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Allen Guthrie's Infamous Writing Tips

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J_Jammer

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thanks for the list of suggestions. I like them all. I'll use what pertains to me. :D

and take out he said, ...... and replace it with action in front of the quote.

example he said, "Go away."
He paced in front of the teenager. The sound of the gum chomping and snaping echoed in his ears. "Go away. Just go away."

Was best advice I was ever given was to get rid the he said and she said in a sentence. By the way the most challenging to, I had a character named Simon. Kept laughing everytime I removed Simon said.

I sort of agree with that, only because I don't think it's necessary to remove ALL he saids and she saids.

There is a balance and the hard part is finding it.

#2: generally, yes, dialogue should work on several levels. But I disagree with conflict at all times. Although conflict is important to a story, there are many, many other human experiences worth writing about than conflict during the course of a novel.

#6: A speech should be as long as a speech needs to be.

#8: I think there is a balance between showing and telling. Some telling is very effective, when done in the right place. And sometimes showing is tedious to a reader when it is not something important. A good book, however, does have more showing than telling (and his example is a good one of where to show and not tell).



If there is not some form of conflict on the page, then the reader will not want to turn the page.

A speech can be. He was suggesting put some movement in there. If you watched a movie and all they showed for five minutes was a man's face as he spoke...does that not sound boring? Of course with great talent it would look and sound awesome. But in general the idea would bore many. Or a speaker not using gestures or inflection. That's what a writer has to convey in long blocks of text. Breaking it up isn't ending a speech before it needs to be.

What you say here can be said with all...balance is necessary. But mainly these rules are for those that don't do any of it. If you understand how you're going to go about writing and are fine with it, then the rules seem overpowering, but they're not. They are guidelines that are helpful, just like you are being by suggesting a few are not as great as the others.
 

MonsterWithPen

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I love this list! I find #2 particularly helpful, maybe because few people mention it. Also, torture your protagonist- yes! *wicked grin*
 

jtrylch13

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Personally, I like rules. If nothing else, it’s fun breaking them.



This, I think, is the key point. Yes, we need rules and quidelines for how we write, and these rules are very good, especially for those of us who need to improve (or get lucky) in order to get published. Yet, we can't adhere strictly to a rigid set of rules, or there would be no creativity in our creative writing!
 
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ConChron

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This is exactly the type of threads and advice I hoped to find when I joined the site. I'm well aware that I have a lot to learn before it's worth to SYW, but I still need to learn somewhere.

I'm loving all of those who take the time to share information like this. :Hug2:
 

KitJohnson

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This is a great list, and I'm going to forward it to a friend of mine with no writing background who's just starting.

But chalk me up as another one querying the example for rule 30. "John drew the knife from its sheath and stabbed Paul with it." On first read through it seems perfectly clear though I couldn't quite put my finger on why.

Then on close analysis... "John drew the knife from it's sheath..." defines it as the knife. "... and stabbed Paul with it." which carries through to the second clause.

It's not that the rule doesn't have some validity, just that this isn't a good example. Better to go with the hoary old "Alright, I'll hold the nail, and when I nod my head you hit it with the hammer." :D

But it's still a great list advice, especially Rule 32. If the OP is still around, thank-you for posting it.
 

jdm

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Quote by Richard Martin:
Here again, to me there's a subtle difference in what's implied. "I just know he's the killer" suggests, for example, that evidence has been presented that the fellow is not the killer, but the speaker/narrator is insisting that he still believes the guy is the killer and is emphatically dismissing the counter-evidence, maybe even trying to convince himself. Somehow the "just" yields that particular meaning.

Present the evidence in either context. Now have someone say:

"I know he's the killer."

Isn't it still (basically) the same thing? As mentioned, I realize we're talking about dialogue here so the rules aren't strict. I'm just saying, given the context the word 'just' still doesn't really do much for that sentence.

