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.

Characterisation

character One subject that keeps coming up in my writing group is how to create convincing characters.

All characters need a context, a goal, a challenge, a history, but do you start with a blank page and watch your characters develop as the narrative progresses, or are you familiar with every aspect of their backstory before you start writing?

So how do you build a character? Continue reading

Building Characters

character

When I first moved up to Norfolk from London I worked in a fascinating archive, The History of Advertising Trust, which has its offices deep in the countryside where real estate is cheaper than the capital. (Archives only ever grow, they never shrink.) Anyway, it was my good luck to happen upon it, because over the years it provided me with a lot of stimulation, sparking my imagination when I was struggling for ideas.

Advertisements are still a favourite source of mine. I love the lateral thinking, the wit, the ingenuity, the nods to popular culture, to classical art and literature, but I have a soft spot for 1980s cigarette ads. In this decade, tobacco companies in the UK were no longer permitted to show actual cigarettes in their advertising, although they were still allowed to promote their products. I’ve never been a smoker, and I’m not endorsing smoking here, but the imaginative and surreal advertising campaigns that resulted from the efforts to circumvent the ban are as fantastic as they are bizarre. Remember the Benson & Hedges pyramids and the Silk Cut scissors? You can see them here:   http://www.hatads.org.uk/catalogue/search.aspx?titleType=Print%20Advertising

But how could these curious images help drag my exhausted imagination out of the doldrums?

One particular series of ads was for Winston cigarettes and would have appeared on the London Underground. Because of the ban there are no images of lissom women enjoying cigarettes, no curls of smoke floating irresistibly upwards. The strapline reads simply, We’re not allowed to tell you anything about Winston cigarettes, so here’s something to pass the time.’  But it’s the text that followed that catches the eye.  Picture the scene…

You’re sitting on the train on your way home. You glance at the ad and read, We’re not allowed to tell you anything about Winston cigarettes, so here’s something to pass the time.’  You read the rest of the text and an idea sparks. You take out your notebook, (because you always carry one, don’t you?) and let your imagination go. By the end of the journey you have a serviceable character study…

  • Look at the person sitting opposite you.
  • Just a quick glance. Try not to stare.
  • What do you think they do for a living?
  • How much do you think they earn? 
  • More than you? 
  • Could you do their job? 
  • Think of 5 possible Christian names for them. 
  • And one nickname.
  • Are they married? 
  • Imagine their home. Their furniture. 
  • What do they keep on their mantelpiece?  
  • What colour bathroom do they have?
  • Consider the ANY DISTINGUISHING MARKS section of their passports. What does it say? What should it say? 
  • Where are they heading now? And why? 
  • To meet somebody? Who? For what reason
  • Do they look like they’re late?
  • And if they suddenly leant forward and offered to buy you dinner, what would you do?

 

I’ve tried this as an exercise with my writing group and it always gets good results. It forces everyone to think a little outside the box and consider alternative character traits. It acts as a catalyst, igniting the imagination and sending it off in unusual directions.

Works every time, often with very interesting results.