I Won’t Do What You Tell Me

Thanks to those that have posted comments, and also the brave folks who have emailed the Ask Dennis hotline. This recent comment by Lost_Heretic leads me nicely on to a subject that’s been brewing in my head for a while – what advice should I be giving? More importantly, what advice do I feel qualified to give?

I am sure there’s some that visit this site who will say to themselves, ‘What the hell does he know? Why should anyone listen to some sub-pulp hack writing derivative tie-in fiction?’. Some may be less harsh but the principle stands… While I don’t feel any necessity to justify my opinions, I do think it’s good to understand where advice comes from. Quite often advice is given for the benefit of the advisor, whether consciously or not. I’ve attended courses on communication and coaching, and one of the things that comes up time and time again is the fact that most people don’t want advice, they just want help with working out the answers for themselves.

In my previous post I somewhat arbitrarily took one point of advice from a list of writing tips. I callously took it out of context and then deliberately used it to fashion an excuse to express my own take on dialogue. I did this for two reasons. Firstly, because I disagreed with the sentiment. Secondly, because on the whole I have real problems with checklist advice. The problem is not just with the people writing the advice, but with how many readers treat it.

Often the checklist of do’s and don’ts makes it look like something is easy to do – follow these simple rules and you can be a writer too. Not only is this misleading, it stifles thought and creativity. Such advice becomes a meme that inveigles its way into the minds of writers, editors and publishers, and becomes dogma rather than advice. One that gets me riled is the Show Don’t Tell approach. I have nothing wrong with this as a guideline, but it is not a founding principle. It has become a shorthand criticism that can be applied without thought. It’s too easy to scribble ‘Show Don’t Tell’ next to a passage of text, applying it as an ironcast rule without actually bothering to read the text and consider it in its place. Sometimes writers jump through ridiculous hoops to Show and not Tell, or otherwise mangle their characters and plot to avoid some necessary exposition. When applied as an unalterable law, what began as a sensible piece of advice to ensure writers engage their reader, along with the viewpoint character and other devices, has become uninspired dogma used to label and pigeonhole writing styles and their worth.

Everyone who reads this site is more than welcome to ignore everything on it. Some of it I occasionally ignore myself, and some of it I’ve learnt over the years and wish I’d known when I started out. Embarrassingly enough, I was re-reading Angels of Darkness over the weekend (for research, clearly, not just vanity!). Having laboured the point about not ending every sentence with an exclamation mark if a character is angry, I found just such a piece of dialogue that I had written myself…

So we learn, and we take on board those things that we can use and must be strong to avoid those pieces of advice that are actually dogma. More than just ignoring those things that we disagree with, we should work out why we disagree and express it. If a dozen comments were posted saying that I have no clue what I’m talking about with dialogue (oh dear, that’s a poor pun), you should look at this and that, read this book or that author, I would be overjoyed. Not because I’ve been proved to be an idiot but because it means that people are thinking and contributing.

So, more than giving do’s and don’ts, checklists of what will make writing great or awful, what I am aiming to do is stimulate thought and discussion. Every rule has a caveat and every caveat a codicil. Every piece of advice can be ignored. All I ask is that writers do this consciously. 90% of writing is thinking not typing. Thinking not only about characters and plot, scenes and dialogue, but about style, about theme, about pacing. Writing, like games development. is about making decisions and compromises, and the best thing any writer can do is make sure that those decisions are as informed as possible.

So, if you feel like calling me out on something I’ve written, please do. If you agree, then why not add your own thoughts and experiences. You never know, someone might pay attention and learn something else from you.

For creativity to flourish, there must be change and invigoration. Commercial forces would have the world predictable and manageable. As a writer, one has a choice, perhaps a duty even, to constantly challenge the status quo. The easy money is in doing the pedestrian, the achievable, the accepted. True greats break the mould and do their own thing. History is shaped by those who leave the flock and lead us on a new path, not from those who blindly follow. Without pioneers we would have no novels, no fantasy, no science fiction. Without new pioneers, what future do these things have?

Do I think I’m that sort of person? Very likely not, we can’t all be geniuses. We can be allowed to take risks. We can try to be great.

Published in: on May 13, 2008 at 2:08 pm  Comments (4)  

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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Gav, thanks for all the effort you put into this blog. I find it very helpful and always thought provoking. It’s always great when people give back to the community and I really appreciate it when people take time from when they could be working to do so.

    (I just showed that I respected you, rather than telling!)

    I like that you brought up pioneering the craft. I have been very critical of tie-in novels, and cheap thrills fiction in general. However, as I was reading The Ambassador by Graham McNeill just last week a single sentence, an off hand comment by a secondary character, sparked hours of thought. I honestly don’t know if that redeems all such fiction for me (definitely not supernatural romance), but if your themes and messages reach people I consider your work a success.

    I really hate paranormal romance,


  2. Trying not to send myself off on a long (and at least partly hypocritical) rant about spin-off fiction, I’ll say this…

    I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with spin-off fiction, but the trap its writers tend to fall into is that they often write about their subject, omitting their theme. That’s akin to the story being about itself, and nothing of any particular merit will come from something talking about itself. Spin-off fiction requires somebody to write a book about Space Marines, for example, and that tends to be exactly what they do – write a book ‘about’ Space Marines, in the most literal sense.

    You’ll tend to hear spin-off authors saying stuff like ‘oh, I really wanted to get deeper into who the Space Marines are, what makes them tick’, but that’s still just the book talking about itself, talking about Space Marines. You can’t use Space Marines themselves to describe what makes a Space Marines – that’s literal and shallow, and frankly it’s a bit like cheating, because in the end you’re just saying ‘Space Marines are Space Marines because they’re Space Marines’. For the book to be any good, it really needs to find a theme which can then be depicted in a story featuring Space Marines, using Space Marines to make a point on something other than themselves. That’s not to say Space Marines have to gift us the meaning of life, but without at least a little something else to say, the book will remain relevant only to Space Marines – fair enough, lots of people like Space Marines, and you’ll please them while they’re reading the book, but they won’t take anything in it with them when they go elsewhere, and ultimately the experience of reading is lessened for that.

    Spin-off fiction is just that one step further removed from theme because it presents an all too obvious subject in the shape of the franchise concerned; subject very often gets in the way of theme in a writer’s head. It isn’t for the author to spend the whole book investigating what it is that makes a Space Marine a Space Marine (that’s a subject); it’s for him to decide that himself before he begins writing and then use that to draw some broader point by comparison or contrast (that’s a theme).

    Thorpey, I don’t know why I started a blog. I can just use yours and let you clean up after me… 😉



  3. Here is a very indirect comment to your recent posting. Like you I have struggled with the writing craft for a long time. In fact, I am so old, you and Matt could call me grandfather. Nevertheless, I recently finished Günter Grass’ “Peeling the Onion,” and although I find him a bit of an old windbag, I did appreciate his struggle with art and art-making. I boiled his life’s lessons down to a simple truth, which I tried to express in this poem.

    Best Regards,


    Günter’s Secret

    With his left hand
    stained yellow
    from Schwarzer Krauser,
    he pounded stone
    and smoothed wet clay
    into starving nudes
    and granite head stones.
    This sinister activity,
    he later wrote, emerged
    from his singular German virtue:
    hard work, everyday, to the end.


  4. Praise to the faithful, and kudos to Keith for sharing his composition with us. I can wax lyrical about pretty much anything given enough time (or alcohol) so if you want me to expand on anything or cover a particular area please drop a comment or use the Ask Dennis email.

    Thanks for your support,



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