Do you follow the writing 'rules'?
I hope not.
When I first started writing, there were no 'Write your way to bestsellerdom' blog posts. There were no Twitter #writetips, and significantly fewer courses set up to make money out of the hopeful wordsmith. If you wanted to write you just sat down and did so, you didn't take time out to blog about writers' block, word counts, or the two hours you just spent mulling over whether or not it's acceptable to change from third person to first in alternate chapters. If it turned out you didn't have any talent, the thirty rejection slips and the awkward look on your friends' faces after they'd read your sample chapters soon delivered the message.
Nowadays, not only does our culture of encouragement mean that we must never, ever suggest that a writer wannabe might not have a gift for the written word, but instructions on how to write are everywhere we look. New writers can get bogged down by them. I've seen reviews that make me wonder if the reviewer sat with a check list next to them whilst reading, while some blog posts give the impression that anyone can produce a bestseller via a series of modules, almost. Punchy start? Tick. Hook in the first chapter? Tick. Atmospheric backdrop without too much rambling description? Tick. Which is why, I suppose, some debut novels read as though they've come straight from a creative writing class. Reined in and careful. Ooh, did you know that you can no longer add 'she said' after a piece of dialogue? Of course, we all learned a few years ago that you must NEVER write anything like 'she shouted' or 'she snarled', but now, apparently, you can't write 'she said' either.
Er, yes, you CAN. Sometimes. When it's necessary. Part of the skill of writing is being able to make the decision about whether or not something 'works'; already I'm seeing indie novels that have followed the new 'abandon he said-she said' rule so absolutely that you can't work out who's saying what to whom.
I read an article a while back in which a first-novel writer was getting herself into fifty shades of anxiety over the first/third person thing mentioned above. More worrying were all the comments beneath, reminding her of what was okay and what wasn't.
|The cartoons aren't necessarily relevant to the article, by the way; |
they're just here to amuse you!
Writing courses and articles offer all these rules about how to use POV in order to make a reader 'connect' with your characters. I think most of this is horsesh*t, to be honest. If you write well enough, your readers will connect with your characters within a few pages, whatever damn POV they're in. If you don't write well enough, no rule book, writing course or blog article is going to make that connection happen.
I've been told that I 'couldn't' have more than two paragraphs of backstory. Really? Ever read a Jackie Collins book? Whatever the literature snobs say about her genre, her pages and pages of backstory on the introduction of a new character didn't do her any harm. Mutiple POVs in one novel used to be considered a little on the wild side, before it became the fashion it is now; an agent told me that she liked a book I'd submitted to her but couldn't sell it to a publisher unless I rewrote from one POV; I shouldn't deviate from the main story, she said. I felt like saying, um, ever read any Jerome K Jerome, master of interesting little diversions? The multiple POVs of GRR Martin? Or Susan Howatch?
**Alert!** Always hang a piece of garlic above your laptop to ward off the evil adverbs! These days, red flashing lights and an alarm bell go off on my lap top via the 'Writing Rules' Police if I so much as consider including one in a first draft.
Of course, one should always be open to learning; I read a bit of good advice the other day and thought, ah yes, I need to remind myself of that, and indeed I would if I could remember what it was. Any decent and serious writer without ego problems knows that they can always improve; wise words from the experienced and accomplished are always worth listening to. But one writer (see how I started a sentence with 'but' there? Daring, huh?) said this to me in an email today: "I minimize contact with some of my old beta readers because they have such slavish devotion to the so-called rules of writing that they forget how to tell a good story". Which, for me, said it all.
Writing is a creative, fluid, individual skill. If you read any novels by your favourite authors, I bet you'll find adverbs, 'she whispereds', and even a bit of ~ eek, dare I mention it? ~ telling not showing. By which I don't mean introducing a character by saying "Harry was a brusque sort of chap who often got on the wrong side of people, but also had an engagingly dry sense of humour"; that's just amateur and crap; of course the reader should be shown that he possesses such qualities, not told. But I've been ticked off in reviews for one book for too much 'telling not showing' of events, because my character gave an account about one too many, instead of my taking the reader back to where the party/murder/argument/death actually happened; sometimes, though, you have to just tell the reader about an event, you can't show every damn scene or the novel would be two thousand pages long. And I wonder if those reviewers had heard of 'telling not showing' before they joined Twitter and read all the 'how to write' blog posts thereon? I certainly hadn't.
A while back I came across a blog post by one of the 'My one self-pub novel hit the top ten of a minor genre chart a year ago, and now I'm qualified to tell everyone how to write' crew. He actually said something like "I'm often asked, 'Bob, is it acceptable to use profanity in my writing?'". I bet you just frowned and thought "WTF?" too, didn't you? You write whatever the story requires, whatever feels right for you, there isn't any 'can' or 'can't'. Have your rock star talking as if he's at a church social if Bob says so, by all means, but don't expect your readers to be astounded by your character realism.
Ages ago I got a 4* for my first self-pub novel, You Wish, that said something along the lines of 'it really worked, despite breaking so many of the rules of writing'. I could write the book better now (having just published my 11th one, it would be a bit of a worry if I couldn't), but isn't the key in that one line? Earlier this year I read an excellent novel written in the second person. I couldn't believe it worked, but it did, because the writer has talent and imagination, and confidence in his own style. It's Ultra Violence by Mark Barry, if you're interested.
This post is way too long already, so I'll end by telling you what happened when I wrote a satirical blog post called How to write a romcom best seller in one easy lesson. I had lots of comments from chick lit authors who thought it was very amusing and spot on ~ but I also received a few tweets from people thanking me for it... because they thought it was to be taken seriously....
..... and here is what writer Katrina Mountfort had to say about 'the rules', earlier this year! HERE