Please welcome novelist and humorist Molly D. Campbell to WFW today as she talks to us about the rules of writing! If you have any thoughts or examples to share, please do so in the comments!
I am a published author, so that makes me an authority on writing things, doesn’t it? There are rules to follow. I try to follow them. One rule that has me flummoxed is the current ban on adverbs. You read that correctly. Correctly is an adverb. So how should I have said that just then? You read that with accuracy? Bah.
But since I plan to write more than one novel, and I am actually (another adverb) a third of the way through my next one, I thought I would share with you some of the no-nos in the author game. You know, so you will be a better critic in the future. But be kind in those Amazon reviews—some of them have been so harsh as to cause writers to contemplate becoming auto mechanics and cocktail waitresses instead. But I digress. You aren’t supposed to do that as a writer, either.
A cardinal rule of the writing business is “Show, don’t tell.” It took me about three years to understand what this really means. I am terrible at it. But the following are examples:
TELL: Audrey felt just sick about having to inform Robert that she couldn’t possibly marry him. After all, she still got cold shivers when she thought about Pierre. Pierre was the love of her life, and Audrey believed with all of her heart that he would return from that trip down the Amazon River to discover the cure for arthritis.
SHOW: Audrey woke, her pillow damp with her tears. She put her hand on her forehead, which throbbed from the dream that was so vivid. Pierre was rowing towards her, his eyes full of terror. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a giant boa constrictor reared out of the water, slithered onto Pierre’s tiny boat, and enveloped him in a twisting death grip. “Audrey, Audrey!” Pierre managed to cry, as the evil snake crushed the life out of him. Audrey picked up her cell phone and punched the “Robert” icon. “Hi, darling,” she said. “Oh yes, I will marry you!”
See? So much more literary.
Another writers’ tip is to use dialogue, not description. Readers tire of long passages full of poetic language, no matter how many hours the author spent painting the scene for them and being vivid. Nope. We would rather just move along. Let the characters move the plot, and really, we don’t actually care what color the leaves were on the trees that afternoon. For example:
The sky darkened. The parched, mahogany leaves rattled in the sudden breeze. Flora felt the goosebumps rise on her arms, drawing the thin muslin wrap around her. Thunder rent the air with dissonant anger. Grant began to pack the picnic things into the basket, but not before the huge, cold drops began to fall. The sky took on a greenish hue as the lightning pierced the clouds. Grant seized the picnic basket in one hand and extended his other out to the frightened and shivering girl. As they hurtled toward the distant farm cottage, a thunderclap nearly knocked them down.
“Shit, Flora, I think it’s going to rain! Hurry up and finish your sandwich. We need to get out of here!”
“Don’t be silly. It is just heat lightning. It happens all the time around here. Want a pickle?”
“For God’s sake, are you nuts? My cousin got struck by lightning three years ago at the golf course, and he has been a sniveling idiot ever since—you can stay as long as you want, but I am getting out of here.”
“You are overreacting, as usual. Wait! Damn! My Sierra Mist just blew over! You may be right. Look at the sky—it’s puke green…”
Which book would you rather read? I thought so.
So you see, we authors don’t just jot down whatever comes into our heads. It’s a craft. Nay, an art form! We spend hours just sifting through our heads for the right word. We agonize over those adjectives, and we brutally eliminate those adverbs (oh, right—brutally is an adverb). We struggle with realistic dialogue.
Yup. So right now I have to get back to Flora, Pierre and Robert. Poor Pierre. That anaconda—or was it a boa constrictor—just sealed his fate, and tonight, Robert is going to get lucky…
Molly D. Campbell is a two-time Erma Bombeck award winning author. She is the author of Characters in Search of a Novel. Visit Molly’s blog at www.mollydcampbell.com and read Molly’s debut novel, KEEP THE ENDS LOOSE.