write the character as smart as the character is" but the writing itself does not have to "match the character's style".

  3. Hey, yo
    Here I am supposed to be writing & I see this on google reader & can't help but investigate. Thoroughly enjoyed the D'Stairs' discussion on the SGJ's article. I think the Bob Ross illustration pretty much sums the whole thing up. I'll also openly state I love SGJ's work, his story in this last Weird Tales mag was just fantastic. Thanks for mind stimulating stuff here, Chris!

  4. A-9, I agree with that basic sentiment that what you should imagine should make it to the page. This is something I still struggle with. But to me that's just one of several points that he makes.

    Pablo--sounds like our opinions are closer than I initially thought. Certainly "writing down" is as ridiculous as trying to sound smart, well researched, etc.

    Jodi--I've heard many good things about Jones' fiction but have yet to check it out for myself.