Disagreeing Agreeably

by James Scott Bell

Come close, youngsters, for I want to tell you of a magical time, not so very long ago, but before you were born, when, in our fair land, it was possible to disagree with someone without getting ridiculed, doxxed, canceled, mobbed, shot, stabbed or otherwise eliminated from life or society.

I know it will be hard for you to believe this, but there was a commercial-free television show back then where a staunch conservative named William F. Buckley, Jr. would sit in a chair opposite a staunch liberal (or two, or three) and for an entire hour discuss ideas without once yelling, cursing, or throwing chairs.

Yes, truly! And the show went on for twenty years before a fellow named Morton Downey, Jr. came along to shift the paradigm. Downey figured out that you get more attention (we call it getting “clicks” today) by being obnoxious and starting verbal—and sometimes physical—fights on his “talk” show.

“Trash TV” thus became a thing, perfected by a rowdy named Jerry Springer.

And then came social media, where any malcontent can get attention—and even perhaps “fifteen minutes of fame”—by ranting and raving and using language that would make even a stevedore shout, “Enough!”

So here we are. Debate has been replaced by berate, civility by savagery, discussion by repercussion.

What they call political debates these days are a joke. These aren’t debates. They’re soundbite contests fueled by nattering nabobs of negativism shooting gotcha questions at a stage full of Ralph Kramdens who, when they aren’t shrieking and talking over each other, are looking for a place to drop in a consultant-prepped bon mot.

Not exactly Lincoln-Douglas. Or even Nixon-Kennedy.

The lust for the devastating soundbite can be traced back to 1984 and the second presidential debate between incumbent Ronald Reagan and challenger Walter Mondale.

In the run-up to this debate the press was carpeting the newspapers with “concerns” about Reagan’s age. He was all of 73 years old.

At one point Reagan was asked by journalist Henry Trewhitt whether he, as the oldest president in history, had any doubts about his ability to handle the job.

To which Reagan replied,

“Not at all, Mr. Trewhitt, and I want you to know also that I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”

The audience erupted in laughter and applause and Mondale’s goose, such as it was, was fully cooked. (You can watch the clip here.)

That’s all every candidate is looking for now. File this desire under Ridiculous and Unhelpful.

Here at TKZ, we talk about writing. We share thoughts, tips, opinions. Our community of commenters chime in helpfully. It’s a nice little oasis in the Desert of Vituperation.

Let’s keep it that way.

In his autobiography, sagacious ol’ Ben Franklin wrote:

When another asserted something that I thought an error, I denied myself the pleasure of contradicting him abruptly, and of showing immediately some absurdity in his proposition; and in answering I began by observing that in certain cases or circumstances his opinion would be right, but in the present case there appeared or seemed to me some difference, etc. I soon found the advantage of this change in my manner; the conversations I engaged in went on more pleasantly. The modest way in which I proposed my opinions procured them a readier reception and less contradiction; I had less mortification when I was found to be in the wrong, and I more easily prevailed with others to give up their mistakes and join with me when I happened to be in the right.

So today, let’s open things up. What is a piece of writing advice you are unsure about or perhaps disagree with? (Agreeably, of course.)

59 thoughts on “Disagreeing Agreeably

  1. Guilty as charged.

    The dilemma, at least the way I see it, is that if you don’t engage you leave that space open for the opposition to dominate. But then if you do step in, the worst in you does tend to come out and show on the chat, feed or post chain. I’m reminded of that allegory: the only reason an orange will give out juice when squeezed is because it’s got juice in it.

    As for literary advice I disagree with, I have observed the books I love and the authors I admire break conventional literary wisdom all the time. They violate the “Show, Don’t Tell” rule with the kind of frequency that turns the injunction into a suggestion to be followed under 50% of the time. For example, Joe Abercrombie does it masterfully at this point. When I try to replicate the move, it doesn’t seem to stick the landing with as much success.

    • Good point. “Show, Don’t Tell” is one of those techniques all writers must master. But so is “Narrative Summary” (tell) and how and when to apply it.

  2. I don’t think anyone will disagree with the above…so why don’t things change?

    Writing advice I disagree with: Always show, don’t tell.

    Telling is essential, and gets a bad rap (or is it rep?)

