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Monday
Jun272011

Potato Chips

   There's always been this bit of "writerly" advice that oftentimes becomes hypocritical from some people who give it, namely those who call my work "too wordy and descriptive".  It's my favorite advice, and I give it all the time: write what you want to read.  I follow it with every word I put to print, and I follow it with everything I read.  It, unfortunately, is also why I have become an incredibly finicky reader and don't read much fiction.  This is not because there aren't good stories, but because, I think, of some other bit of very, very bad advice floating out there.  I saw a glimpse of it in a tweet I follow quoting Anne McCaffrey (hopefully out of context): "Don't try to impress your reader with style or vocabulary or neatly turned phrases.  Tell the story first."

  Now, I agree with the "don't try to impress" part.  One should never force style.  If you're sitting there focusing on every word like you're folding origami, you're losing flow.  However, if the story is streaming from your mind and you find yourself furiously typing an entire novel in that general manner, by all means this is probably how you write.  Fine tuning, as always, is essential in the editing, but to trim out natural vocabulary or style just seems...well...very wrong.  I liken it to lighting your carefully concocted floral arrangement on fire and saying afterward, "It was just too damn colorful.". 

   This seems to be the trend though: remove style.  Remove description.  Remove anything that might be cause to slow the reader down a bit.  This a part of the "bestseller" mindset.  Chapters must be three pages or less, double spaced.  Characters can have no more than a one sentence description, though most don't even have that.  Make sure you use a mash-up of easily describeable material with a twist as a selling point.  Never mind the other widely popular advice of "don't write for the market" because if you can't describe your work using other authors' works, you can't sell yourself.  I'm not kidding on this either.  Publishers, editors, agents (book and screenplay alike) eat this up.  I went to a screenwriting conference in Santa Fe and the first thing they told us before setting us loose to pitch to agents and producers was to compare our screenplays to popular and successful movies and ideas.  Black became a mix of Tim Burton does Thirteen.  I got nods of instant comprehension every time. 

    One of the bits of advice I got as a new writer (and I can't for the life of me remember who said it to me, but it's the best advice I think I ever got) was to never write passively.  "What's that mean?" I asked.  "Use your keyword search," my advisor continued,"and type in the word 'was'.  Replace every one with something else."  I think I tried it out on one of my short stories and I was appalled with how often I'd used the word was.  It wasn't even in the sense of was -ing.  I used it for descriptions, too, like "His hair was stormy grey.", or "She was atop the hill when the fighting broke out.".  Ugh.  How boring!  I left in a couple because, well, I frankly got sick of it, but I really got a sense of when might be an appropriate place to use "was" in a novel (hardly ever), and when wasn't.  At a few conferences, editors gave the same advice.  What I'm seeing now, however, is a resurgence of this word in the "write for bestseller" market.  More lazy writing.  It's like they're deliberately inspiring people to write badly. 

   I hate to say it, but even Stephen King has fallen prey to this style.  I recently finished "Under the Dome" and, although I enjoyed the moral at the end, I have to say it was written very poorly.  Over 1000 pages and you would expect some character description in there somewhere.  Nope.  Every other verb?  Was.  The unfortunate side-effect of reading novels written like this is that you don't really read them.  You skim them.  Yeah, you want to know what happens, but not necessarily for the right reasons.  In my books I want people to read on because of the characters, because of what they're thinking and feeling, because of what they're experiencing and not just because of what's happening around them.  When you skim a book without really absorbing the text because there isn't anything to absorb, you just want to know the ending.  You might as well skip to the last chapter and save youself a heap of time.  It's like watching TV, but not paying attention until the last 10 minutes because that's the big reveal.  That's what this "bestseller" style reminds me of.  3 page chapters?  Commercial breaks.  Passive style?  Made for TV. 

  I don't know about the rest of you, but I prefer heart and soul in what I read and write.  I want fully textured worlds and characters that stimulate my brain, not skeletons with twist endings.  If I can't tell one author's work from another, I'm not going to bother, for something is off there.  Would you listen to a band's music if it sounded exactly the same as everyone else's?  Why write that way?  Media for the masses is like mass producing potato chips.  They might be tasty, but they're all the same thing, and they're not very memorable. 

   So really it's not really anyone's place to say you can or can't write a certain way.  You can write any way you want.  Whether people enjoy it is a totally different affair.  Whether you sell it is something else entirely.  Meshing the three together seems to be about what you want to do with your story, and what you can live with.  As for potato chips?  No thanks.  I hear they make you fat anyway.            

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