Writers – Beware Writerly Advice

Here’s a single-page excerpt from Raymond Chandler’s Trouble Is My Business:

Dorr said softly, meditatively: “Holding out, huh?”

“Yes,” I said grimly. “While I have it I’m fairly safe. You overplayed your hand when you let me get my paws on it. I’d be a fool not to hold what advantage it gives me.”

Dorr said: “Safe?” with a gently sinister intonation.

I laughed. “Not safe from a frame,” I said. “But the last one didn’t click so well . . . Not safe from being gun-walked again. But that’s going to be harder next time too . . But fairly safe from being shot in the back and having you sue my estate for the dough.”

Dorr stroked the cat and looked at me under his eyebrows.

“Let’s get a couple of more important things straightened out,” I said. “Who takes the rap for Lou Harger?”

“What makes you so sure you don’t?” Dorr asked nastily.

“My alibi’s been polished up. I didn’t know how good it was until I knew how close Lou’s death could be timed. I’m clear now . . . regardless of who turns in what gun with what fairy tale . . . And the lads that were sent to scotch my alibi ran into some trouble.”

Dorr said: “That so?” without any apparent emotion.

“A thug named Andrews and a Mexican calling himself Luis Cadena. I daresay you’ve heard of them.”

“I don’t know such people,” Dorr said sharply.

“Then it won’t upset you to hear Andrews got very dead, and the law has Cadena.”

How many adverbs did you count? I got six, not counting the dialog itself. And if you’ve read this book, you know that this isn’t an isolated bit of copy. As someone typically held up as the anti-adverb Übermensch, it looks like a lot of people have gotten Raymond wrong.

We see the same with other well-meaning, but poorly vetted advice: Never open with the weather. Jump straight into the action. Always write a shitty first draft.

I posted this because so many of these ‘rules’ paralyze us. I know they’ve done just that to me. I’ve spent many hours twiddling sentences just so I could get rid of passive verbs. In the end, I usually end up mangling the whole damn thing.

My well-meaning and potentially poorly vetted advice? Just do what feels right, gauge how you’re doing based on reader feedback, and keep on writing.


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9 thoughts on “Writers – Beware Writerly Advice”

  1. I agree completely. In fact, I wrote a similar post a while back after reading John Grisham’s writerly advice: http://wp.me/p3sx1Q-1A4. Unbreakable rules are so easy to dispense, but their effect on aspiring writers can be stultifying.

  2. “I’ve spent many hours twiddling sentences just so I could get rid of passive verbs. In the end, I usually end up mangling the whole damn thing.”—Yes, exactly. Or the advice to not use the verb “to be.” Sometimes you just need to use the word “was” because anything else sounds forced. Rules should be a guideline, not an absolute. When it comes to writing, anyway. For driving, not so much. ?

  3. Yay! my info is saved in the comment filler thingie so I just get to comment now! Anyway, this was weird bc this lady commented that a story of mine was like Raymond Chandler’s just yesterday. And yeah Phil, that’s the big secret–you have to grab em by the balls in the first line; you only have seconds to get em or they’re gone.

    1. Woohoo! Glad it’s easier to comment. What timing on that lady’s comment. Everyone’s preaching their own gospel it seems – so many of them are trying to scare writers by telling them they’re in competition with Snapchat or YouTube so if you don’t have ’em by the balls, you may as well pack it up. Maybe that’s the case for some readers, but I like to give the majority a little more credit.

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