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The Rules of Writing

The Rules of Writing
When you first begin to write, you write with joy and energy and enthusiasm. Every sentence sings, you fall in love with your characters and your story, your world builds and the words just flow. And it’s fun — such fun.

Gradually you realize you’re serious about your writing, that it’s not just a hobby — you want to get published. So you do the sensible thing and begin studying the craft of writing. The internet is full of advice. 

And oh . . . there are so many rules you never knew about. Point of view. Adverbs — apparently they’re practically illegal! Exclamation marks are evil!  Show-don’t-tell —always. Never use ‘then’. Avoid ‘was’. The adjective is not your friend. The best dialogue tag is no tag.

Everywhere you look there are rules. And you look sadly at your writing and realize you’ve been doing it all wrong. You’ve broken so many apparently vital rules, you might as well toss your story and start again. Or give up.

The truth is, there are no rules in writing. It’s an art form, and a craft — and the only rule is, “if you can make it work, it works.” The point of all these “rules” is to alert you to some aspect of writing, the effect of which you need to understand. They’re not rules, so much as tools. Let’s look at a few.

Point of View (POV)
Loads of books —hugely successful books at that — have been published in which we pop from one character’s mind to another, back and forth at the writer’s whim. Most discussions of ‘point of view’ insist that this is bad, that you can only change point of view once in a scene, or once in a chapter. Or twice. Or some other arbitrary number.

My view of this is there’s no set number of times a point of view change is acceptable — what’s important is the effect the writer is aiming for. You do need to study point of view, and learn what it does and what it doesn’t achieve. I have an article here on my website that explains POV in more detail, for beginners and a discussion of its uses for more advanced writers.

What you need to do is learn the various ways POV can be used, and then decide on the effect you want to achieve. Experiment. Play with different approaches. Then choose.

Show, don’t tell.
This is probably the most central tenet of all writing advice. My favorite quote about this is usually attributed to Anton Chekov: Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.

My own view is this: if you tell someone what to think, they will subconsciously sit back and judge you as the teller, deciding whether you’re being truthful, or convincing. The story will pass before their eyes without particularly engaging them. But if you can show them good, imagination-sparking details, they will participate in the story. Their imaginations will connect with yours, and the effect of your story will be enhanced.

So show-don’t-tell is, in general,  a brilliant piece of advice.

However, there are loads of writing advice sites that take it to extremes. There is a school of advice, for instance that said you must rid your writing of all adverbs, do a search for all words ending in —ly and delete them. And replace them with show-don’t-tell.

So, instead of “That can’t be right,” he said angrily, you have something like:

“That can’t be right.” His fist clenched slowly around the glass, gripping it, white-knuckled until the crystal shattered into a thousand shards. Blood dripped through his fingers but he took no notice.

Now this is fine if you want to go in and show the depth of his emotion at this particular point, if this is a highlight moment. (That’s not an official term, btw, it’s just me talking.)

But what if it is, say, one brief sentence that’s part of an intense rapid-flow argument? If you keep showing every character’s emotions for each utterance they make, you could end up with a piece where each character speaks and then acts out his/her emotion, a little like a mime artist. And that will  slow the pace of the exchange and thus rob it of its immediacy. Too much “acting-the-emotion” can become ridiculous.

But “That can’t be right,” could carry a range of emotions — mild irritation, or wonder, or fury— and as writer, you want to show the reaction of the speaker, give a hint of the emotion felt, but without slowing the pace of the your rapid-fire exchange.

An occasional “he said angrily,” does no harm. It’s a quick way of signalling the tone of voice being used and, used sparingly, it doesn’t slow the pace.

The advice about removing adverbs is intended to make you aware of the danger of this kind of thing:

“That can’t be right,” he said angrily.
“It’s right,” she said wearily.
“Well, I don’t believe it,” he said stubbornly.
“Check it yourself,” she said crossly.

Too much of that and it just becomes silly and repetitive. So here’s the same exchange with body language/action tags. Look at the effect.

He glared at her. “That can’t be right.”
“It’s right.” She tossed the papers on the table and collapsed into her chair.
He clenched his jaw. “Well, I don’t believe it.”
She shrugged. “Check it yourself.”

How would you edit this? I’d probably cut a couple of those “action” tags. Another writer might flesh them out with more description. It all depends on the effect you want to achieve.

