Friday, 12 June 2009

Coffee Break: Racers' Rules

The Captain's Café is now open for business. It's well-stocked with a multitude of beverages and snacks for you enjoyment. You know what else? Somewhere in the world it's bound to be Beer O'clock, so why not indulge in a tipple?

When I started writing more seriously, back in February of 2007, there were no rules. I just got on with it and told the story. There were no rules because I wasn't aware of them, not because they didn't exist. As you can imagine, my first story Fugue in D Minus was riddled with errors which I now cringe at (I really should go back and fix them one day).

Breaking glasses image

Some years down the line, I've learned of, though not necessarily obeyed, several writer's rules. Of course, we all know they're just guidelines really, not rules, but I'm sure you know the sort of things I'm talking about.

I've been thinking quite a bit about rules recently, and I have to say that I'm very hesitant about them, even sceptical sometimes. I'm starting to think that many of them are just too prescriptive for my writing. I'm not published and certainly no expert, so I may have got this totally wrong. It's just that I sometimes hear quite a few rules being quoted in a manner that suggests less real thought and more blind faith. Because they are "what you're supposed to do".

What are your thoughts on this? Do you follow the rules? What are your reasons for conforming or not conforming? To prompt your thinking, here's a list of some of the rules I can think of off the top of my head, in no particular order...

  • Use all five senses.
  • Avoid clichés (like the plague).
  • Show, don't tell.
  • Avoid unnecessary adverbs.
  • Stick to one point of view per scene/chapter.
  • Don't overuse speech tags in dialogue.
  • Never use a long word when short ones will do.
  • Murder your darlings.
  • Don't get it right, get it written.
  • Remember to proof read carefully to see if you words out.

I'm sure there are loads more, so feel free to add to the list for discussion.

My current belief is that courses and how-to books are great tools in a writer's toolbox, but that we shouldn't follow their instruction without question. As a scientist I was taught to question pretty much everything. Tuition, rules and books can often teach us one way to write but not the only way to write.

Let the debate begin...

31 comments:

Un Peu Loufoque said...

Bonjour! A trifle early for anything other than hot chocolate and pain au lait but if you have any of those pass them over. I have brought some Moravian Sugar break if you'd like a slice though.

Rules, I rather dislike rules, like to write as it comes and find trying to fit it into rules and regs kills the beast.Can't kill of characters at will nor keep them alive at will, mine all write themselves and seem to have thier own independant lives despite my cunning plans to keep them to a plot. Rather wayward children my characters!

Good coffee morning topic this one, thanks!

DOT said...

The list doesn't strike me as a set of rules, more guidelines writers have learnt from long experience.

My mantra to anyone trying to attempt anything is you must first know the rules in order to understand the rules you wish to break and the reasons why. In artistic terms, it differentiates the naïve from the talented.

ee cummings would not have been a brilliant poet if he had not been totally aware of the manner in which he was playing with language, grammar, structure, et cetera.

You can break anyone of these so-called rules if there is a solid reason for doing so; if you understand the effect you are trying to achieve and its relevance.

Debs said...

Love the idea of those alcoholic beverages, but better stick with tea, at least for a bit until I wake up.

I do try to follow those rules, now that I know what they are. When writing my first draft, I'm more interested in getting the story down than worrying too much about rules, although I am aware of them. I generally focus on them more when editing.

Another rule (is it a rule?) is to keep your book within a particular genre, so it can be more easily marketed, or so I gather? Mind you, there seems to be more crossing over and mixing genres recently.

B said...

Erm - is there a word missing from the last one? or are you just having a joke? :o)

I think there are always going to be exceptions. Fellow OU students may remember a poem consisting entirely of cliches in A215. I didn't really geddit, but I'm sure it was very good! And some characters (in fact probably quite a lot of characters) will talk in cliches, sometimes. They become that way for a reason.

But at the end of the day, these are guidelines for a reason - most of the time, they work.

And Dot's right - you need to know the rules before you can break them.

Right. Now I'm having a coffee - I feel I've earned it :)

Leatherdykeuk said...

Tea for me, please.

I generally follow all those rules except long words (why use six short when one long was coined for the purpose) and the 'get it written' -- I prefer my first draft coherent and readable.

My first book was rubbish and I wrote four more before I revisited it and chopped it to pieces, rewrote 70% and got it published.

The 'rules' are what generally work. You can break them and still get published, but why make it harder on yourself.

Flowerpot said...

I can't write once I've had any alcohol so better stick with tea for the moment thanks! I agree that the rules are there for a reason but that also they are there to be broken - but ONLY when you know what you're doing! And the trouble is, when do we ever know that? Also like the English language, for every rule there is one that disproves it....

Beleaguered Squirrel said...

Morning! Ooh, a tipple, eh? No, it's no use. I'm too sensible.

But before I join in with coffee morning chat, I need to say "ooh!" at your link-that-wasn't-a-link. I've never seen that done before. I like it. I presume it's an href tag which uses the "title=" bit and doesn't bother including an actual link? I like. A really nice way of doing footnotes. But anyway...

