The Rules of Writing

God Speed! by Edmund Blair Leighton, 1900: a l...

God Speed! by Edmund Blair Leighton, 1900: a late Victorian view of a lady giving a favor to a knight about to do battle (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Every third author is asked to give his/her rules for writing — some take the question seriously, some give it all the seriousness it deserves and say something witty or flippant.  Regardless of the sort, most authors give fairly common sense answers: write, get your head examined, keep plenty of booze on hand, don’t panic, remember to dot your Ts and cross your eyes, etc.

Then we get to the lit crowd.

Frankly, these people scare me.  It probably has to do with psychological scarring from having to take Literature classes in school.  To this day, thanks to a college lit class, the mere mention of ‘courtly love‘ just sends me into a cold sweat.

These sort try to codify actual Rules for writing.  No, I don’t know why, but they do.

Thing is, some of their ‘rules’ make fair guidelines.  Really, they’re fine suggestions as “typically you would do well to …” X and “if you want [Y] then it’s likely best that one avoids …” Z.  In that sense it’s perfectly fine.

The trouble is, this is not how this sort of thing is presented.  “Avoid cliché”, it’s a good guideline.  Sometimes, though, you need or can’t avoid or just want to use one.  Go ahead, no lit police will bust down your door and confiscate your literary license.  It, however, is a lousy Rule.  Sometimes you use one by mistake, or you even simply can’t avoid it.  And don’t get me started on the fools who go to extremis and claim that one must never use the bloody things.

Worse yet, some of these things are contradictory.  Take the idea that one should be concise.  This is a good idea.  We don’t want to wind up going through three 500-page books just to carry our audience through twenty minutes of a character’s life; unless, of course, we’re writing Dragonball Z, then we’re being entirely too concise and really should flesh that out a great deal more.  But the same people saying that will tell you not to use adverbs – what the ever loving fuck?!  Okay, for sake of argument we’ll avoid adverbs (don’t know why, they’re perfectly innocent little descriptors) OH!  that’s a point, you should be descriptive!  Let’s not forget this.  Yet we should be careful of the adjectives we choose.  Oh gods, now what do we have left?  Hmmm.

The princess gave the prince a coy smile as he bowed flamboyantly before the king and queen.  “Good day, Your Majesties.  I am Prince Philip of Maldora come to try my luck in winning the hand of your fair daughter.”

Well, we followed one rule.  We were concise.  We’ve got all the pertinent data.  Smile: coy.  Bow: Flamboyant.  Daughter: fair.  We’ve established that the princess is rather attracted to this prince and willing to show it, if not too blatantly; he’s probably handsome.  She’s probably blonde or a lighter brunette, possibly a redhead, eyes are probably blue or green, perhaps something exotic, but likely light in any regard.  Skin tone probably in the cream category of things.  Not bad.

But WAIT!!  Horror of horrors!  We have an adverb!!  And Gasp!  We told, rather than showing!  Okay, let’s see what we can do with that.

Princess Iona played with a lock of golden hair and smiled coquettishly, trying to flirt with him by batting her lashes and flashing her dazzling blue eyes in his direction, favouring him with a wink.  He bowed low, and sweeping, doffing his had in the same fluid motion.  “Good day, Your Majesties.  I am Prince Philip of Maldora come to try my luck in winning the hand of your fair daughter.”

Wow.  Okay, our word count went up.  This could be counted a very good thing!  We might want to consider keeping this if we’re running shy of a goal and just polish it up later.  All in all, we did okay.  We got rid of that pesky adverb.  Oh, no, wait, we ended up putting a new one in there.  Damnit!  And, bugger, there’s a cliché!  Golden hair!?  Really?  Can’t we just say blonde?!  I mean, gods, one might think that hair colour has more than four possible choices with no such things as shade!  Let’s not be silly here.  Still, we’ve a blonde with blue eyes, safe bet she’s kinda pale skinned so we saved some space there …

I don’t have the stomach to actually write that in a way that doesn’t violate the Rules.  Besides, it’s not possible.  Once I’ve finished the feat I’ve broken yet another rule:  I’ve gone and become long winded and needlessly verbose.  Oddly enough these sort rarely seem to realise that, in addition to being needlessly wordy, I’ve also made it godawful boring.

