Rules… What Rules?

 

Strange times we’re living through. As with many writers, lockdown reduced my imagination to pulp, so it’s been hard going with the WIP in a period when I have so much free time I don’t know what to do with it. However, whilst the imagination might be on a break of its own, I find I’m drawn to instructions.  Recipes, board games, knitting patterns, flat-pack furniture… it’s all rather therapeutic.

Personally, I’ve always been an inveterate follower of rules, risk averse, all that baloney. I like to know where I am, what’s expected. It’s comfortable. The government says stay indoors… I stay indoors. But the beneficial nature of sticking to the script got me thinking about other rules, specifically the plethora of instructions, guidelines and strategies available to the aspiring writer.

Like the Bible, writing advice has a lot of contradictions. And lots of it gets into print, to the confusion of the novice writer.  My own reading reveals some interesting anomalies, where even best-selling authors seem to have ignored the most basic advice. Should you worry that you’ve broken some of writing’s cardinal sins?

You want to improve, so you check everything out, see what the current thinking is. It’s always useful to be aware of the rules of engagement before proceeding in any endeavour. Then you find there’s actually a bigger problem.  As if writing that novel wasn’t difficult enough for the beginner, the huge amount of conflicting information doesn’t make things easier.

I have a collection of how-to-write books. You probably have a similar pile, all of them dispensing good, sometimes great, advice. But they aren’t all consistent. One advises us to use simple, plain words – the first word we think of will probably do the job. The next encourages us to expand our readers’ vocabulary by using lesser-known words, because the wider our vocabulary the more effective our writing will be.

Grammar used to be dependable. You knew where you were with grammar. Its rules were firm and unbreakable. Not any more. I’ve recently finished a psychological thriller, which was a great read, apart from the constant use of the past tense rather than the past continuous, as in She was stood in the kitchen… She was sat at the table… Surely that should read standing, and sitting? Maybe I’m too old-school; it doesn’t even sound right. But on the plus side, at least the author was consistent.

I’ve come across many rookie mistakes in bestselling novels from established writers, which makes me wonder if they’re really mistakes at all. Are you guilty of:

  • Head-hopping rather than sticking to one point of view per scene?
  • Dumping large chunks of background information into dialogue because you’ve done the research and don’t want to waste it?
  • Introducing a huge cast of characters in the first couple of pages, then leaving most of them behind?
  • Using a fluke or a chance encounter in the last chapter to wrap up a storyline because it’s easier than working harder on the plot?
  • Writing sentences that run on for 35 lines?

I’ve seen all of these in recent fiction. These novels fly in the face of the received wisdom:

  • Show, don’t tell
  • Introduce characters over several chapters
  • Don’t dump big chunks of information or back story
  • Keep the reader invested in the story by judicious use of foreshadowing, rather than relying on a fatuous coincidence
  • Use short and snappy sentences, not ones that are 35 lines long, however well- punctuated

Confusing, isn’t it? So what’s the advice?

Douglas Bader famously said that rules were for the obedience of fools and the guidance of wise men. That seems about right to me. Write for your readers. They won’t all be working for the grammar police. If the story’s good enough readers will forgive the odd faux pas. See what works for you. Rules are useful guides at the outset of your writing journey, but it still feels good to flout them occasionally.

Plotting with dialogue

Stuck with your plot? Bogged down in description? Janet Gover discovers a novel way of  building a story.

Whenever a few writers get together, at some point the age old question is going to come up…. Are you a plotter or a pantser? This of course refers to our way of working. Do you plot the novel in d…

Source: Plotting with dialogue

Verbification, or how to tighten up your writing

DaisyThere’s no doubt about it, the current trend for verbification – using nouns as verbs – can have a profound effect on our writing. We have social media to thank for some of this – the requirement to express complex ideas in 140 characters was bound to have a minimising effect – though verbification has been around a lot longer than Facebook and Twitter. The knock-on effect is that our use of language has changed subtly to accommodate this phenomenon. We parent, we text, we friend. We used to set a trend, now we are trending. Our writing group used to offer criticism, now we critique. Once, I wrote pieces for this blog. Now I simply blog. The noun has become the verb.