Another piece of advice is to use no dialogue tags, except “said”, and only where necessary — in this case to establish who is speaking first. So:—

“That can’t be right,” he said.
“It’s right.”
“Well, I don’t believe it.”
“Check it yourself.”

The trouble with that is that while the pace is kept fast and snappy, it runs the danger of becoming a “talking heads” piece, with no other context except the dialogue. Some writers like that, others don’t. There is no right way.

There is an infinite variety of choices. You, as writer, must decide what effect you want. Try playing with some alternatives, as I have here, and then make your choice. They’re tools, not rules. And balance is everything. Some things need to be shown, others are best told. The more you write and play and learn, the greater your toolbox of skills will be.

Rules are not rules — they’re examples to learn from. Learn the purpose behind them, then decide how to use that knowledge to create the effect you want.

One last point:
Don’t worry about craft-of-writing “rules” while you’re creating that first draft. Trying to follow “the rules” while you’re still learning your craft or working out your story is likely to block you or depress you. Get the story down as best you can, in all its rough and energetic glory, then consider it as your raw material, your gemstone, ready to be polished.

And don’t worry if your writing seems clunky and nowhere near the standard of the books you love so much, and which have inspired you to become a writer. We all start out as beginners, and every published writer I know, whether they’ve had dozens of books published or one, continually work on adding to their craft-of-writing knowledge and honing their storytelling skills.

Everyone is different. Read the 10 most important rules of writing as suggested by this collection of famous writers. See the common thread? You don’t? That’s because we all do it differently. And vive la différence! (She said, tossing her head defiantly as she concludes with an exclamation mark.)

The First Few Pages

Getting Started: the first few pages

There’s an awful lot of advice on the internet and in craft-of-writing books, from revered writers and craft teachers about getting the first few pages right.

And it’s pretty much all true.

But what they often forget to say is this: the first few pages of your final book are almost never the first few pages of your first draft.

If you sweat madly over your first pages, trying desperately to get it right — or worse, perfect — when all you’ve got is five pages (or fewer) of your story, it’s probably the surest way to kill your story enthusiasm. You’re likely never to get beyond a five page manuscript.

The thing is, some lucky writers get the first line, and the first few pages perfect from the very start; the rest of us have to work much harder. For me, the start of the book almost always comes hard, and I’m almost always half way through the story before I work out what I need the opening pages to achieve. Sometimes the beginning is the last thing I write. Once I know my character’s journey and how it ends, I know what I need to set up at the start.

So if you’re just starting on your first novel, or if you’re a pantser,  try just diving in to your story from wherever it starts in your mind. Know that this beginning probably won’t end up as the final opening pages — but you haven’t written enough of the story yet to know what the  start should be doing. Just write madly while your enthusiasm for the story idea is driving you, until you run out of steam. And know that this is just a first draft, so anything goes. 

You need to be free to write whatever comes to you, without thinking about the market, or craft-of-writing advice, or what readers might think. Forget the rules, just plunge in to the story. 

This is your honeymoon phase — there’s just you and your muse and characters playing under a luscious golden dreaming moon.

Writing is rewriting. 

I used to read a lot of first manuscripts (I don’t now — no time) and one thing that popped up again and again is that often, for the first three chapters or so, the writer was writing their way into the story world of the character, learning about the characters, creating the world of the story, learning and describing backstory, and falling in love with the story. But their real story actually started in chapter four.

This is NOT a bad thing — you need to do all that work in finding out who your characters are, and where the story takes place, and play with various possibilities. So go ahead and write them.

Once your story is spinning and you have the plot taking off, and you know who your people are, you have something to work with — like a potter who’s dug the clay, taken out all the stones, then processed it until it’s smooth and a rough shape has emerged. You have your raw material.

Then you can decide where the best place to start might be. A suggestion often made is to start at the point of change for the main character — where something happens to cause him or her to take action of some kind, for their life to have to change.

Think about your story and work out what you need to set up. Considering some of the following:

a) What’s the best, most effective and interesting way readers could meet your main character(s)? 

b) What do you want to show about your character(s)? What first impression do you want readers to get of them?

c) What story questions or intrigue do you want to plant in your reader’s mind?

So don’t sweat the first few pages  or that brilliant first line — just write. Some writers refer to their early draft as the discovery draft. That comes first. Crafting a brilliant opening comes later, in some case, much later.

Training Your Muse

A lot of people think the muse strikes randomly, and you just have to wait for her (aka inspiration) to appear.

While ideas can pop out of the ether to inspire you at odd times, if you’re serious about writing, you can’t just wait for that to happen.