The fault I find with Guthrie's example is that it happens to be dialog. People don't edit their words according to writing rules as they speak them. Many people pepper their speech with words like "just" and other colloquialisms. Should you not give your characters different speech patterns and eccentricities to give them a bit of flavor? Shouldn't they talk like normal people and not like someone whose dialog was contrived to fit within the confines of a thirty-minute sitcom (Think Gilmore Girls)?--jdm
 
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Gracie

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Love this list! The "show, don't tell" rule is particularly applicable right now as I'm trying to transition from narrative writing to writing for the theatre. Much harder than I anticipated.

Rule #19 cracks me up, especially since I just finished "The Bridges of Madison County". Talk about torturing your characters.
 

devilgate

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Excellent advice. Though regarding "Use oblique dialogue", you can take it too far. I know I've been annoyed by the odd thing -- mainly radio dramas, for some reason -- where I've been annoyed as a listener by characters not answering questions.

You don't want to annoy your readers/listeners, right? Though it's better than boring them.
 

niknicnac

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I recently ran into the "show and not tell" problem. Luckily, it was pointed out to me and was easy to fix. Sighing and shrugging are problems I need to work on. "sigh" oops!
 

adharma

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Found some excellent points in this list. Thanks for posting it.
 

vombatidae

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15: Whilst it’s good to assume your reader is intelligent, never assume they’re psychic.

I see this alot in short stories written by well known authors (I think this is even more common in unknownn authors but they are not allowed to get away with it). I read alot of story collects and best-of's and many of these give short synopses of the stories. Sometimes its almost as though the editors are just reeating verbatum what the author told them about it. The story may be good in many ways but if the average reader is going to miss a major point of it, that's a problem.
The worst example I can think of had a rather long note from the editor in the end explaining in detail what the hell it was about - incidentally if I remember correctly they only knew becuse the author has sent them a letter explaining it.
I like a story that makes me think and one that has hidden connections and trends etc but there is a point at which the author is not practicing "show don't tell" but is being too smart for their own good.
 

vombatidae

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Another thing worth mentioning is that "show don't tell" doesn't mean never to summmerize.
Here's an exerpt from "Delicate Edible Birds" by Lauren Groff:
Parnell resten his head on Bern's shoulder until he stopped weeping, until his breath came naturallly again. He told them what he had dreamt: ranks of soldiers, black as beatles, marching in lockstep down the Strand, a child swung by its heels againt a wall so its brains splattered out. London burning. Bombs falling like hailstones on the Houses of Parliment.
I'd much rather read that summery of his dreams than be forced to read through an entire scene depicting the dreams. You could argue that if the dreams can't be shown they are unnecessary but I don't think the impact would have been the same if the author had just hinted at the fact that the character had nightmares.

This is not to say that "Show don't tell" is not one of my most valued mantras, I just wanted to stress that summery has its place also.
 

sereda008

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The first advice about pleonasms can be confusing to the reader and misleading, as this is not always the case. I believe tat sometimes such words should be inserted in order to provide a better feel of the atmosphere/story, or perhaps lengthen the sequence in accordance with the desired speed in which the reader must follow.

p.s. Is this writing in bold or something? No idea, as I rarely use linux, as I do now...

P.P.S. If you found me confusing, by any chance, this is perfectly normal. Even I sometimes find myself confusing.
 

Arkie

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If you are a writer with good instincts, there is a danger in reading "how to" books. I've read about 35. When you read something purporting to improve writing, there is a tendency to run back to a work in progress and start through it with a fine-tooth-comb. Then when you read the next "how to" book, and discover something new, back you go and re-edit. There comes a time when you have to trust yourself and not rely on writing gurus, who seem to specialize in writing books on writing, but little else.

I like Elizabeth George's quote in her book "Write Away." "If there's one rule about writing, it's that there are no rules. Anytime someone tells me about a rule, I set out immediately to break it."
 

sjenkins7

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Allen Guthrie, an acquisition editor for Point Blank Press, wrote up a 'white paper' three years ago called 'Hunting Down the Pleonasms' that has become a cult classic. Guthrie gave Adventure Books of Seattle permission to reprint this document wherever we liked. It is a permanent download over at our main site, but I wanted to reproduce it here. It is very specific. Over at the AB site, it's been downloaded hundreds of times, and I think every writer should post this on the wall near their computer.

