Friday, June 8, 2018

Don't Do What Your English Teacher Told You To Do


If you want to be a published writer, you should ignore most of what your English teacher told you about creative writing. Don’t ignore the grammar though—that’s important! But some of the other things your English teacher told you would get you points on your beautifully crafted essay will ensure that you are never published.
Let me give you some examples of what I mean.
            English teachers love to see English idioms in an essay. The more you have, the more the points will pile up. But a publisher will cringe at each one. If your character comes late for the meeting and you write “better late than never” your English teacher will smile but a publisher will put your short story to the side. Butchers down the street who are “right as rain” and paragraphs that start with “to make a long story short” are not wanted in modern novels and short stories.
            Most publishers see the use of such idioms at lazy writing. They are clichés and all clichés should be avoided. The reason is because they are used so often they make the writing uninteresting. You want to produce fresh, interesting writing. Some commonly used phrases can be cliché too, examples include: blushing bride, bored stiff, cold shoulder, and let her hair down, just to mention a few.
Even entire plots can be cliché. If your protagonist goes on an incredible journey but the last line of you story is “…and then she woke up” you need to go back to the drawing board and come up with something original. In fantasy, if your protagonist is searching for a ring in a magical fairy land with a mean dragon, try to sit down and change a few parts of the plot to make it fresh.
Another thing to avoid is what I call “thesaurus writing”. In thesaurus writing simple words will not do. A thesaurus writer wants a long complicated or obscure word every single time. An English teacher might like that, but a publisher wants precision. I recently read a self-published novel and it was nearly impossible for any character in the book to walk. Students in the book “gaited up the stairs”, “danced through a crowd” and “quietly trooped.”.  If you want to be published by a literary magazine or by traditional publishers, you must work to get the correct word. If the correct word is walked— then use it. You don’t get points for finishing the words in the dictionary.
In that same novel, verbs were unable to move along in the narrative without the constant assistance of an adverb. Groundsmen were “fervently sweeping” and a receptionist “answered enthusiastically”. Adverbs weaken verbs, they don’t strengthen them. I am not a writer who bans adverbs, but I use them sparingly and, I hope, for effect.
English teachers want description; they want everything described in detail. I think if you’ve read a novel written in such a way you will realise how tiring it is. A writer slows down the story to describe something for a reason. When I teach writing workshops, I always talk about significant detail. If I go into detail describing a man who has walked into the room where my protagonist is, but then three pages later he disappears from the novel and we never meet him again, you as the reader will feel cheated. Why were you taken on this descriptive journey? The man did nothing and plays no role in the story.
But yet time and again I read passages from writers where every single thing in the room is described. It is weak writing not strong, no matter how many English teachers might disagree with me.
Significant detail, though, can make a story very special. When you choose carefully what to describe and you understand fully why you’re describing it, then the reader knows they are in assured, capable hands.
One last thing your English teacher did you no favour with is dialogue tags. Your characters do not need to exclaim, or proclaim or even blame. Your characters can say or ask.  And please never this, “I like that,” Clara smiled”. You can’t smile words. Clara said is good enough.

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