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.