How many articles or books listing ‘writing rules’ have you read?
How many have you read saying that you should break them?
Many of you may recognise the title of this post if you’re ever watched, Friends. Rules are fun! Rules help control the fun. The Guardian has an entire page of writing rules from authors like Michael Morpurgo, Hilary Mantel, Margaret Atwood and more. For most creative souls, rules are not fun.
Advice is welcomed. Directives are troublesome.
For example, Elmore Leonard says:
Never open a book with weather. Avoid prologues. Using adverbs is a mortal sin. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
The trouble with these dictate rules is that there are countless best sellers which break every single rule you care to name. By all logic, if they have broken these rules and are therefore bad writing, they shouldn’t be successful. But they are. Correct me if I’m wrong, but other than opening with the weather, J.K Rowling’s Harry Potter book series ticks all of these. It would be hard to debate with a straight face whether these relatively unknown books about an orphan wizard are or are not successful…
By the way, come back sometime in the future for a post about prologues. I honestly don’t agree with the conviction that prologues should be avoided and I’ll be writing a post why!
Mark Twain even had a set of rules. These were written in a scathing essay Literary Offences of James Fenimore Cooper. While it’s clear that these were written in a derogatory way against the unfortunate James Fenimore Cooper’s story The Deerslayer, there’s still a lot we can take from them, my favourite being:
Personages in a tale, both dead and alive, shall exhibit a sufficient excuse for being there.
Here comes the hackneyed phrase we’ve all heard before. You Have to Learn the Rules Before You Can Break them. This frustrating little line people like to repeat has been touted by both Picasso and the Dalai Lama.Unfortunately, it’s true. In a way.
You need to understand what rules you’re breaking to break them effectively and not badly. Avoiding prologues is a good rule, until you rock the art of the good opening prologue. Avoiding a plethora of adverbs is good advice, until you learn to use them effectively.
The moral of the story is not to be afraid of the rules. They’re here to help! But don’t be bound by them either, or you’ll paralyse your writing.
For me, the only true rules in the writing world are Neil Gaiman’s:
2. Put one word after another. Find the right word, put it down.
3. Finish what you’re writing. Whatever you have to do to finish it, finish it.
4. Put it aside. Read it pretending you’ve never read it before. Show it to friends 5. whose opinion you respect and who like the kind of thing that this is.
6. Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.
7. Fix it. Remember that, sooner or later, before it ever reaches perfection, you will have to let it go and move on and start to write the next thing. Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving.
8. Laugh at your own jokes.
9. The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it’s definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it honestly, and tell it as best you can. I’m not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.
Are you a rule follower? A rule breaker? Or are you, like I, still trying to figure out what the correct rules are in order to break them? Let me know!