From author Anne R. Allen:
We get lots of questions from new writers who have spent time in forums and online writers’ groups where they’ve been given advice by other newbies. Some of that advice is fine, but a whole lot is dead wrong.
Unfortunately, the wrong stuff is usually delivered with the most certainty.
That’s because the most ignorant people are generally the most sure of themselves. This phenomenon has been scientifically proved. It’s called The Dunning-Kruger Effect. Nobel Prize winners David Dunning and Justin Kruger of Cornell University did a study in 2000 that proves the least competent people really are the most likely to overestimate their own competence.
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Here are eight bogus “rules” I’ve heard recently.
1) When writing something inspired by your own life, every incident must be told exactly as it happened, or somebody will sue you.
If you know somebody is likely to sue you if you include them in a memoir, it’s safest to disguise them with a name-change. Better yet, fictionalize your story. For advice on how to fictionalize a “true story,” read Ruth Harris’s great post on the subject from earlier this month.
But even if you’re writing a memoir or a piece of creative nonfiction, you still have to craft it into a story with an arc. That’s a story with an inciting incident, conflict, and resolution. That’s never going to be exactly “the way it really happened,” because real life is a meandering journey, not a tidy story. Plus real life has lots of boring bits. Do NOT include them if you want anybody to read your book.
A memoir has to tell a story. That means it has dialogue and scenes. You can’t help putting less than accurate words in people’s mouths unless you recorded every word ever said to you.
For advice on how much “truth” to put into a memoir, here’s an enlightening post from Jane Friedman: How True and Factual Does Your Memoir Have to Be?
She points out how subjective all memory is, so no one person’s memory is going to provide 100% absolute provable facts.
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5) Head-hopping is necessary if you have more than one character in a scene.
You don’t need to tell us what everybody is thinking in every scene. That only confuses the reader. Good writers can show the reactions of other characters through the eyes of the scene’s point-of-view character.
After all, you’re seeing your entire life through the eyes of one point-of-view character: you. And you probably know what’s going on. Or think you do.
Learn to use body language, facial expressions, and dialogue to let us know how key characters are relating to the action.
The exception is a story told from an omniscient point of view, which is not the same as head-hopping. Omniscient POV uses a god-like voice that knows everything. You’ll often see it in high fantasy, which is told in a “bard’s” storytelling voice.
An omniscient voice also works well in a humor novel, because it makes the story sound like a stand-up comedy routine. Carl Hiaasen does this brilliantly. So does Dave Barry.
But be aware omniscient POV in most genres seems old-fashioned, is hard to pull off, and is often taboo with agents.
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6) All internal monologue must be put in italics.
I’ve even seen this in guidelines from small publishers. It’s not wrong, but it’s not the norm.
Putting internal monologue in italics is a convention that comes from mid-20th-century pulp fiction. You especially see it in thrillers. Some literary authors, like William Faulkner, also experimented with it. Some contemporary authors like to use italics to show alternate points of view. I’ve seen both Terry McMillan and Marian Keyes do this. They’re both brilliant authors, and they used the device well.
But italics are on their way out. I’ve seen agents say in their guidelines they won’t read anything that’s italicized. That’s probably because italics are harder to read and cause havoc with electronic formatting, especially for ebooks.
These days, writers generally use the “deep third person” point of view that allows for inner monologue without dialogue tags.