Sometimes reading writing blogs and advice can be frustrating. Advice often seems to be contradictory depending on which expert you listen to.
Two weeks ago, I wrote about how Mary Robinette-Kowal had a very different experience with the same bit of writing advice from Orson Scott Card which paralyzed me as a young writer. Paradoxically enough, Robinette-Kowal influenced me in a tremendous way at the 2014 Out of Excuses Writing Retreat.
At that same writing retreat, I was able to get some feedback on my epic fantasy manuscript from best-selling fantasy novelist Brandon Sanderson. He provided some blunt and extremely helpful advice, most of which I used to reform my novel.
Sanderson’s biggest criticism revolved around my use of exposition. As the old adage goes, show don’t tell. He thought I was doing a lot of telling and not enough showing. I knew coming in that was an issue -- I’d heard it from some beta readers, and my tendency when I’ve done a lot of imagining is to default to world building vomit. But for what it’s worth, Sanderson said my exposition was well written, so there’s that.
Earlier this year I read two novels which seem to fly in the face of Sanderson’s advice. First was Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurty. He uses a third person omniscient narrator, and a ton of the novel is exposition. It’s a sweeping western epic which won a Pulitzer prize in 1986.
Next up was The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu, a sweeping epic fantasy released earlier this year. Similar to McMurtry, Liu uses a lot of heavy exposition laden with his world's rich history.
In both cases, I did not mind the exposition. Though I’ve gotten very used to the dialogue- and plot-driven styles of Sanderson, Patrick Rothfuss, John Scalzi and others, in both cases the exposition drove the story and characters. In other words, it worked, and I'm not alone in that assessment. Lonesome Dove won a Pulitzer for heaven's sake, and Liu's debut novel has been very well received.
For me, I lost interest in Lonesome Dove because I stopped caring about the characters. But I really enjoyed The Grace of KIngs, and after adjusting the style, I found it refreshing.
Now, I’m not about to disregard my most recent 'Sandersonized' draft; I believe that Sanderson’s critique of my work has made it a better manuscript and helped me become a better writer. But for almost every piece of writing advice you might read, I can probably find a counterpoint, either in other pithy quotes or through examples of great works which seem to hold the conventional wisdom in contempt.
What does this mean for writers like me who aspire to the success of a Sanderson or a Robinette-Kowal or a Liu? I’m not exactly sure, but I think it means that you should find your voice, write the way you write, and then edit the hell out of it. But don’t get too caught up in the weeds of writing advice, because one person’s weed might actually be another person’s flower, and sometimes it's hard to tell the difference.