Monday, 19 October 2009
Tipping off balance
Don't use passive voice
Don't use adverbs and adjectives
Avoid the verb 'to be'
Delete anything that you actually like
Shoot yourself immediately if you ever feel tempted to use a dialogue tag other than 'said.'
All right, so I exaggerate just to be stupid, but sometimes it feels as though the advice given to 'aspiring' writers is designed to stop you ever actually writing anything. How come you can pick up any published book and find adverbs, characters whispering or shouting things rather than saying them, and the verb 'to be' used perfectly sensibly without ruining the entire story?
I don’t think there’s one rule for published writers and another for first-timers. I think what’s really going on with advice like this is that the same problems crop up over and over, and helpful people want to warn against them. The trouble is that there’s nothing to catch the writer before he or she tips too far in the other direction, and one analogy that springs to mind here is with learning to ride.
When getting on a horse for the first time, many people subconsciously feel safer if they hunch their shoulders forward. The ground doesn't seem so far away, which is comforting, and the horse's mane is nearer for the rider to grab. A side-effect of hunching over is that the rider's toes point downwards. This whole posture looks ugly, but more pertinently than that, it’s not safe at all. It shifts your centre of gravity and messes up your balance so it doesn't take much for you to hit the deck.
That’s why anyone who had riding lessons as a kid will remember some demotivated, weathered fag-ash-Lil of an instructor bawling 'HEELS DOWN!' every five seconds. So you concentrate hard on keeping your heels down, and then she bawls 'HANDS DOWN!', and when you start thinking about the hands, you don’t notice the heels creeping upwards again.
I’m not a 'natural' rider, so any ability I have is down to trial and error (mostly error). As a pony-mad but nervous kid, I was a prime target for the 'HEELS DOWN!' shouts. Eventually, I started remembering not to let my toes point at the ground – hooray! I’d got the hang of it! Or so I thought.
I pushed my heels so far down that I ended up leaning back like a water-skier, with my feet sticking out next to the pony’s shoulders. Just as off-balance as I’d ever been, but in a different direction.
Some years later, it all became clear when a different instructor told me: 'The soles of your feet should be parallel to the ground.'
So that was it! Pretty simple, eh? Why hadn’t anyone just said that in the first place? They didn’t mean 'Heels down,' at all - they meant 'Heels not so far up!'
I think the same is true for the rules of writing. They are there for a reason – ignoring them altogether makes your work ugly and ineffective. But taking instructions too literally is just as likely to send you toppling into the dirt. In riding, recognising your centre of gravity becomes instinctive. It’s more difficult to achieve that with writing (for me, anyway) – maybe because it’s not so much of a matter of life and death – but I think it gradually becomes possible to recognise when the rules have a point, and when they’re tipping you off balance.