Rules. When I wrote my first book, I had never read any how-to manuals, or been on a creative writing course, or even studied literature. And I didn't want to. I wanted to have my own voice and style and not be shaped by anyone else. This was partly because I happen to rather like rules, in general. I like structure and order, and I rather like being told what to do. I tend to be pretty law-abiding all round. And I was worried that I would just pick up a whole load of rules and then follow them slavishly.

But... there were quite a few rules which I picked up for myself. Partly this came from reading fiction: I'd recognised things which other writers did that irritated me - for instance changing inconsistently between present and past tense - and was on the watch for it in my own writing. Also, as I went along, I spotted new rules. The adverbs one, for instance. I never heard anyone else say that you should avoid excessive adverbs, but I tend to write as I talk, and then when I read it back I noticed there were tons of adverbs, and that when I took half of them out, it read much better. I have several of these rules which are in fact quoted by many creative writing courses, but which I arrived at on my own. I bet loads of other writers can say the same, and this is because they are very sensible and useful rules, which you'll notice even if you're not told. I try and avoid having more than one comma or semi-colon per sentence, too. I'll let myself have two if I absolutely must, and more in special circumstances, but I've noticed the rhythm of my own writign works much better if I follow this rule. I also find that in blog posts, emails, articles, and any other shortish piece of prose, that I can get away with one exclamation mark, but only one. Any more is too many.

Sorry, I'm going on a bit now.

So yes, I think rules can be helpful, and applied on masse and learnt through experience, they speed up your ability to turn sloppy first drafts into finely honed finished products.

But another thing I've noticed is that the rules wich I spotted for myself are the ones I can apply the most effectively. If somebody just tells me a rule, even if I agree with it in principle, it's much harder to work with until I've had extensive experience of being able to make some writing substantially better by applying it.

And of course, rules must be broken and you can't follow them all slavishly, and throughout the writing process you have to hold onto your own individual spark - the thing which makes you different. Often that means wilfully breaking rules. But then of course you can go too far in the other direction, and go careering about the place on your big black horse, saying "Aha, look at me, I'm so not like the rest of you" and just end up being an annoying prat whose prose is self-indulgent and risible.

In fact, I think it's this: Writing is bloody hard work. You have to develop a unique and compelling (and relatively consistent) voice, but you have to constantly strive to improve as well, and every time you fix one aspect of your writing, you can end up breaking another.

The one-POV-per-chapter rule is a great example of a rule which can be really helpful, but can also be wilfully broken to brilliant effect.

There are several things out there which can help you to become the writer you want to be, but a lot of these things are double-edged swords and are just as likely to ruin you as make you. You need to pay them proper respect, but you also need to retain some independence. From rules, for instance. But also critical feedback. And commercial success. And reviews. And agents. And editors. And graphic designers. The list goes on.

Beleaguered Squirrel said...

Hahaha, I just read that back and had a good old giggle at how many times I broke my own "one comma per sentence" rule. Including in the sentence I used to describe the rule in the first place. Tee hee. Thass funny.

Beleaguered Squirrel said...

Oh bother, just realised I used the wrong profile to post all that. I am a Novel Racer, but I recently had to abandon my blog and start a new one. Email me if you want to know more.

Rowan Coleman said...

Hello all, Captain. I like all of your rules, mainly. The best one is Show and Don't tell, that's the one I try to follow. My other rule, just get the bloody thing done and stop moaning.

Right now off for a cup of coffee and last night episode of Grey's Anatomy...did I say I was any good at following rules?

Captain Black said...

B: It was a deliberate missing word, honestly, to highlight the effect of not following the rule.

Beleaguered Squirrel: Now I'm curious to know who you are! I can't e-mail you as the squirrel profile doesn't provide an address. Not you, is it Zinnia? Just a wild guess.
The anchor tag <a> can be used for more than just hyperlinks to other pages. You can use it to make bookmarks on the same page (what I did to achieve the hover-over text effect). You don't need an "href" attribute, just the "title" part: <a title="I suppose I've always been writing to some degree.">seriously</a>.
Btw, if anyone else wants some HTML lessons, I can be hired for a few beers :o)

Everyone: Before you get the wrong idea, I haven't started drinking. Yet.
Thank you for your very useful feedback so far.

Graeme K Talboys said...

I tend to think there is a subtle difference between those 'rules' which have evolved because they are about producing clear and compelling writing and those 'rules' that are espoused by CW courses/agents/editors. The latter often tend to be: 'I do it this way and I'm published so they must be right' type rules and if they are followed you end up with clones. Endless bookshelves of them.

For example, the business about sticking to a single genre has nothing to do with literary merit (or lack thereof). It derives from marketing departments and the need to be able to communicate within publishing houses that are top heavy with decision makers who couldn't tell a book from a hole in the ground. Of course, there is always compromise if you want to get published, but there are usually smaller publishers willing to make that compromise.