'Hunting Down the Pleonasms'
I can’t stress strongly enough that writing is subjective. We all strive for different goals. Consequently, we all need our own set of rules—and some of us don’t need rules at all! Personally, I like rules. If nothing else, it’s fun breaking them.

1: Avoid pleonasms. A pleonasm is a word or phrase which can be removed from a sentence without changing its meaning. For example, in “Hunting Down The Pleonasm”, ‘down’ is pleonastic. Cut it and the meaning of the sentence does not alter. Many words are used pleonastically: ‘just’, ‘that’ and ‘actually’ are three frequently-seen culprits (I actually just know that he’s the killer can be trimmed to I know he’s the killer), and phrases like ‘more or less’ and ‘in any shape or form’ are redundant.

2: Use oblique dialogue. Try to generate conflict at all times in your writing. Attempt the following experiment at home or work: spend the day refusing to answer your family and colleagues’ questions directly. Did you generate conflict? I bet you did. Apply that principle to your writing and your characters will respond likewise.

3: Use strong verbs in preference to adverbs. I won’t say avoid adverbs, period, because about once every fifty pages they’re okay! What’s not okay is to use an adverb as an excuse for failing to find the correct verb. To ‘walk slowly’ is much less effective than to ‘plod’ or ‘trudge’. To ‘connect strongly’ is much less effective than to ‘forge a connection’.

4: Cut adjectives where possible. See rule 3 (for ‘verb’ read ‘noun’).

5: Pairs of adjectives are exponentially worse than single adjectives. The ‘big, old’ man walked slowly towards the ‘tall, beautiful’ girl. When I read a sentence like that, I’m hoping he dies before he arrives at his destination. Mind you, that’s probably a cue for a ‘noisy, white’ ambulance to arrive. Wailingly, perhaps!

6: Keep speeches short. Any speech of more than three sentences should be broken up. Force your character to do something. Make him take note of his surroundings. Ground the reader. Create a sense of place.

7: If you find you’ve said the same thing more than once, choose the best and cut the rest. Frequently, I see the same idea presented several ways. It’s as if the writer is saying, “The first couple of images might not work, but the third one should do it. If not, maybe all three together will swing it.” The writer is repeating himself. Like this. This is a subtle form of pleonasm.

8: Show, don’t tell. Much vaunted advice, yet rarely heeded. An example: expressing emotion indirectly. Is your preferred reader intelligent? Yes? Then treat them accordingly. Tears were streaming down Lila’s face. She was very sad. Can the second sentence be inferred from the first? In context, let’s hope so. So cut it. If you want to engage your readers, don’t explain everything to them. Show them what’s happening and allow their intelligence to do the rest. And there’s a bonus to this approach. Because movies, of necessity, show rather than tell, this approach to your writing will help when it’s time to begin work on the screenplay adaptation of your novel!

9: Describe the environment in ways that are pertinent to the story. And try to make such descriptions active. Instead of describing a book lying on a table, have your psycho-killer protagonist pick it up, glance at it and move it to the arm of the sofa. He needs something to do to break up those long speeches, right?

10: Don’t be cute. In the above example, your protagonist should not be named Si Coe.

11: Avoid sounding ‘writerly’. Better to dirty up your prose. When you sound like a writer, your voice has crept in and authorial intrusion is always unwelcome. In the best writing, the author is invisible.

12: Fix your Point Of View (POV). Make it clear whose head you’re in as early as possible. And stay there for the duration of the scene. Unless you’re already a highly successful published novelist, in which case you can do what you like. The reality is that although most readers aren’t necessarily clued up on the finer points of POV, they know what’s confusing and what isn’t.