  3. The advice is to always have an editor, but I say instead that the work should always be edited – lightly or heavily as necessary after you write it, but that you can learn to do it better than anyone else. (And to use mechanical aids such as programs which point out how many times you’ve used an adjective – NOT programs which claim to correct your grammar, and instead mush it all into a common heap called ‘Business English.’)

    After all, no one goes around after painters or sculptors ‘editing’ their work.

    It may or may not sell, depending on the job you do, and your skill level, but I prefer to know the author did it.

    Plus, learning to edit yourself means you learn to write better the next time. Help and advice until you get your skills polished, books on editing and English, and an outside eye from a beta reader can make the job easier and faster, but I have learned from experience not to let other minds tramp through my words.

    If you would rather have someone else do it, be my guest.

    • I agreeably disagree with a portion of your comment, Alicia. I heartily agree that writers need to learn self editing. Heck, I wrote a whole book for WD on the subject. But also I’ve experienced the value of another set of eyes looking at my work, because I’m too close to it and miss things. Thus, Mrs. B is my first editor, and trusted beta readers come next.

      • Respectfully agree on ‘other eyes’ – but wonder if painters do that.

        If a work doesn’t satisfy its creator, it shouldn’t be sent out into the world under its creator’s name. Part of satisfying its creator may be exactly its creator’s spouse’s approval/vetting/”doesn’t make you look like an idiot”. IF the creator wants that.

        One has to learn before trusting oneself – otherwise all one does is to prove Dunning-Kruger.

        • Rembrandt did apprentice for four years under two masters.

          In painting, all the details are in one place, the canvas, and easy to see.

          With 80,000 words and many scenes, details can be more easily overlooked. I’ve found that to be true in my work. I’ve focused on parts and skimmed over other parts, and invariably my wife and betas picks up something askew that I missed.

  4. Ah yes, I remember that Reagan quip well.

    It’s very sad that in large part today, people cannot discuss, but mostly shout. However I would like to share that I happened to be on a college campus this past week and while I only heard maybe half a minute of the conversation, I was very uplifted to hear a small group of 2-3 students sitting at a table CALMLY discussing a major issue of the day. I admit, I was surprised. But very pleasantly so. Maybe there’s hope for us yet.

    As to writing advice: “Write every day” is advice I’m very skeptical of. I agree with the essence of it–write often enough to stay in the flow–but writing every day, at least for the couple decades I’ve been writing, is completely impossible. It is extremely infrequent that I am able to meet this objective. I’m often relegated to writing one day a week–I’ll take what I can get. But aiming for something less defeating, like 2-3 days a week is much better than torturing myself with “write every day”.

    • Agree, BK. That’s why I personally advocate a weekly quota. It’s good to have a goal with the flexibility to skip a day when necessary. Find out how many words you can do comfortably in a week, up that by 10%, and make it your aim. If you don’t make it one week, fuggetaboutit and start fresh on the new one.

    • On “write every day,” I have to agree with BK Jackson. This admonition is much like a mathematical partial derivative, a fancy way of saying, “if you can ignore all other factors, then one should…” Such advice is often dispensed and accepted by many, so it appears useful to lots of people. Just not the few like me I suppose.

      I have a lot of very consequential “other factors” which cannot be ignored. My wife had a stroke 18 months ago and spent 3 weeks in the hospital. For her to be discharged and return to our home, this 83 year old structure required extensive modifications. Just coming out of COVID restrictions, contractor backlogs were 11 months to a start date. I had 3 weeks to completion. The kids came home from 5 time zones away and we went to work. Mission accomplished but zero days of writing.

      For months afterward the days were filled with doctor’s appointments, physical therapy sessions, home exercises and activities of daily life under altered circumstances. But zero days of writing.

      Not fishing for sympathy. Life is what it is. Deal with it and move on. My wife has recovered to perhaps 80% of baseline. We take mile long walks in our favorite park, very aware this wonderful existence can be turned upside down without a moment’s notice.

      Before this started, I had a 30 foot long excavation 10 feet wide and 8 feet deep beside our house for a DIY addition. Still a work in progress. The massive brackets to carry the second floor loads finally made it through the Long Beach shipping container backlogs. Have been able to shoehorn in a few days of writing.

      The manuscript is about 98% complete. Just a few more tweaks before my editor gets it.

