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.

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

Reality Rehab – Book Review

And now for something completely different.

I’m a voracious reader but I’m not a book reviewer by inclination. I know what I like, as they say, but I’m not usually given to expressing my opinion on someone else’s work, outside my writing group, other than the occasional, ‘you must read this!’

And then… Continue reading

In Praise of the Written Word

bookshelf1Sometimes when the muse isn’t with me and wringing anything sensible from my frazzled brain is a real effort, I wonder why I’m doing this. Writing, I mean. Why do I write? Who is it for?

Jean Paul Sartre maintained that ‘Hell is other people’ and I have a certain sympathy with that sentiment, but if anyone were to ask me what form my particular hell would take, I would answer immediately, without any thought at all: Hell is having nothing to read. I would qualify this to include the inability to read.

If I couldn’t read, for whatever reason, I’d go nuts, simple as that; I may as well shoot myself. Continue reading

So many books….so little time

Are you a carry-on-to-the-bitter-end reader, or a mid-chapter abandoner? I used to read every book I started from cover to cover, regardless of whether or not I was enjoying it, because I reckoned that I owed it to the author to finish what they’d written before I rushed to judgement. Not anymore. Continue reading

Books Are For Sharing

We become better writers by reading widely, so which books have coloured our lives? Which are our favourites, which inspire us and which do we wish we had written? As we’re approaching Christmas, which books will we give and which would we like to be given? Continue reading

Books… and what to do with them

Today I had intended to write a very erudite (!) piece about homage to literary classics in films. I’ve just watched ‘Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom’ for the first time. I’m so glad I did….

It’s such a truly terrible piece of cinematic nonsense (just my opinion, you understand) that I needed something else to occupy me while it wound its way to the inexorable conclusion. In between bouts of Sudoku I realised the film was a reworking of the Lost World literary genre.

Continue reading