On Misinterpretation

If I ever get very rich (from writing or otherwise — though neither possibility is likely) one thing I may do is go to every bookshop I can find (possibly not that many if they keep closing at the rate they do), buy every copy of Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’ and hide them somewhere safe from over-eager creative writing students. If a few copies were removed from circulation I don’t think it wouldn’t be a terribly bad thing — at least not for people in writing workshops.

It’s not that I dislike Stephen King or think it’s a poor book — I have my own copy and read it with great interest. In fact it’s in many ways too good: the advice it contains is so directly and unambiguously argued that it works like a loaded weapon — let a gun get into the wrong hands and you’re asking for trouble (and I don’t exclude myself from this as I’m now questioning whether some of my own writing style has been too directly influenced by its recommendations).

The book is subtitled ‘A Memoir of the Craft’ — which is something that most of its proseltyizers  fail to read — but that is exactly what it it is. It’s King’s account of the techniques of the craft that have worked well for him — and he’s an outstandingly successful novelist who is also a fine writer and much underrated by literary snobs who look down on genre fiction. However, some of the justified anger that he perhaps feels about the lack of seriousness with which his work is taken seems to me to translate into a rhetorical rebuttal in which he passionately defends his position but, simultaneously, appears to some readers as ‘this is the way it must be done’ — or worse, ‘follow these golden rules and you’ll be a bestselling writer’.

King is, no doubt, sensible enough to have put a disclaimer in the book saying that it’s not a ‘get-rich-quick’ manual (and he’s by no means the first person to have given similar advice, as he acknowledges by referring to Strunk and White’s ‘Elements of Style’). However, it’s ironic that, given the poor esteem in which he says he holds the writing workshopping mentality, his book appears to have provided a source of ammunition that feeds the exact behaviours he criticises.

There seem to be a lot of dubious ‘rules’ whose current popularity could be perhaps be traced back the ten years or so to when ‘On Writing’ appeared — which was probably not co-incidentally a time when many creative writing classes and courses were becoming much more popular. (Disclaimer: I’m not remotely suggesting that any of my fellow students on university creative writing courses are guilty of this sort of crass simplification — they’ve all been selected by interview and on the basis of their writing ability — nor the excellent tutors. However, it doesn’t take long to come across really stupid examples of misinterpretation and perversion of King’s advice if you browse a few writing blogs or exchange experiences with other student writers.)

Possibly the most notorious example of dangerous over-simplification is King’s injunction that ‘the adverb is not your friend’. This seems quite a nuanced phrase to warn writers off using adverbs as an unnecessary crutch — for example using an adverb in a phrase like ‘he walked quickly’ rather than  ‘he dashed’ or similar or in stating something that should be obvious to the reader from the context like ‘he said threateningly’. King doesn’t say adverbs are bad — he just asks, because adverbs are modifiers of verbs, the reader to consider their use carefully — which is a variant on the good advice that every single word in a novel should have to justify its place.

However, after this fairly considered section he later casually refers to ‘all those lazy adverbs’ and — a remark that is interpreted by some as implying that any use of an adverb suggests a lazy writer. This seems to have metamophosised into a dictat that all adverbs are bad — partly because it’s a ‘rule’ so simple that idiots can follow it (‘if it’s a describing word that ends in -ly it is a sign of Bad Writing).

I found a post on a writing blog (Novelr) titled ‘Why Adverbs Suck’, which starts by taking examples of sentences with adverbs and proceeds to rewrite them minus the adverb — but usually including some extra element of detail that ‘shows’ the sentiments that the dreaded adverb ‘tells’ (illustrating that the adverb is a casualty in the philosophical battle between show and tell — see Emma Darwin’s excellent post on this issue). In most cases the sentences become considerably longer. (The insertion of such ‘reportage’ is something I tend to do — and, as it’s recently been pointed out, perhaps over-do.)

The Novelr blog post is worth following for the debate that follows in the comments in which the pro- and anti-adverb camps state their positions in the religious war. Imho those writing in defence of the adverb have more logic and evidence on their side and those arguing against it seem more motivated by dogma and simplicity. It’s asked why adjectives are far less reviled than adverbs (I’d suggest it’s because most of them don’t end with the same two letters and are less easy for pedants to identify).

I’d also suggest that a piece of writing which is marred by clumsy over-use of adverbs is also likely to be littered with unnecessary adjectives, rambling sentences, bad grammar and other evidence of incompetence or perhaps ‘first-draftiness’ (what an adjective — shows you can make one out of a noun by suffixing -ness just as you can make an adverb by adding -ly to a verb!). (Time constraints mean the stylistic quality of the writing on this blog is sadly very much an example of this first-draftiness.)