That’s the trouble with rules that aren’t based on anything practical.  The rule not to start the story with dialogue?  Comes from a certain class of people who happen to know that once upon a time, before the dawn of Good Fiction there were those who followed a bit of writing advice in a certain calibre of book that said to draw your reader in quickly.  Some of these books suggested, and the rest of the time the writers got clever on their own and drew the reader in with a bit of dialogue to kick things off.  Seems reasonable enough, and is, but the problem was that some of these stories went nowhere from there — they just fell apart!  Oh my.  Well, the rule got applied to the technique rather than the issue.  Instead of “try not to suck, and stuff” it became “Don’t start with dialogue”!

That’s like saying, “some people are allergic to peanuts, so peanut should be a proscribed substance the possession thereof to be punishable by law”.  It is.  Starting with dialogue doesn’t make a story suck.  It can’t.  It’s just starting in the middle of something — a perfectly acceptable literary technique with a properly pretentiously Latin name that no one ever pronounces correctly:  In Media Res.  Yet because people who didn’t know how to tell a good story or keep a plot together used it, it’s been vilified.

The adverb?  Yeah, no idea what that’s about.  Cliché?  Well, given that part of its definition is overused phrase … that can go either way.  The first thing we have to do is remember that trope and cliché are two incredibly different things!

cliché (pluralclichés)

  1. Something, most often a phrase or expression, that is overused or used outside its original context, so that its original impact and meaning are lost. A trite saying; a platitude. [from 19th c.]
    Kidnapping the love interest during a film is a bit of a cliché.
  2. (printing) A stereotype (printing plate).

trope (pluraltropes)

  1. (literature) Something recurring across a genre or type of literature, such as the ‘mad scientist’ of horror movies or ‘once upon a time’ as an introduction to fairy tales. Similar to archetype and cliché but not necessarily pejorative.
  2. figure of speech in which words or phrases are used with a nonliteral or figurative meaning, such as a metaphor.
  3. (music) A short cadence at the end of the melody in some early music.
  4. (music) A phrase or verse added to the mass when sung by a choir.
  5. (music) A pair of complementary hexachords in twelve-tone technique.
  6. (Judaism) A cantillation.

See, they’re related, in the sense that a trope can turn into a cliché when used out of context — when it loses meaning — but they’re not the same thing.  It’s sticky thinking to think that synonym means something has the same meaning, that word similar is very important.

You wan’t good writing rules?  They’re this:

  • It won’t write itself, so sit your arse down and get writing.
  • It’s you’re damned story, you’re the only person who can say with absolute certainty how it goes and what it should be.  Listen to the advice and input of those you trust, but take or reject their advice as you see fit.
  • Grammar is your friend.  Use it, and use it correctly.
  • When grammar gets in the way of telling the story, fuck grammar, write the story.
  • Everything you learnt in Literature in school?  Forget it.
  • Everything you learnt in Literature in school?  Remember what you liked, and use it.
  • It’s only theft if you get caught.  Theoretically everything is an AU of Gilgamesh by a long and convoluted literary family tree.  If an idea is laying around, grab it when no one’s looking, then file off the serial numbers and give it a coat of fresh paint.
  • It’s realistic if you can believe it is.
  • Who the fuck says it has to be realistic anyway?  If you want pigs to fly, get those fucking swine airborne, sonny!
  • A great man once said (I think it was Terry Pratchett or Lawrence Block, but it might’ve been Stephen King): “the purpose of page 1 is to get you to read page 2, and the purpose of page 2 is to make you read page 3 …”  It’s not enough for your first paragraph or first sentence, or chapter, or just the first X% that’ll become the sample to wow your reader.  Every page from “Chapter 1” to “The End” should make the reader want to read that next word, that next page, that next chapter, that next book.
  • If you don’t want to read it, and don’t like it — your audience probably won’t either.  Now I’m not talking about the usual artistic low self-esteem “oh god, this sucks, I’m a hack, I’m worthless” moments.  I mean, if you pretend you didn’t write it and sit down and try to enjoy the book, are these characters and events enjoyable?  Did you like reading it?  Good, now publish it.
  • If it made you laugh, show it to someone else.  If they laugh too — keep it!
  • If you’re in tears, your audience probably will be too.  It’s up to you if that’s the intended purpose or not.
  • Don’t kill the dog
  • If the dog has to die, then so be it.  At least now you’re deep and will win an award.

There.  That’s a good place to get started.  All of the above is Gospel Truth — this is a succinct way t say that to some it will resonate as gifted from the mouth of God Almighty while to others it is perfect bullshit.

One Reply to “The Rules of Writing”

  1. Pingback: The irascible editor | Serenity is a fuzzy belly