Reacting to bad writing advice (aka, fight me Jonathan Franzen)

Have you ever read writing advice so worthy of eye-rolling that you want to give up all hope for the future of writing?

This week, an article of writing advice from novelist Jonathan Franzen made the rounds across book Twitter, earning mockery and parodies aplenty. And since my first instinct when an old white man tells me what to do is to argue, I want to look at some of his points and give my own thoughts. And while I’m here, I might as well look at some other terrible advice!

Now, I am no published author. I cannot claim to have gained deep wisdom about the craft of novel writing. I am merely a college student who has spent her life reading and writing, so these reactions are based merely on my own experience.

That doesn’t mean I’m not going to be snarky, though.

Let’s start with you, Mr. Franzen.

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Jonathan Franzen’s 10 Rules for Novelists

Honestly, one of the things that frustrates me most about this article is that there is no explanation for any of these pieces of advice. They are simply stated, as if we should be grateful for these gifts of advice and not question them at all. Franzen claims that writers should never use the word “then” as a replacement for “and,” but doesn’t deign to explain what’s so wrong about the word “then.” Did you just decide you didn’t like how that word looks and therefore no writer should use it? That seems reasonable. Why don’t I give it a try. From now on, you CANNOT use the word mayonnaise, EVER, while writing. 

4. Write in third person unless a really distinctive first-person voice offers itself irresistibly.

*side-eyes shelves of YA books written in first person* Look, I know that there should be a reason for having a first person narrator, but it doesn’t always have to be an irresistible voice. Sometimes, it’s simply the best way of telling the story or getting inside the character’s head. Besides, if all books were written in third person, don’t you think you’d get a little tired of that?

5. When information becomes free and universally accessible, voluminous research for a novel is devalued along with it.

Hold up, hold up. Are you suggesting that just because we have access to a huge wealth of information thanks to the internet, we shouldn’t have research in novels? That just because I could look up what life was like in 17th century rural Germany, nobody should write a novel with that setting so I can experience it myself?

Also, this makes it seem like free and universally accessible information is a bad thing. What??? Maybe I’m misinterpreting this point, but I really don’t know how else to take it.

8. It’s doubtful that anyone with an Internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.

Oh, now this is a fun one. This just in: the invention of the internet led to the downfall of good fiction! Very original! Mind-blowing, in fact!

I’ll leave it at that because I think we can all agree that arguments about the internet being the bane of “good fiction” are tired and unoriginal and come off as a crotchety older generation who can’t accept the fact that younger people are finding interesting ways to utilize and incorporate new technology into fiction. The internet has existed for decades and there has been some pretty good fiction published during that time, at least in my opinion. Let’s move on.

9. Interesting verbs are seldom very interesting.

I…honestly do not know what this is supposed to mean. Are we not supposed to use verbs now in addition to adverbs and adjectives? What is it next? Nouns?? Are we meant to express an entire story with a single, meaningful look?

Thank you, Mr. Franzen, for your words of wisdom. I certainly won’t be following them.

The Eightfold Way: The 8 Basic Don’ts for Novel Writers

Now I actually don’t disagree with a lot of the points made in this article. I think some of the rules are a bit limiting, and there’s plenty of room for writers to break those rules if they do it well, but I don’t have a huge problem with much of what the writer says. However, there is one point here that I want to look at.

(7)  Don’t use cliched plots.

I got news for you, buddy, and I’m surprised you haven’t heard it before because it’s been around for a while: there is nothing new under the sun. Every story has been told before. Every plot has been used. The writer specifically says that there are “too many twins separated at birth, too many aliens that seem like mafiosos, a plethora of amnesia victims running from bad guys, hordes of star-crossed lovers with families that don’t understand,” etc. The thing is, there’s a reason people like those stories and keep returning to them. Sure, maybe they’re cliche, but that doesn’t mean they’re inherently bad.

Let’s look, for example, at retellings. I love a good retelling. There are so many retellings out there of classic stories, which people return to over and over again because they keep finding something to love about them. Everybody reads a story in a different way, which means that there are infinite stories to tell out there. 

(The writer also says “If I were an agent…the last thing I would want to read in a query is ‘My book is like…'” even though that’s literally a strategy that agents and publishers use to grab readers’ attention.)

This article collects the advice of a bunch of well-known authors, creating a long list of rules. Some of this advice I actually appreciated (Margaret Atwood’s and Roddy Doyle’s, for example, were much more practical and entertaining), but others, well…

Elmore Leonard: Using adverbs is a mortal sin

This old chestnut. I won’t belabor this point, since I think everyone is tired of hearing this, but adverbs are not the devil’s word; when used cleverly (see what I did there?), adverbs can enhance a piece of writing rather than diminish it.

Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”

Nobody can shout in your novel. Nobody can whisper or mumble or ask or snap or blurt or stutter or groan. Also, they can say anything quietly or hopefully or firmly or furiously.

Yes, there’s value in showing these things though dialogue and action, but that’s not always the most effective method! Creative ways of describing dialogue are not evil!

5 Keep your exclamation points ­under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.

Happiness in fiction is dead and we killed it.

Esther Freud: Cut out the metaphors and similes. 

Because anything that makes language and description fun must be EVIL.

Unrelated, but something that frustrates me about a lot of these is when they say “don’t do [insert thing here] unless you’re [famous writer].” Well, how do you think those writers became those famous writers? Was it by following your terrible rules? By breaking the rules, they established a new way of doing things, and telling other writers not to do that is so limiting!

Oh, also? This article from 2010 has the exact same pieces of advice from Jonathan Franzen, which means that the contents of his article from this week are at least eight years old. Real glad you’re bringing out that original content in 2018, buddy. 

Neil Gaiman: The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. 

Oh wait, no, I actually like this one a lot. Thanks, Neil Gaiman. I knew I could trust you. I think I’ll end on that.

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What this comes down to, I think, is a fundamental difference in what we view as “good” literature. This is a conversation for another day – one that I definitely want to have – but Franzen and these others seem stuck in the mindset that good literature is those thick literary fiction books that always dominate the NYT bestsellers list and celebrity book clubs (*cough* and are usually written by or about white men *cough*), leaving no room for alternate voices or perspectives.

I know I’m biased, being mainly a reader of YA, but the value in other books is typically downplayed in these types of writing advice articles. Some of the best written books I’ve read have been YA, and many of them don’t follow these rules. Expecting all writing to abide by certain guidelines limits the voices that we’re allowed to hear.

Honestly, the best writing advice I’ve gotten is that there are no rules. Rules are meant to be broken; only then can we find new and interesting ways of telling stories. 

Look, writing is hard enough without old writers entrenched in their own understanding of quality telling you what you’re doing wrong. Write what feels right to you. 

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This was supposed to be a fun silly post but it ended up being a manifesto against rules for writing, but hey, it be like that sometimes. 

What do you think of this writing advice? Do you have any writing wisdom to share?

x Margaret

goodreads | twitter

4 thoughts on “Reacting to bad writing advice (aka, fight me Jonathan Franzen)

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