In grade school, I always sat near the blackboard. With a last name like Bomke you get placed at the beginning of most things. (This is probably why it took me so long to get glasses.)
My memories of English class are scant. I think maybe we did sentence diagramming one day, but the memory might just as easily be from a TV show. Though I’m not sure where or when, there were certain rules I learned about writing growing up that working in publishing has rid me of. I continue to see authors follow these well-meaning but ineffective guidelines in their writing, so I thought it would be useful to lay them out.
Rule #1: Use a word other than “said” in dialogue
One thing I do remember vividly is being given a list of words other than “said” that I was meant to use when writing dialogue. The point of the lesson was to get students to be more creative with their writing, to not just repeat the same word over and over again, but to think outside of the “said” box. This is a good lesson in general. I’m a big fan of varying word choice, as I mentioned in a previous blog. But if you open most published books, you’ll see that most of the dialogue statements use “said” and most of the dialogue questions use “asked.” Why? Because dialogue should be so effortless that the reader forgets they’re reading dialogue and is just hearing the characters speak. A word like “said” is so basic that often when we read it in dialogue, we don’t even notice it. It doesn’t draw attention to itself, so our attention remains focused on the words the character is saying. If you used a word like “queried” or “speculated” instead, it would pop out more, which would remind the reader “hey, you’re reading dialogue right now,” which in turn would take the reader out of the moment and create distance between the reader and the character. The difference may be subtle, or even subconscious, but to keep that close connection between the reader and your narrator, it’s better for your dialogue tags not to stand out.
Rule #2: Use uncommon words to make your writing stand out
Like I said, I’m all for varying word choice. When this goes wrong in my opinion is when an author uses words that are too unusual or academic.
Sometimes at conferences I’ll do a panel where the moderator reads aloud the first page of an author’s book, and my fellow agents and I will comment on it. The authors are anonymous, but they are conference attendees who are likely sitting in the audience. I remember one opening page that described a war scene. I think there were shots fired, bombs dropped, people running for shelter, but despite all this action the scene wasn’t exciting, I didn’t feel like I was really there in the moment. There were a few reasons for this, and a big one was the word choice. The author had sprinkled in a number of “SAT words”—words you learn to take the SATs, but most people don’t use in real life. This made the writing feel stilted and formal. It didn’t have the immediacy of say writing that focuses on sensory imagery using simple words. I remember there was a camel in the scene. The first time it was mentioned, the author used “camel.” The second time it was mentioned, the author used “dromedary.” Normally I would applaud this word choice variation. But the word “dromedary” is so outside of everyday use, that it just made writing feel more stilted. (I would’ve rather the author used “camel” a second time.) When I read writing like this, sometimes I feel like the author had a thesaurus next to them, and they were looking for the most unusual words to make their writing pop. I’ve got nothing against thesauruses. I use thesaurus.com all the time. (I even used it for this blog.) But I don’t think big or unusual words should be used for their own sake. I don’t think they make a person’s writing better. They often make it worse. So excogitate that exhortation!
Rule #3: Start by describing the setting
Again with this lesson, our teachers were urging us to be creative. To think about the setting and anchor the reader in it, so that they would know the time and location in which the story takes place. This is good advice. In fact, I also believe it’s important to anchor the reader in the setting early on. But it’s more important to open with action that anchors the reader in the character. When I get a submission that spends a paragraph describing the setting before it introduces the action or the characters, I stop reading and move on to the next one. Because if I don’t know the person who lives in this setting, then why do I care about the setting?
Instead I urge writers to open with action that shows me who a character is, and gradually bring in whatever setting details are relevant to anchor the reader. For instance, if it’s set during the Victorian era, you can show that through details like what the character is wearing, what kind of transportation they have available, etc. There’s no need to spend a paragraph describing horse-drawn carriages moving across Trafalgar Square from a distant 3rd person POV. Instead show this setting from your protagonist’s POV. Have her narrate about the steady rocking of the carriage, how it’s like the ocean at low tide. Have her notice the onion skins and dog poop littering the street, clinging to the hems of ladies’ dresses. This kind of opening allows you to do all three things at once: open with action, ground the reader in the character, and ground the reader in the setting.
Rule #4: Describe what your character looks like early on
This early writing prompt was meant to get students to think about who their character is, which is one of the most important aspects of any story. And defining a character by how he looks is easier for children than, for instance, defining a character by his deep-seated emotional issues. But the truth is that how a character looks has virtually nothing to do with who he is, so these kinds of descriptions are often irrelevant in a novel. In fact, they’ve been done so often that they’ve become cliché. If I had a dollar for every submission I got where a character glances at a mirror and describes what he or she looks like, I would be on my own private island guarded by French bulldogs wearing striped shirts and berets. While there isn’t anything intrinsically wrong with describing what your character looks like in the opening, descriptions that don’t move the story along fall under the category of an “info dump.” An info dump pauses the action to explain something to the reader. Often it’s something the reader doesn’t need to know right that second. Or it’s something the reader does need to know, but the author couldn’t figure out how to weave it in more naturally, so it feels tacked on.
The only time when it might be useful to describe what your character looks like in the opening is when how they look ties in to the story’s central conflict. For instance, if a girl is teased because she has red hair or because she wears hand-me-downs from her aunt, then those aspects of how she looks could be mentioned early on. But I don’t necessarily need to know other aspects of how she looks (what color eyes she has, how tall she is, etc) if they don’t relate to the central conflict of her being teased.
All of these rules had a purpose at the time we learned them. They taught us the building blocks of writing, and got us to think outside the box. But it’s even more important to learn the rules of contemporary publishing, what’s normal, what’s over-done, what’s fresh. I always feel like the best way to soak up this knowledge is to be an avid reader in the genre you’re writing in. Then you can learn the norms of the genre, and know what’s out there, and use that information to guide you in the right direction. And you get to read a lot of books. What’s better than that?