  5. Another great post, Mr. Bell. This is one of my favorite places to visit on the internet because it’s a respite from the noise I find everywhere else. It’s like finding that quiet corner at Disneyland so I can rest and recharge before facing the crowds and noise again with the kids.

    • I just realized how ironic that sounds — I find rest from the internet at a blog called The Killzone. Lol.

      • Ha!

        Back in the day there was a bench at the back of Tom Sawyer Island, by the fort, which was somewhat hidden, looking out at the river. That was my favorite spot to rest.

        • There used to be (not sure if it’s still there) a rustic restaurant in the area around Splash Mountain that I loved.

  6. For me, (as I mentioned in my post Wednesday), “Write What You Know” is a piece of writing advice I disagree with.
    I’ve scoffed at what passes for debates long, long ago and stopped watching.

  7. Well said, Jim. Too many on social media feel the freedom to spit vitriol at total strangers. Not on my timeline, though. The second a comment inches into the hate arena, I shut it down with either, “Please respect this is a politics-free zone” or “You’re entitled to your opinion. What you’re not entitled to is to disregard common courtesy. Please save the hate for your own page.” Nine times out of ten it works.

    Writing advice I disagree with… “Just write.”

    If we “just write” without ever studying the craft, the first draft would be a hot mess. The writers who advocate to “just write” have innate story sensibilities from years of study and practice. Aspiring writers often don’t realize that. All they hear is “just write” and think they can leapfrog over the fundamentals. Can we “just write” once we hone our craft? Absolutely. Many successful pantsers do. But giving that advice without further explanation often sets the stage for the aspiring writer to fail, IMHO.

    • LOL, Sue, I agree with you….even though I wrote a book for WD called Just Write! (My title was meant to be taken as a play on words…Just Right…because it’s full of techniques. The opposite of “leapfrogging” over fundamentals!)

    • But Sue, one can “just write.” I sat down to write on a subject I knew, the many highly improbable things that happened to me during the last 60 years, complete with the lessons I learned along the way. I wrote it as fiction because no one would believe it anyway. Besides a lot of people would be really pissed. I got just over 737,000 words down before I took a step back from my masterpiece. Longer than War and Peace, oh my.

      It was then I realized what I had done. Figuratively I had ordered several truck loads of lumber, dozens of 50 pound boxes of nails and indiscriminately nailed everything together, expecting it to result in a house.

      What I got was one hot mess. No windows, no doors, no walls. Nothing but a big pile of lumber all nailed together. No organized structure.

      My very patient wife read some of it and said, “Here this should help.” No it wasn’t a match.

      She gifted me a Great Course by Dr. Bell. A set of 4 DVDs on “How to Write Best-Selling Fiction.” Something I could do during the COVID lock downs. That was a good start, followed by a couple dozen other books on the craft of writing. Then it was time to start pulling out most of the nails and start over.

      So yes, one can “just write” but I don’t recommend it.

  8. My morning radio gig regularly puts me in the position of interviewing politicians. My job as an interviewer is to ask questions and allow the guests to answer. If they dodge the question or make dubious claims, I press them once for clarification,.if they double down, I move on because our audience is smart enough to hear what I heard. I confess that I was a bit startled, though when the state’s senate finance chair called our sitting governor and US Senate candidate a “narcissistic pathological liar” on live radio. Nuance, apparently, is not the senator’s long suit. I hope to have the governor on soon to respond to the comment and the underlying accusations that led to the senator’s assessment.

    A friend of mine down the road hosts dinner parties at his home for friends on opposite sides of the political aisle for the express purpose of seeding calm political discussion. The food is great, the drink and conversation flows, and no one loses their temper. It’s interesting that such events are possible in West Virginia, when they could never have happened among my neighbors in the DC burbs.

  9. Bravo, Brother Gilstrap. “Allowing a guest to answer.” What a concept!

    I must confess that in my younger days, as a trained trial lawyer, my goal in social discussions was always to “win” the argument. Now I am more interested in calm clarity, and knowing when to leave it at “disagree agreeably.”

  10. Wondefrul post, Jim. I don’t have answers for turning the momentus ocean liner of disagreeable disagreement about, though I think operating in good faith is a modest start. Rather than state writing advice I question, I’d like to share some I encountered recently that rings true to me.

