What I’ve Learned So Far

Hard as it is for me to believe, in a couple of days from my having written this, I’ll be twenty years old. It’s funny to recollect things- a steady trickle of decade old memories from my ninth year flow into my consciousness, gently invading my waking hours with thoughts. You’ll be twenty soon. I remember twenty being “that age” for me when I was young- it was the age when I’d start living as an adult. My nine-year-old self was absolutely certain that by twenty, I’d be an airplane pilot driving a Chevrolet Corvette on my way to my job at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology every morning in order to make advances in the field of robotics.

That’s not what happened to me, but I can’t say that I’m unhappy with the way my life turned out. I live a happy life with my family in Connecticut. I’m an author and I occasionally build flying things in Kerbal Space Program– it’s the closest I’ll get to being a pilot. In the past couple decades, I’ve learned a lot of important lessons about a lot of important things. In particular, I’ve learned plenty about writing thanks to my parents, librarians, and my favorite authors- here are a few things that I feel everybody should know about writing.

1. Don’t Write Anything You Wouldn’t Want to Read

Simple and stupid as this sounds, it’s one of my most important rules to abide by. If I wouldn’t want to read something my own work, why would anybody else care to? Since I write for young people, this is particularly important to stick to; I feel that far too many books aimed at kids are boring because they’re “written down”- people assume that kids won’t understand or care about higher concepts, so they’re skipped out on- the same goes for vocabulary, relationships and style, the end result being genericism and writing that, while not necessarily “bad”, doesn’t take its readers anywhere worth going.

This isn’t to say that all juvenile literature needs to be filled to the brim with complex ideas and ruminations on high concepts- from my childhood, I fondly remember a sci-fi comedy series about a boy whose consciousness was placed into different bodies for… Frankly, I don’t remember why it was done, I just remember that he swapped bodies with the President of the United States, his best friends, and on at least on occasion a space alien. It was a fun series that I don’t remember for being serious- but reading it, I didn’t feel as though somebody were “writing down” to me.

In short, if you have an interesting idea for a book, don’t be afraid to take said idea to whatever conclusion you reach. While there are a few things that you have to be considerate of when writing for young people, remember that they are first and foremost people, and that you ought not write anything for them that you yourself wouldn’t care to read.

2. Show, Don’t Tell

If you spend any length of time searching for advice for writers, you’re bound to come across “show, don’t tell” sooner than later. If you’ve heard the term but are unfamiliar with what it means, it’s basically the idea that when you’re writing something- anything- it’s better to write a description of the thing rather than to outright say it. For instance:

Maria, my girlfriend, really tall.

Compare that to this:

During a barbecue last summer, I had to make special accommodations for Maria. Since she’s a full foot taller than my entire family, we had to have a few modifications made to our doorframes so she could come in and out without having to duck. Of course, she still needs to bend over to hug my mother, but I don’t think it’ll be as big a problem once we’re married and move out to Oregon.

Of course, in the latter example I got a little carried away with the story, but that’s the idea. Don’t just say “Maria is tall”- show us with descriptive language that Maria is tall. Show us what her being tall has to do with anything else, and make us want to keep reading. Of course, it’s possible to take this concept too far. Don’t overdo show, don’t tell, because your story could get so wrapped up in details that it stops being interesting. The only time it’s “acceptable” to do this is when it’s for a good reason, such as halfway through Oscar Wilde’s A Picture of Dorian Gray. One of the chapters was a dreadfully boring exhibition of all the things that the titular character had collected and was interested in. It seemed like a distraction from the rest of the story, but by the end of the chapter, I realized that the reason for it was to show that Dorian was trying to distract himself.

While I don’t recommend throwing away five percent of your writing in order to bore your readers intentionally, I do recommend telling when it’s necessary to write succinctly, and you feel no need to draw any attention to a thing for more than a fleeting moment.

3. Break the Rules

This is something I learned early- well before I had any interest in writing. Remember what I mentioned earlier about that painful chapter in The Picture of Dorian Gray? That was an example of rules being broken. Admittedly, it’s probably not the best example, but it’s certainly a memorable one. When you violate the rules of a medium, it leads to interesting results.

Take, for instance, Jabberwocky, by Lewis Carroll.

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!”

He took his vorpal sword in hand:
Long time the manxome foe he sought–
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
And stood awhile in thought.

That’s but a bit of the poem, but look at how this piece of poetry breaks rules; it’s full of words that Carroll made up. Besides the names of the fantastical creatures, which are within the “rules”, there are the adjectives- is it ever really brillig outside? When’s the last time somebody you know was frumious?
And yet, the poem tells a story, and the “nonsense” words actually mean something.
Break the rules if you have something to say.

If Carroll hadn’t anything to say in his poem, it wouldn’t be remembered. It’d just be a collection of strange amalgamations of familiar words in somebody’s attic, gathering dust, a curiosity and nothing more. What do we learn here? That there’s nothing wrong with breaking the “rules” of writing- it can be a good way to make things stand out. That said, don’t depend upon broken rules to fix a boring story.

The story told in Jabberwocky would still be rather interesting if it abided by the rules; perhaps it mightn’t have been as memorable or unique, but it would still have been a worthwhile thing.
You can break the rules if you have something to say.

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