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.

New Shoots

Now that Spring finally seems to have arrived in the garden, my thoughts have turned to my own green shoots – those budding ideas I’ve actually turned into stories. How did I get to this point?

My writing journey (is that a cliché these days?) started several years ago. Although most of my friends and family were encouraging, I doubted I had the staying power when I set off, but I wanted to try. And here I am with two novels published and a third in progress. Wow.

Along the way I’ve encountered difficulties and disappointments, highs and lows, but I’ve never lacked Advice. So, in retrospective mood, here are my reflections on the huge amount of writing advice available. What’s actually been useful?

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Changing the Landscape

For a variety of reasons I’ve been having a funny old time, writing-wise, just lately. The old mojo seems to have packed its trunk and run away to the circus. I didn’t invite me along, though I think I’d be pretty good on the trapeze, so rather than sit around feeling sorry for myself, gazing gormlessly into space, I’ve been doing something worthwhile.

I’ve been writing in my head. Continue reading

Things I’ve Learned Along the Way

christmas-cactus2After a rather bruising journey to the publication of my second novel, my writing mojo has gone temporarily AWOL, so I thought I’d step away from my current project for a while and look back on my writing odyssey instead. This is a rewrite of an old post but the advice is still relevant.

In my experience, writing isn’t a life choice like exercise, or dieting, or what colour your hair should be this week. We don’t decide to become writers any more than we decide to become a man or a woman (well, most of us, anyway). By the time we’re ready to make such a conscious decision, writing has already made the choice for us. It’s a compulsion: innate, instinctive and as inevitable as death and taxes.

Here’s what I’ve learned thus far. Continue reading

But I thought you just said….?

Like most things in life, the more you write, the better you get. You discover your personal writing style, your voice. As you progress you hit some tricky issues. Should you always consign adverbs to the recycle bin or can you use them sparingly? What about clichés? You want to improve, so you check it out, see what the current thinking is. Then you find there’s actually a bigger problem. As if writing wasn’t difficult enough for the novice, the huge amount of conflicting information available doesn’t always make things any easier. Like the bible, writing advice reveals lots of contradictions. Take these examples: 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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