    “Tools, not rules.”

    That along, with a sticky note with your own advice — “write hot, revise cool” graces my desk.

    • Thanks, Louis. There are those among who famously dislike the word “rules” as ti applies to fiction, and with that I mostly agree, preferring “fundamentals” (“tools” also works well in this regard).

      I advocate knowing the fundamentals before you decide not to follow them.

  11. Thanks for this great post, Jim. Maybe you’ll start a movement toward civility in our society. I never understood why the media outlets don’t exercise more control over the debates they sponsor. I’ve given up watching.

    As far as writing advice goes, I’m open to anything as long as it isn’t stated as a “rule.” I was once advised to outline the entire story before I began to write. I tried, but it just didn’t work for me. I love to experiment, though, so things may change as I mature as a writer.

    • Media doesn’t care about decency, only ratings. Unfortunately, there’s a large swath of consumers for this. Shout shows are the new gladitorial games. Breac and circuses.

      Outlining should never be stated as a rule, for the only rule here is “whatever works best for you.”

      However, an outliner can make the case, stated the benefits, and leave it to the jury. So, too, the pantsers. Indeed, each side can learn things from the other. What a concept.

  12. Very well put, Jim. Thank you! Agreeing to disagree and remaining civil in the process is something we all benefit from. It’s one of the reasons I love being part of TKZ community. As Michelle said above, it’s a haven on the internet, and I get a quiet thrill almost every time I arrive here, much like when I visit Disneyland, a great bookstore or library. or a humming-along-with-activity-but-not-too-loud coffee shop. Actually, TKZ feels like all three together. Just bring your own java or black tea.

    One “rule” I disagree with is that your hero must have a wound that drives their actions, something that they must overcome to succeed in the narrative. This can be an excellent guideline, and one I used in a half dozen of my fantasy novels.

    However in my cozy library mystery series Meg does not have such a wound. There’s a past romantic relationship that was a bad one for Meg, and she has some hopefully endearing flaws, but no deep psychic wound driving her actions that she must overcome to succeed.

    Thanks again for today’s heartening post. Hope you have a fine Sunday!

    • Good point, Dale. I do like a wound as a “ghost” that haunts the present. But the “ordinary” hero often does not need to overcome this…e.g., Dr. Kimble in The Fugitive.

    • I wrestle with this in a few of my stories too. Not every protag has been haunted by some violent crime or something. They have common life issues, of course, but they may just be investigating a mystery because they are curious and pursue justice, without some dark and bleak past to overcome.

      • I had a reader ask me once why in every romantic suspense they read the heroine had this tragic backstory, either the death of parents or husband/boyfriend.
        I agree with you Jim, about the wound as a ghost, but not every story hast to have one.

        And I do wish good manners would return to our society…decency, too.

  13. Bravo, Jim!! You eloquently put to words what I’ve bemoaned for years. Noise draws more attention than respectful disagreement.

    Loved Michelle’s comment about the irony of finding peace in a venue called The Kill Zone.

    Never say never…except when you say never say never.

  14. I’m going to politely disagree with one of your staunchest pieces of advice, Mr Bell.

    Little backstory in the first ten pages.

    I tried it many times, and it left my critique group confused on why my character was doing something. Then I studied my favorite opening pages, and discovered that there was quite a lot of backstory info in them, and that is what pulled me forward. The trick, of course, is to know what to put in and where.

    • Thanks for the civil challenge, az. I’ll defend “act first, explain later” this way.

      I’ve found after reading a thousand or more opening pages by new writers, that the error is invariably the other way–too much opening backstory, because the author thinks the readers (or the critique group!) have to understand as much as possible what’s led up to this point. But nay, not so. Readers will wait a long time for explanations if there’s a disturbance and action.

      Some years ago I came up with a “formula” for writers to try. In the first 2500 words, you can have three sentences of backstory, used together or spaced out. In the next 2500 words, three paragraphs, together or spaced out. Those who’ve tried it have reported happy results.

      Another way to approach this is to put in all the backstory you want in the first 10k, then tell yourself to cut-and-save all but 5% of it.

      Good topic for discussion!