I talked last week about Dorothea Brande and her method of training the muse. I outline my version of this process here on my website.  But I often return to the book.

Why We (I) Need to Do It.
Dorothea talks about the two sides of any writer. The first is the adult, who’s discriminating, temperate and just, the artisan, the workman, and the critic (rather than the artist.) This part of any writer must work with or through the emotional and childlike second side. These two sides need to work in balance, and if any side gets too far out of hand, there will be bad work, or no work at all. (Brande page38-39)

Her process helps writers get these two sides into balance, and in her book she talks about splitting those two aspects apart “for consideration and training.” (Here and on my website I outline the shortened version, but I highly recommend her book.)

The process I’ll talk here about involves two short writing periods of 15 minutes each. Of course if you’re working on a manuscript, you will want to write more than that, but this is the training part of writing — getting your muse to turn up on command. Really, it’s about forming a writing habit.

1) Morning Writing
First, you write for 15 minutes soon after you wake up — preferably while you’re still in a semi-dream state. Go to the loo by all means, maybe even grab a cuppa if you must, but don’t have your shower, read email or the newspaper, don’t even talk to anyone — try not to interact with the world until after you’ve written. Then aim is to try to hang on to that semi-dream state, and write from that. This is the time to play, to explore, to write without caring, to write and not look back.

What to write about?
Anything. Write down your dreams if you recall them, write about your thoughts, a stream-of-consciousness exercise, try to evoke a moment from the day before, using as many of the five senses as you can. It doesn’t matter what you write — it matters that you write, and don’t limit yourself. If you’re on a roll, of course you can write more, but you need to write in this free-spirited way for the first 15 minutes. You’re training your muse, remember.

2) Appointment to write
Once you’ve finished your morning writing, think about your plans for the day and make a time for the second part of your writing. This needs to fit in around your daily activities — think ahead and decide when you’ll make a 15 minute slot for writing. This appointment-to-write is a crucial part of the training-the-muse process. It doesn’t have to be the same time every day — fit it in around what you’re doing. But make the appointment in advance. It doesn’t work if you suddenly think, “Oh, I have 15 minutes free, I’ll do it now.”

You must keep this appointment — every single time. This is the part where you’re teaching your muse to show up. No excuses, no argument — and no delays. No “I’ll wait until after dinner,” no “I can’t write in public places,” no “I’m not in the mood for writing just now,” and no “I don’t know what to write,” no, “I’ll do it later.”

You’ve made your appointment — KEEP IT!
All those usual excuses you come up with about why you can’t write just now — nope, you’ve made a commitment to write at this time, and hey, it’s only 15 minutes. You can do this. It’s hard, I know — but the eventual payoff is worth it. 

I’ve been known to pull over on the freeway when my appointment hit, and write for 15 minutes in my car. Another time I’d planned to meet friends for lunch and intended to do my 15 minutes before we were due to meet. I was sitting in my car scribbling madly when one of my friends arrived early. She knocked on the window. “Coming in? she asked.
“I’m writing,” I said. “I’ll be in in a few minutes.” She’s a writer — she understood.

 What to write about?
Again, it doesn’t really matter — work on your current wip (work-in-progress). Write a shred of a scene, a piece of dialogue, something you want to try out, thoughts in your character’s head — that’s up to you. Start a short story, continue the free-form writing you did that morning.

What’s so important about keeping this appointment to write?
Keeping the appointment to write will really help you defeat a procrastination habit as well. I don’t know about you, but my subconscious can act like a worm confronted with a hook, wriggling madly and always coming up with reasons why I can’t write now, why it would be so much better later. It’s a process of endless putting-off-the-writing. When I catch myself doing that, I always go back to Dorothea — the morning pages and the appointment to write, and after a couple of weeks I’m not only back on track and writing steadily, but often, the magic will happen (see last week’s post)and scenes will start to come to me in a dream-like state. And those scenes are always good ones.

When you first start to do this, your writing will probably be a bit clunky — that’s all right. It’s your muse dragging her feet a bit. She — and you— will get used to it, and after a week or two of your daily morning writing and your daily appointment to write, the words will start to flow — on demand — and isn’t that what we need to do?

“Doing Dorothea”  helps get your writer’s brain in balance—the child and the adult. The morning child remembers how to play and be spontaneous and emotional and lively, and the adult keeps the appointment to write. And when the two work together, magic happens.