Just as bad writing isn’t just typified only by use of adverbs (or any use of the passive voice or dropping in back story or other of King’s bêtes noir) then their use in the right context can be extraordinarily skilful. On the City course, one of the students (who is a professional writer) sprinkled her prose with adverbs — in some cases they had a breathtakingly subversive influence on a sentence, or even whole paragraph.

Of course much is in the context, the talented writer on our course was writing about suburbia from an ironic narrator’s perspective, whereas Stephen King writes horror: there’s less need to describe the nuances of exactly how a character might sink an axe into someone’s head than to describe the action itself — and I don’t mean this disparagingly to the genre as I recently workshopped an action scene myself and probably followed King’s stylistic advice to the letter on that.

Stephen King says he thinks adverbs (and the passive past tense) have been designed for the ‘timid’ writer. That may be true if they’re over-used as some sort of extra insurance policy that is meant to affirm that the reader understands what the writer is trying to say. But, in an example of extreme irony given the general low opinion that King has of writing groups, courses and workshops, his uncompromising stance towards the adverb has led to a situation where it’s the timid writers who now avoid adverbs — because of the possible mauling they will receive for any use of them whatsoever if given feedback from one of the many people who has simplified King’s own stylistic advice to the point of absurdity.

Other resources, given in good faith, can also be horribly misinterpreted. In its creative writing assessment booklet, the Open University gives a list of points for students to check through before they submit their short piece of fiction for assessment (probably based on the guidance given for marking). It’s a long checklist and includes pretty commonsense questions like ‘does description utilise the senses’, ‘are metaphors or similes used’, ‘does the story move forward’ and ‘is the point of view consistent’.

The danger is that some people misconstrue this checklist (which is principally for short stories) into rules that say: all description must utililise the senses; there must be metaphors and similies; the narrative should always move quickly forward; the point-of-view must not change and so on. The last two points, while probably necessary in short stories, certainly shouldn’t be dogmatically applied to novels.  So what starts off as a useful aide-mémoire becomes a bible for the workshop pedant. Lists like this also seem to encourage people in writing workshops to read a text in a way that would be alien to any reader who might pick up a novel in a bookshop.

Imagine a contemporary creative writing workshop sent back in time to early 19th century Hampshire — considering the opening lines of a possibly timid female writer. ‘You’ll never get this published — you use an adverb only five words into the book — an example of a lazy, profligate writer. Wouldn’t it be better to write “It is a truth acknowledged’ or, better, “It is an acknowledged truth that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife”. The word universally is clearly unnecessary as it merely re-inforces the meaning of the word truth.’  And you wouldn’t want to be there when they start on the length of her sentences…or the pace.

11 Replies to “On Misinterpretation”

  1. At the begiining, when one is starting out as a writer – one wants to do it perfectly. This is partly due to lack of confidence I think.Or it may be a touch of perfectionism perhaps. Hence the adherence to these sorts of “writing bibles”.But its not good to write to a formula ; to learn to write, as it were, by numbers. There is no substitute in my book(sorry for the pun) for “just writing”, especially at the begining( not only if you are a complete novice but also if you are an experienced writer begining a new piece).It may be aweful and crammed with the ‘no no’s’ but its really important to allow”play”, just as it is for a child in its development. The tidying up comes later. I think that obsesion with this ‘ getting it right ‘ mantra can often just stifle any creativity or originality. First -just write.Then you can refine and learn what to leave in and what to cut. Second – there is absolutely no substitute for live workshopping – reading aloud and getting feedback on the immediate impact of ones work. It might be not what one wants to hear (or it might be) but there nothing better to gauge if people are excited/intersted in what you are doing and to put you onto the right track. Just make sure you pick a good, competent and friendly writers group. There you will learn your craft better than from any text book. Listening to other writers read their work(the good and the bad) and being exposed in vivo to a wide spectrum of genres is an experience of immeasurable benefit.
    Bren Gosling

  2. And of course learn the rules BUT also break them sometimes. Plenty of very ‘good’writers do.
    Bren Gosling

  3. I think we’re in agreement Bren. It’s better to concentrate on creating characters, plot, setting, narrative voice and so on so you know you have something that works than worrying too much about whether you’ve written in the passive voice or put in a few adverbs too many.

    My main issue is that the sort of criticism that becomes most widespread is the sort that’s easiest to distil into a soundbite. So Stephen King’s gives quite sensible advice but the aggressive, uncompromising way in which he gives it means that it gets reduced into over-simplistic ‘rules’.

    And there is no best way. Nearly every published novel I now read has me reaching for the workshopper’s pencil and thinking ‘oh a POV change’ or ‘is that one too many adjectives’. But these books have been published and edited and won awards and read and loved by thousands of people.

    I think style of writing is a ‘hygiene factor’ or ‘order qualifier’ (to use MBA speak) which means in order to get seriously considered for publishing you need to reach a certain threshold of quality but, once you meet that, any time you spend further honing the style is really for optional, aesthetic reasons (maybe if you want to be considered literary or to win a prize).