Worryingly, hunting for antiques has become antiquing, in the USA at least. I’m happy to report that we haven’t succumbed to this practice yet in the UK. Continue reading

Taking Me Out Of The Story

Following on from last week’s post about alienating readers with difficult words, I had an interesting discussion with a member of my writing group about the referencing of popular culture in my WiP and pieces from other group members, and how this can have a similar effect to using unfamiliar words . Given that pop culture permeates our everyday lives at all levels of society, should we ignore it, or embrace it? Continue reading

Critical mass part 2

Criticism is part and parcel of the writing process. Without it we will never know if our work is any good, but to benefit the writer the comments must rise above the personal – those kindly responses that don’t offend but don’t offer anything useful either – and address the problems with the writing itself, rather than with the writer.

My mother always used to say, If you can’t think of something pleasant to say, don’t say anything. This might be useful advice in some areas of my life, but it’s completely useless when critiquing another’s work. Writers, particularly beginners, want to know if their work hangs together, makes a thumping good read, has believable characters and plot. Some even want to know if they’ve got the spelling and punctuation right, too. Hearing that the result of sleepless nights, tortuous plotting sessions and numerous rewrites is ‘quite a nice read’ is more likely to send us into a slough of depression than any amount of constructive criticism.

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Starting Out

When I first started to write a novel, I thought I knew what I was doing. After all, I figured, I’d read lots of them. What could possibly go wrong?

Just in case there was something I might have missed, I enrolled on a 5-day residential novel-writing course. I won’t mention the name of the organisation. Suffice it to say it is very highly regarded in the field of literary endeavours. Maybe I just hit a bad week, but it was a pretty expensive waste of time and I won’t dwell on it, except to say that I’ve since heard an interview with one of the tutors where she actually admitted how bad she’d been that week. (I think she only did it once; she wasn’t temperamentally suited to the concept of coaching at all.)

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Actions speak louder than words

Non-verbal communication is usually understood to mean the process of creating or representing meaning by sending and receiving wordless, usually visual messages. These can include facial expressions, gestures, body language and eye contact. But how, I hear you ask, can this possibly help the writer? We need to examine the concept in a little more detail.

Previous posts have discussed the art of showing, not telling. Non-verbal communication falls firmly into the ‘showing’ category. Our characters don’t have to say anything to convey how they are feeling. The postures they adopt, their facial expressions and unconscious actions or tics will all reflect their moods and tell the reader more about the characters’ thoughts and feelings than long paragraphs of description, speech tags and adverbs.

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Criticism….can you take it?

As writers we are often called upon to critique another’s work. Maybe in a creative writing class, a writing group or even a friend who needs some independent input. But whenever we produce a sizeable piece of work ourselves, we should also be able to take a step back and look at it dispassionately. Just as we have a mental checklist to guide us through an assessment for a third party, so there are a number of points to check when reviewing our own work. This list is presented in no particular order of relevance or importance.

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Comparisons are odious…. or are they?

We’re all familiar with those websites where we can compare the prices of similar products. But this post isn’t about comparing like with like; for the purposes of making our creative writing even more interesting and imaginative, we should be comparing apples and oranges, if you see what I mean.

We’re not talking cliché here, folks. What we are trying to achieve is a fresh, inventive way of expressing a person’s characteristics, hopefully with a new spin, by using a comparison that hasn’t been used before. Arresting imagery brings another dimension to our writing and if we can help our readers to build vivid pictures of our characters in their minds we are onto a winner.

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Show me, don’t tell me.

I know this old chestnut comes up time and again, but I’m revisiting it again because it still causes problems, particularly for those new to the writing game.

Every writer will have come across the expression, ‘Show, don’t tell’, whether it’s in a creative writing how-to book, during a writing tutorial or in an on-line forum or blog. It has become a cliché in itself, but what does it actually mean to the fledgling writer? It’s a surprisingly tricky concept to get the hang of, so let’s pick it apart and examine it.

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