Thursday, November 17, 2011

9 Pieces of Bad Writing Advice it’s Best to Ignore--Anne R. Allen

by Anne R. Allen, @AnneRAllen

Hope you’ll join me in welcoming Anne R. Allen to the blog today. Anne’s blog is a great resource for writers…check it out. This week she has a guest post from Lawrence Block.

ARA pub photoFinding a beta reader or critique group is essential to any writer’s development. We can’t write in a vacuum. Nobody ever learned to be a good writer holed up in an attic with no one to review his work but the cat. (Cats can be so cruel.) But it’s good to be aware that not all the advice you’ll hear will be useful. As Victoria Strauss said in her must-read Writer Beware blog “never forget that people who know nothing are as eager to opine as people who know something.” Even worse than know-nothings are the know-somethings who turn every bit of advice they’ve ever heard into a “rule” as ironclad and immutable as an algebraic formula. Follow their advice and your book will read like an algebraic formula, too. Here are a few critique “rules” I find more annoying than useful. 1) Eliminate all clichés Unless your characters are wildly inventive poets, space aliens, or children fostered by wolves, their dialogue and thoughts will include familiar expressions. Don’t rob your Scarlett O’Hara of her "fiddle dee-dees" or deprive your Bogart of "doesn’t amount to a hill of beans." 2) More! Make it vivid! Would we really improve Casablanca with "a hill of Moroccan garbanzos, yellow-pale and round, of the kind the English call chick-peas"? 3) Avoid repetition Not necessarily. Beware what H.W. Fowler called "elegant variation". OK: "It was a good bull, a strong bull, a bull bred to fight to the death." NOT: "It was a good bull, a strong animal, a male creature of the bovine persuasion bred to do battle..." 4) Eradicate the verb "to be," especially in the past tense: “was” is the enemy. Yes, it’s generally wise to avoid the passive voice, which uses "was" in the past tense: "The cat was laundered by me," is passive and sounds lame. "I laundered the cat," is active and stronger. But sometimes the passive voice makes the clearest statement: "The cat was abused." Real problems arise when amateurs confuse passive voice with the progressive tense, which also uses "to be" (with the present participle.)

"I was just sitting there when the cat owner punched me," means something different from "I just sat there when the cat owner punched me." Eliminating "was" changes meaning instead of "strengthening." 5) Put your protagonist’s thoughts in italics. No. Don’t. Unless your editor specifically asks for this, avoid it. Italics are harder to read. When you write in the third-person-limited viewpoint, it’s read like first person: no italics or "he thought/she thought" necessary. "I walked away from the 'In Crowd’. They were just a bunch of ill-bred alley cats," can be changed to third person with just a switch of pronoun/noun: "Pufferball walked away from the 'In Crowd’. They were just a bunch of ill-bred alley cats." See? Just the same. 6) Characters must behave predictably Don’t let anyone tell you a character "wouldn’t" behave in a certain way. Only the writer knows if this particular truck driver would read Proust; this bride would run off with the florist’s mother; or that Maine Coon cat would pee on your Christian Louboutins. 7) Describe characters' physical appearance in detail. When your English teacher told you to beef up that "What I Did on My Summer Vacation" essay with long, colorful descriptions of your new kitty, she was looking for a complete page, not preparing you for publication. Brevity is now and ever shall be the soul of wit. The only thing Jane Austen told us about Elizabeth Bennett’s appearance was that she had "fine eyes." Let your reader's imagination do the work. 8) Protagonists must be admirable Saints are boring in fiction, unless they liberate France and get burned at the stake, and that’s been done. 9) If we don’t point out everything wrong, we’re not doing our job Newbies make a lot of mistakes. (You did too, remember?) But if you list them all at once, they won’t hear what you’re saying. They’ll hear a personal attack. When a person feels attacked, the brain shuts down.

A critiquer should tell you what’s right with a work as well as what’s wrong. When I was directing actors, I discovered the “sandwich” method is the most effective way to help someone improve: praise/criticism/praise.

All-praise-all-the time does nothing to help a writer’s work, of course, but neither does rigid thinking, power tripping, or misinformation.

My new mystery novel GHOSTWRITERS IN THE SKY was sparked by a particularly snarky and unhelpful critique workshop I witnessed at a writers conference many years ago. GHOSTWRITERS is set at a Z-list writers’ conference in the wine-and-cattle country north of Santa Barbara CA. where a young writer appears to have committed suicide after a savage critique.

I couldn’t help the young man who was humiliated in that long-ago workshop, and I’m not sure I ever knew his name (I hope he’s a bestseller now!) But I wrote the novel partly for him—and every other fledgling writer who has been the victim of a nasty, misinformed critique.

Ghostwriters in the Sky finalAnne R. Allen is the author of five romantic-comedy/mysteries debuting this fall with two publishers, Popcorn Press and Mark Williams international Digital Publishing: FOOD OF LOVE, THE GATSBY GAME, GHOSTWRITERS IN THE SKY, THE BEST REVENGE and SHERWOOD, LTD.

GHOSTWRITERS IN THE SKY is available in ebook from at and and will debut in January in paper. You can read more about Anne’s “chick lit noir” mysteries on Anne R. Allen’s Blog or her author page at

{Note from Elizabeth--There's been such a great response to this post that I'm foregoing my Friday post today to let Anne's stand at top-post position until Sunday. Thanks to everyone who has come by, and please remember I'm giving away a 1000-word critique from The Bookshelf Muse. Just send an email to me at elizabethspanncraig (at)gmail (dot) com with “contest” in the subject to enter. Entries accepted through November 21. The randomly-chosen winner will be announced here November 22. Thanks, Angela and Becca!}