      • True, this is very much the issue with new writers. My only thought is that in genres where the expectations aren’t as defined as dead body on the floor/detective gets new case, 3 sentences in 10 pages is awfully slim.

      • Recently, I’ve found that some genre tolerate and actually want some backstory early on. Romance for instance is getting to know about the characters and caring about them. Even opening with backstory is okay.

        In Science Fiction and some types of fantasy the call it world building but in essence it is it is backstory.

        Once again rules for writing are not hard and fast.

        • I will disagree slightly, but altogether agreeably, and say that even in romance and literary fiction, the main thing is keeping readers pinned to an opening disturbance, even a “quiet” one. Nothing is lost in holding back some info, and I don’t think there will be a reader uprising. Watch out for the critique group, though.

    • Here on the Kill Zone we have discussed this “start with striking a match, not piling up the firewood” from both sides. In one session we agreed that certain books and movies started with high octane action before we as readers or viewers were able to establish a connection with the protagonist. We didn’t care if he lived or died. Many said they gave up and put the book down, never to pick it up again or punched the home button to go back and select another movie.

      In one of the iterations of my current manuscript, I opened with striking the match and my beta readers objected. They said it started too fast. Might appeal to adrenaline junkies but not them. They didn’t have time to connect with my protagonist before he faced a life or death struggle.

      Responding to their criticisms, I modified the opening with a hint of the danger lurking just ahead and used the protagonist new girlfriend’s real time interior dialog to express her worries for him and how he was her “pick of the litter” for the way he treated her friends even when they were unaware of his kindnesses. This as a way of disguising backstory within real time dialog.

      This approach was better received by my betas.

      I suppose it is more of a balance between too much and too little, with that point varying from one reader to another.

      I’ll find out soon whether or not I’ve struck the right balance. It will either take flight before the end of the runway or crash into the fence and trees with a fireball.

      • “They didn’t have time to connect with my protagonist before he faced a life or death struggle.”

        Hmm…. if a character is facing a disturbance from the jump, readers do connect. It doesn’t have to be fast action. But if readers see a character emotionally dealing with a problem situation, they relate to that. As pages go on, you deepen the bond. That’s when backstory helps.

  15. Stunningly (note the use of an adverb . . . or adjective-my dictionary says it’s both!) well-written, Jim.

    Rules, schmules.

    When I was learning to ride a bicycle, my Dad said to me, “Keep both hands on the handlebars until you don’t need to.”

    Learn and practice the rules, then let go and zoom, was my 6-year-old translation.

    Civility, debate, etc.:

    When we were teens, my brothers and sister and I often disagreed with our parents-about everything. It was the ’60s, what can I say? Our dinner table conversations were lively to say the least. But, everyone had a voice, as long as civility ruled. Mom and Dad made sure of that.

    I’m not sure when that practice went out the window, but we need to bring it back. Nowadays, at certain family members’ homes, there are taboo subjects because the certain family members don’t want arguments.

    Sad that we can’t talk to each other about subjects that really matter without belittling and berating.

  16. I also mourn the loss of amiable disagreement.
    I disagree with Elmore Leonard’s first rule of writing:
    “Never open a book with weather.”
    I’ve read so many exceptions to that rule — most notably John Sanford, who often opens with a description of the weather.
    Maybe that rule should be revised to:
    “Think twice about opening a book with the weather.”

    • I, too, have seen good openings with the weather, Elaine. Invariably they make the weather part of the tone and even conflict of the scene. That’s the secret, IMO.

  17. I was a political science major in college (pre-law) and way back in 2000 I took a media and elections class where we learned the average news clip of presidential candidates speaking was over one minute long. By 1996, it went down to 7 seconds. Today, we usually see a muted image of a candidate while an “analyst explains” what he said in a voice over.

    And that’s JUST an important election, not our everyday hell of “news” and “debate.”

    I simply unplugged from “news.” It’s not worth it.

  18. As for your actual question: my new approach to common writing advice is to find the kernel of truth.

    The much maligned “write what you know” doesn’t mean staying away from flying saucers or military black ops adventures, it means tap into your human experience and write true emotions, true characteristics, true dynamics in human relationships.

  19. When folks say “write what you know” I always wonder how do you know what you know?

    I reckon what you know is the sum total of everything you’ve experienced from the moment of conception. So the fields wide open, really.

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