Writer Warning: Don't Get Lost in the Minutiae


So last Friday I listed nine of my favorite craft books and the problems that they could cure. As you can tell from that post, I'm a strong believer in learning as much as you possibly can about craft. It's the foundation of everything. Yes, writing is about creativity and writers write to get better, but having a solid handle on mechanics and structure and technique is often the difference between good and great. (See Jody Hedlund's post today if you need that point hammered home further.)


Photo by Adam Wyles


However, with all the learning of craft, I do want to put out a warning. This weekend I went to my local RWA meeting and fabulous Heather Long did a workshop on self-editing. It was awesome and went over all the little things you need to look for when going through your manuscript--repetitive words and phrasing, flying body parts, throwaway words like that, it, and just (my personal favorite.) The things that will tighten your prose and make your story shine. But here's where my warning comes in.

Do not get obsessed with the minutiae. 

When you read a whole bunch of writing books or go to a conference and attend a billion workshops, your head is going to be swimming with all this information (some of it conflicting). Don't use adverbs, never use a dialogue tag, don't say stand up because "up" is unnecessary, and on and on and on. And all that advice can literally override your whole system and shut your sh*t DOWN, people. All the buzzers in your head are going to go off and end with one conclusion--"I'm never going to be able to do this! Give up writing now! It's hopeless!"

Step back, take a deep breath, and calm down. Then start here...

The story is number one.

You could have the tightest piece of prose ever by following every rule you've ever heard. But you know what? Your story could still tank. Why? Because it's not about adverbs and dialogue tags. It's about breathing life into a story. Making it jump off the page. Showing your voice and your characters. Pulling a reader into that world. Those are the things of great fiction.

This is why you pick up books by published authors and hold them up saying, "Holy crap! So and so broke all these rules. Look how many times she used just or said 'sit down' instead of just sit or OMG, the adverbs! How is she getting published?"

Well, yes, some will say that if an author's very established, they can break more rules. However, I think that's not entirely the issue. God knows there are lots of things I did in my book that weren't perfectly tight. I do love an adverb. Even with all those things in these books you may see, ask the question--what about the story? Was it a great story? THAT is why it got published.

Yes, you want to write tight. But all the minutiae can be handled later, much later. Write your story first. Write it how you want it. Then worry about the nitpicky things. And even then I caution you not to take every piece of advice as cardinal law. Sometimes an adverb is part of your character's voice. There are times when "just" really is necessary. And if you're in deep POV, I'd argue that most people think of sitting as sitting down, so if that's how your character thinks of it--so what?

Because, shhh, big secret: These are NOT the things that will prevent you from getting published. 

If you're a mess as a writer and do all these things everywhere for no reason and it's obvious you are a novice, then yes, maybe that will get you rejected. BUT, no agent is going to turn down a fabulous story that they think they can sell only because there were one too many adverbs in it.

It's like a girl looking at the profile of a guy she wants to date and thinking, "Okay, if I learn to like sports and dye my hair blonde and start reading Stephen King novels, I'll be his perfect girl and he'll want to marry me." It doesn't work that way. You need to find your story's magic--that's what will make it rise to the top.

Know your craft, write tight, but don't get obsessed about it. Focus on writing the most amazing story you can.

So what do you think? Do you sometimes get lost in the minutiae? Have you ever read something that was technically perfect but had no life to it? Do you find yourself looking for other author's mistakes in published works?