  4. intersting reflections Mike. Was it you, incidently, who was on the TV with Sebastain Faulks(Twitter)…I dont do Twitter – for the same reason as mentioned by Itch of Writing though I can se it being useful in spreading word of my novel if and when its out in print!
    Bren Gosling

  5. Not me on the TV. I was watching it. The Tweets might be confusing to read on their own — I was tweeting the novelist Ian Rankin (who I follow and occasionally exchange messages with) and he’d just been interviewed on the programme about Muriel Spark. He did reply to my comment last night.

    I guess it’s early days for Twitter and its influence but Mike B went to a seminar at the London Writers’ Workshop which basically said Twitter was not optional for new writers — you needed to do it (and Facebook) — because what publishers are saying to new authors is basically that they expect the authors to have a social media profile. And that social media profile has to be built up over a long period.

    It sort of stands to reason — if you follow authors you respect (and whose work is similar to yours) on Twitter and then build up some relationship with them so they might recognise your name then they’re a thousand times more likely to donate an encouraging one-line quote for the cover of your book, which might make all the difference between it disappearing without trace and getting into Waterstones.

    But you also don’t want to be a pest or come across as a cyber-stalker.

    I recommended a pub to watch the AC Milan v Spurs game last week to a literary agent for which he tweeted his thanks — so I reckon I may be able to approach him with my novel, especially as I now know what sort of work he’s interested in.

  6. I went on the same workshop as Mike B- I agree but first the priority must be to get the novel completed to a good standard. No point in marketing something which has no substance. Better to wait. I note Mike was quick to submit his early work to agents and to set up a blog, twitter etc but his blog is not maiantained and he is no further with anything than the rest of us.

  7. Jennifer has more or less finished her novel so is probably the furthest ahead that I know of. I’m frustrated with the progress of mine but I keep having ideas that might improve the novel — the balance is between constant refinement and the need to finish.

    The longer time passes without any of us having a book on the shelves in Waterstones the more I wonder whether it was the right stage for us to have done the reading to agents. Personally I’m now quite relieved not to have felt any pressure to deliver and I completely agree with your point about completing a novel to a good standard. You want to make the best impression possible — not necessarily the quickest.

    But I think probably the same applies to the social media side — it’s not a bad idea to build up a presence over time — I guess the blogs are probably the best for in-depth communication but Twitter can raise profiles quite unexpectedly.

  8. I think that the readings WERE DEFINATELY a good idea, for me, atleast. The fact that I had interest from four agents and that I went to see one and they allowed me to talk freely through my ideas for the book- acknowledging that it was no where near ready at that stage to show more – I found inspiring. It’s no garantee of course that publication will follow but the fact that I know the story I am writing is of interest to someone who doesnt otherwise know me has been a great kick start. The situation off having agents who have told me “send it to me” when its completed has spurred me on.I have printed off the email from each agent and put these up on my white board at home. Similarly emails from a couple of writers from my local writers group who are published novelists already and have made nice, encouraging comments about the qualities they see/like in my work.These are carrots have to dangle all the time and especially when I feel the task before me is insurmountable. The road which you describe I know well – it is a hard slog and exactly as you describe- a balance between constant refinement and achieving a satisfactory end product. I believe that its important to be able to visualise the end of the process in order to succesfully move toward it. Having the agents waiting is a good motivator but also setting a structure within which to work is equally important to me. The targets I set do move as the novel evolves but the end is now clearly in sight and I know where I am going and by when. If you do not set a time frame to complete then it will make things harder.
    The monthly check in with Emma/ my mentor is proving invaluable. She sees almost evrything new I am writing and discusses with me the stage I’m at, encourages me to linger or leave and move on. And my writing has got better with this constant practice and challenge.
    Sometimes I have found the presure of it extremely weighty – thats why I write scenes/chapters in sections and not in any start to finish order. . Every now and then I look at the bigger picture and where things should all go, what needs to change , what further work needs doing and what new research I need to undertake. But once you have this thing in you, it just has to be let out in its entirity – and – Mike I certainly get this sense from you too about Kim et al in The Angel. So make a plan, keep going – even if the plan changes – set yourself a time frame, even if you have to reset the clock occaisionally. And give yourself a break sometimes – read, do something else for a few days. The story of ones novel is always there and when the time is right will resurface and cry out for you to begin again the telling of it.
    Bren Gosling

  9. I will need to look at Twitter and (God forbid) a Facebook page and a website – but all in good time.
    Bren Gosling

  10. Sorry Lev for taking ages to approve your comment. It had got hidden with all the penis enlargement spam comments that are filtered out.

    I think a lot of Creative Writing tutors would certainly have told Jane Austen that “Everyone knows that a rich man must want to get married” was a way of expression that flowed much better!

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