Forbidden fruits. Tuesday, May 1 2007 

I’ve always tried to avoid ‘creative writing’ websites on the grounds that some of their ludicrious, narrow-minded ideas might get stuck in my head and distract me from actually writing. But I let my guard down for a moment and read a small piece about what the writer thinks is the ‘passive voice’. The example of ‘wrong’ they use was this:

She realized she’d reached the point of no return. She had to kill him.

And the example of ‘correct’ was this:

The point of no return. Breached. She had to kill him.

Apparently the former creates distance between the reader and the character, whereas the latter doesn’t. What I loathe about ‘creative writing’ rules and guidelines is that they assume that there’s only one novel in the world, and there’s only one way of writing. The woman writing the article doesn’t point out that the former is correct if that’s what the writer is trying to achieve; the example is out, RIGHT OUT. It is Anathema. And so are a list of words that the writer doesn’t think should be included in fiction: ‘hoped’, ‘realized’, ‘considered’…

Personally, I can see the value of creating distance between the reader and the character. What if I want the reader to study the character rather than ‘be’ the character? What if I think that writing in the stylised style of the latter example is the equivalent of using musical cues in cinema to tell the audience to feel ‘sad’ at the sad point and ‘scared’ at the scared point, a method that defeats its own purpose by being too heavy-handed?

No no no — verboten! And furthermore, no editor will EVER consider your manuscript if you don’t abide by their doctrine, so there’s no incentive for you to rely on your own judgement at all. You may be making a statement, but no one will ever hear it, so what’s the point?

Fuck it. If the editor is, like this creative writing instructor, so narrow-minded that they can’t see the value of what this writer thinks is the passive voice, then they’re probably utterly negligible. I may reduce my chance of having my book published by breaking their cruddy rules but at least I’ll have my pride.

This is why I can never take advice from anyone who holds or who has attended a creative writing course — why I’ll never allow them to critique my writing. They’ll be so distracted by their black and white ‘active voice good, passive voice bad’ bullshit (and other things) that they won’t be able to judge whether the passive voice is actually appropriate or not.

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Mindgunk of the badly prioritised wordmakers. Friday, Dec 22 2006 

There are lots of synonyms for the word ‘said’. I’ve been told by various people who have taken writing courses that I don’t use enough of them, or that I use them incorrectly – one person told me that I use the word ‘said’ too often, another told me that I used the word ‘asked’ redundantly, as in “Where is the butter?” asked Margaret.

This is one of the many reasons I will never envy people who have taken writing courses – they become fixated on looking for errors that don’t really exist unless you think they’re errors. The word ‘said’ is a small, insignificant word, like ‘the’. People don’t see it unless they’re looking deliberately looking for it, and only then are they likely to see it too often. The tautology of someone ‘asking’ something after a sentence ending with a question mark is also invisible to anyone who isn’t deliberately looking to criticise it.

The way I see it, no one is perfect – everyone needs to prioritise. If you’re too focussed on pointless little issues involving very small words, then you’re probably forgetting that there are much more important things in writing, like not sounding like a prat. Substituting the word ‘said’ at every opportunity with a different synonym throughout an entire story just to avoid using the word ‘said’ is sounding exactly like a prat. I noticed that Joseph Heller used the word ‘mellifluously’ twice in Catch-22 but that’s only because I was looking for it – it would never have appeared so repetitive to me if it hadn’t been on my top 10 most notable words list. ‘Said’ doesn’t even register.

Anyway, so that’s why I always take criticism with a very heavy dose of salt, or even just ignore it altogether. There’s the way I put fullstops at the end of subject lines, for example. I’ve been told it’s ‘wrong’. I don’t see how it makes a difference.

Things important to me are: not sounding like a prat, not sounding like I’m following a formula or have read a book on how to write books, not sounding like I’ve taken a writing course and not sounding like I’m trying to emulate my favourite writers. If I allow anyone to encroach upon these priorities with their own learned fixations (picked up from writing courses run by people driven by a profit motive who have to justify their existence by dispensing any and all advice they can think of) I’d be taking a huge step backwards as a writer.