Unlearning What You Were Taught About Writing at School, by Nansi Kunze
Some years ago, during my first parent-teacher night as a high school teacher, the father of one of my students cheerfully told me that he thought it was a shame corporal punishment had been abolished. ‘They used to give me the strap all the time,’ he said. ‘It never done me no harm.’ Quite apart from the fact that being thrashed on a regular basis clearly hadn’t managed to improve his grammar skills, I was appalled by this statement. It was, I felt, right up there with that classic question: ‘Don’t they teach you anything in school these days?’
A decade and a half later, I’ve decided that people are taught lots of great things in school. But some of them may not be helpful if you plan to become a novelist. No, no – I don’t mean how to calculate the angles of a rhombus, or what the principal exports of Brazil are; you never know when you’ll need that kind of stuff for a manuscript. And I definitely don’t mean any spelling and grammar you had drummed into you – if you think that’s what editors are for, you need to go and sit in the corner for the rest of the lesson. What I’m talking about is the way a lot of students are taught to write.
Did you ever do one of those English class activities where the idea is to change all the ‘boring’ verbs, like ‘said’ and ‘went’, into more interesting ones? What about the one in which you make things more descriptive by sprinkling adjectives and adverbs about the place? The idea is to broaden students’ vocabulary, but these exercises have the unfortunate side effect of making anything one writes sound utterly ridiculous. Here, let’s try it on something. How about the opening lines of Tolkien’s The Hobbit?
‘In a hefty hole in the ground there habitually resided a diminutive hobbit. Not a repellant, unclean, saturated hole, occupied abhorrently with the rubicund ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a desiccated, unembellished, desert-like hole with nothing in it to perch relaxingly on or to ingest greedily: it was an exquisite hobbit-hole, and that invariably signifies comfort.’
Horrible! Let’s not do that again. Some writers, such as Stephen King, maintain that there’s rarely a reason to use a verb other than ‘to say’ to indicate speech, and that you should try and avoid adverbs altogether. Personally, I think that may be taking things too far, but it’s certainly a decent principle to be guided by. Run your eye over the dialogue in a novel by someone you respect. Chances are, they use the ‘boring’ verbs most of the time, saving the more descriptive verbs for moments when they’re really needed – to show heightened emotion, for example.
The other thing that can be less than helpful about high school English is the way it encourages you to write to a word count. Now, don’t get me wrong: word counts do matter in the world of publishing. You can’t just send your 15,000 words off to a publisher and expect it to be seen as YA novel-length; the same goes for those 200,000 words of epic fantasy you’ve got squatting in your hard drive. But you also can’t pad out your story the way you might have done for those 1000-word essays in high school. Recently I had an aspiring writer tell me she’d written a story, and that one of her friends had read it and suggested she expand it. The problem was, she wasn’t sure how to do that – she’d written all that she felt there was of that story. Rather than try to double the size of a story by adding loads of extra description and unnecessary plot twists, if you feel your story doesn’t need them then maybe it’s meant to be a short story or a novella. It’s certainly possible to create a novel from a short story – my most recent book, Dangerously Placed, was written that way – but not from every short story. Trying to make yours fit a word count as if it were a school assignment is rarely a good plan.
School is a great source of inspiration to most YA novelists; it’s an experience we have in common with our readership. Just remember that publishing is like school and unlike school at the same time. Editors don’t want you to show how many interesting words you know and how closely you can match their submission guidelines’ word counts. But, like teachers, they do want to know that you have an understanding of character development, story structure and grammatical rules. And fortunately for all of us, they never, ever use the strap.