13: Don’t confuse the reader. If you write something you think might be unclear, it is. Big time. Change it or cut it.

14: Use ‘said’ to carry dialogue. Sid Fleischman calls ‘said’, “the invisible word.”

15: Whilst it’s good to assume your reader is intelligent, never assume they’re psychic.

16: Start scenes late and leave them early.

17: When writing a novel, start with your characters in action. Fill in any necessary backstory as you go along.

18: Give your characters clear goals. Always. Every scene. And provide obstacles to those goals. Always. Every scene. If the POV character in a scene does not have a goal, provide one or cut the scene. If there is no obstacle, add one or cut the scene.

19: Don’t allow characters who are sexually attracted to one another the opportunity to get into bed unless at least one of them has a jealous partner.

20: Torture your protagonist. It’s not enough for him to be stuck up a tree. You must throw rocks at him while he figures out how to get down.

21: Use all five senses in your descriptions. Smell and touch are too often neglected.

22: Vary your sentence lengths. I tend to write short, and it’s amazing what a difference combing a couple of sentences can make.

23: Don’t allow your fictional characters to speak in sentences. Unless you want them to sound fictional.

24: Cut out filtering devices, wherever possible. ‘He felt’, ‘he thought’, ‘he observed’ are all filters. They distance the reader from the character.

25: Avoid unnecessary repetition of tense. For example: I’d gone to the hospital. They’d kept me waiting for hours. Eventually, I’d seen a doctor. Usually, the first sentence is sufficient to establish tense. I’d gone to the hospital. They kept me waiting for hours. Eventually, I saw a doctor.

26: When you finish your book, pinpoint the weakest scene and cut it. If necessary, replace it with a sentence or paragraph.

27: Don’t plant information. How is Donald, your son? I’m quite sure Donald’s father doesn’t need reminding who Donald is. Their relationship is mentioned purely to provide the reader with information.

28: If an opinion expressed through dialogue makes your POV character look like a jerk, allow him to think it rather than say it. He’ll express the same opinion, but seem like a lot less of a jerk.

29: Characters who smile and grin a lot come across as deranged fools. Sighing and shrugging are also actions to avoid. Eliminating smiles, sighs and shrugs is almost always an improvement. Smiling sadly is a capital offence.

30: Pronouns are big trouble for such little words. The most useful piece of information I ever encountered on the little blighters was this: pronouns refer to the nearest matching noun backwards. For example: John took the knife out of its sheath and stabbed Paul with it. Well, that’s good news for Paul. If you travel backwards from ‘it’, you’ll see that John has stabbed Paul with the sheath! Observing this rule leads to much clearer writing.

31: Spot the moment of maximum tension and hold it for as long as possible. Or as John D. MacDonald put it: “Freeze the action and shoot him later.”

32: If something works, forget about the rule that says it shouldn’t.
Brilliant!!! And Heads Up... your The Escape Velocity Magazine link is broken... just an fyi. The Newsvine link works fine. It looks like it may be an internal issue.
 

JulieBug

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Oh lawd.....my toes are purple.... I've got editing to do. I do not think that my poetry writing hiatus was a good thing.
 

Kado

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Glad I found this list; most of it is sound advice, though I get rule fatigue reading a list that long and that prescriptive.

I'd question no. 6 though. I don't think you should have a rule about the length of a speech, or break it up with movement - after all, what if the character is sitting down, or in bed, or staring out the window? We aren't constantly moving (unless we are my two little boys). To me, that is the same as having a rule for the length of a paragraph (paragraphs are as long as they need to be).

A lengthy speech isn't boring a long as the character is saying something interesting.

No.8 irks me slightly. It it's going to be a rule then it should be, 'sometimes show; sometimes tell.' If you did nothing but show you'd end up with a 700 000 word novel probably consisting of endless pages of exhausting dialogue and utter tedium. Telling is a vital skill, I think, and it seems to be severely underrated. Telling saves many needless words and keeps the story ticking over at a nice pace.
 

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