On Giving (and asking for) Writing Advice

I thought I had posted this blog last week.  I could have sworn I had, but when I went in to write this week’s Sunday blog I discovered I hadn’t.  Nor was there any mention of it on my Twitter or Facebook feeds.  Oops.  So, slightly revised to accound for the week’s difference, here is the blog that was supposed to be out last Sunday.

Earlier this (or rather, last) week, in a writer’s group on Facebook, a fellow poster posed the following question:

“How do I best handle a character’s accent?”

I can’t find the post in question any more (either it was deleted, Facebook’s notorious “algorythm” is hiding it from me, or it just aged too far back for me to find it), but it had me thinking.

I might have been able to help that person. I like helping my fellow writers, where I can. I’ve done a lot of study just for that reason, and have learned tips and techniques that I’ll probably never use professionally just so that I can give advice when it’s asked for.  But that means, when someone asks a question like “How do I best handle a characters accent?” I come up not with one, but dozens of possible answers… yet I also know that such a question doesn’t provide nearly enough information to give a quality answer, and depending on the details I may not know the right way to answer it:

What genre is the story written in?  What language do your characters regularly speak in?  When is it set?  How important is the character speaking it?  Why is portraying the accent important?  How thick is it?  Does the accent come from regional variations or a foriegn language?

All of those questions matter to my answer.

If your characters don’t speak English (or whatever language you’re writing your novel in), that adds a complicating factor — a French speaker, for example, will have different pronunciation oddities when they’re speaking Japanese versus when they’re speaking English.

If your book is set in the past or the future, colloquialisms will be different, possibly too different for modern readers to recognize (as I said in a previous post, you can’t use the phrase “making lemons out of lemonade” in a setting where they haven’t discovered the lemon, yet.  Similarly, without appropriate context to set it up, it’d be very hard for most modern readers to know what you’re talking about if you refer to brothels as “stews” or candied plums as “suckets.”  And it’s very hard to establish a character’s accent and provide the appropriate context at the same time).

If the character speaking this accent has a small role or only appears in the story for one scene, at most, you have less time to show that accent, and subtler accents will be harder to demonstrate to your audience (despite that rather oversimplified and cliché bit of writing advice, you may have to do more “tell,” less “show,” if you want your readers to know this character has an accent).  If this character has a major role and will appear repeatedly throughout the book, you can take your time to let the reader see it properly.

Why is it important that this character speak with an accent?  Is it a subtle clue (or a read herring) that this character is a spy?  Is it being used to ostracize the character?  Is it just to add color to the story and background to the character?  All of these questions will affect how the accent is best portrayed, whether it should be subtle, whether it is something the reader can\should notice early on, etc., etc.

How thick is this accent supposed to be?  Any accent thick enough will be “noticed” by your other characters, though they may not necessarily be able to place it.  The thicker it is, the more the other characters can react to it.  The subtler it is, you’ll have to give other clues to your readers to show it off.

Does the accent belong to a foriegn language (i.e., Russian) or is it regional (i.e., Southern)?  It makes a difference in how easy it can be to portray an accent — you can show a milder Russian accent just by slipping in the occasional “da” or “nyet,” but if you want it to be a REALLY thick Russian accent you may have to learn a few basics of Russian Grammar to portray the sorts of mistakes your Russian character will make in his speech.  A Southern accent can be portrayed with a few “Y’all”‘s, but you might be better off adding in some uniquely Southern sayings like “Bless their heart,” instead.

This is why I’ll probably never write a book on writing advice. For all too many of the questions that writers actually need advice on, there are too many variables for a “one size fits all” answer.  When you try, you end up with trite, over-generalized catch-phrases like “Show, don’t tell!” and suggestions that might be beneficial in moderation, but taken to the extremes often recommended will have you performing surgery with a chainsaw on your manuscript, like “get rid of all your adverbs!”

Let’s face it — while I like to think I’m a first-rate storyteller, I’m not perfect (few of us are).  From a technical perspective, I’m not the best writer around.  I’m aware of what my flaws are, and do my best to improve on those flaws and to fix them where possible (I don’t obsess over them, however — I’m a strong believer in “the perfect is the enemy of the good enough.”).

Even so, while I will read (or listen) and consider anything any other author has to say on the subject of writing, I generally disregard any “writer advice” that doesn’t fit my personal tastes.  I feel blindly taking such advice, even of people who I acknowledge are better technical writers than I am, might make my writing worse, not better.

That includes “get rid of all your adverbs” and “show, don’t tell.”  There are SOME occasions where both principles will help (I nearly ruined “The Kitsune Stratagem” because I was using adverbs to handle point-of-view problems; thankfully, my editor pointed out the issue and I was able to fix it.  Fortunately, he was a good one, and didn’t tell me to get rid of ALL my adverbs, as some do; he just pointed out the problem and let me cut out the adverbs that needed to be cut and leave in the ones that made sense to leave in).  That said, there are plenty of times where using an adverb makes more sense than not using one, and many times where yes, you do need to TELL people what’s going on rather than show it.

Too much of the writing advice out there has become so generalized it actually harms writers more than it helps them (like Elmore Leonard’s “10 Rules for Writing” AS IT IS POPULARLY REPORTED.  His actual rules include tons of caveats that are almost never included, and those caveats are IMPORTANT, as he details examples for why\how\when they might be broken.  And even with the caveats, I think he’s a bit too strict on several issues).  As Kristine Kathryn Rusch says, follow these rules too strictly and your individual “voice” is gone; it all becomes “Serious Writer Voice.”

I always try to help my fellow writers where I can.  I’m more than willing to answer questions.  But if you have a specific question for me, know that (1) I may need a LOT more information before I can answer it, and (2) I may not have an answer… and if I do, make sure my advice actually works  for YOU.  Don’t let anyone’s “rules for writing” kill your voice.

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