I think the best rule is to look at each rule, decide if it was developed to help you improve your writing or make life easier for an agent/publisher. Choose the ones that will improve your writing. Understand why they will improve your writing. Become proficient in their use. Then put them away in your tool box and forget about them. Remember that some people on this planet can still build houses, bridges, and ocean going boats using just an adze and a pocket knife.

Beleaguered Squirrel said...

Captain Black, ah yes, I forgot I'd hidden the email address in my profile. I'll go and make it visible again.

Captain Black said...

I've turned word verification on for comments.

Hopefully this will stop Chinese "sexy" spammer from annoying us.

Kate.Kingsley said...

Herbal tea for me, ta :-)

I agree that the 'rules' shouldn't be followed too proscriptively, but I'm with DOT on this one. I always think of Les Dawson and his piano playing: he had to be REALLY good at the piano, and to know all the 'rules' of piano playing, music & tonality, in order to break them effectively and know when to drop in a bum note for maximum value.

Gorgeous day 'oop north', so going to take my precious litle daughter to the park for the afternoon :-) Happy weekends all round.

Cathy said...

I think DOT has already said everything I wanted to, probably far more eloquently than I could have :)

Lane said...

Afternoon tea for me thanks.

Such very interesting comments to this post and I've little to add. I think by now, I'm aware of the 'rules/guidelines' but I don't always abide by them - sometimes intentionally but more often than not because I've still got a lot to learn. (Show, don't tell being my biggest weakness).

Beleaguered Squirrel - hi. I've just twigged. I was wondering how you were:-)

Captain - word veri's a good idea. Chinese 'sexy' spammed me to smithereens.

Beleaguered Squirrel said...

Lane: :O)

Fia said...

It took me ages to find the 'rules' and I'm still learning how to apply them.

I can see though, that as you become more skilled and confident in your writing, you might want to break them and why not? Kate Atkinson changes POV within chapters, Susan Hill tells more than she shows and so does Ian McEwan. But for me, it's still rules rule for the moment.

Crystal Jigsaw said...

I think new and unpublished writers will tend to follow the guidelines or rules more than an established author. I wouldn't like my book to be turned down simply because I have misunderstood or just ignored a guideline that could have been the crucial step to publication. I just write at the moment. Once I get to editing I will look more closely at guidelines etc and hope I don't have to do too much tweaking!

Beer o'clock, excellent!!

CJ xx

JJ Beattie said...

Sorry I'm late. No more wisdom to add but I agree you've got to know the rules whatever you do with them in your own writing.

Liane Spicer said...

Nooo, no HTML lessons! Not on a Friday! *runs and ducks* I can manage italics, bold and hyperlinks, barely. SO not ready for hover-over text effects. *eyes a-goggle*

Dot and Graeme have said what I would have tried to say, and said it very well indeed. I'll just ditto them.

(Squirrel, I remember crying during a scene from Desperate Housewives when one of the women sat crying in a park because she just knew she was a horrible failure of a mother. When the other women found her and began talking about their own mothering disasters, she cried: "Why didn't you tell me!" Hang in there. We don't tell because we're so ashamed. You're not alone.)

liz fenwick said...

Good topic....and most things have been said. I like knowing the rules and now I enjoy reading other books which work for me that break them.

With each book I write I seem to discover another lesson to learn (rule to follow) and over correct the one I learned on the last! Then I have to go back and fix it (slow learning process :-)but I do see the value of the 'rule' and how rigidly to apply them and also what works for me. Regarding pov I have to keep to one per scene or I become confused yet I have read books where it haven't noticed nor cared as the story was so compelling......the key write a compelling story so no one thinks of craft or fact or any but to finish reading the book! One day I may just get there :-)

Captain Black said...

Unless I've miscounted, this is the one hundredth coffee break posting!

KeVin K. said...

I usually go with a variation of Heinlein's write, finish what you write, mail what you've written to a paying market, write the next thing. Usually distilled to "write, mail, repeat." (Or in the electronic age "write, submit, repeat" but that always brings to mind BDSM markets).

I used a couple of the writing rules you quoted in a humor piece -- a fictional high school writing course -- a month or so back. You might want to add "Never, never, never, never repeat yourself" and "Exaggeration is a thousand million times worse than understatement" to your list.

Because I use a rolling rewrite method -- routinely hopping back to insert a scene to set up the one that just occurred to me or changing Helen to Henry or sharpening up a bit of prior dialog to what they should have said, etc. -- I never do the first draft, second draft, mail the eighth draft thing. Once I've told a story I'm done with it. (Mind you, I have done rewrites at the direction of editors who are payihng for the story -- that's their job and mine.)
So I guess my variant of that rule is get it written right on time.

I remember Isaac Asimov telling the story of his shock the first time he heard the bromide "all writing is rewriting." He'd published over 40 novels at that point and didn't know any professional writers who rewrote. As Asimov tells the story, he recounted this experience to Robert Heinlein, adding that he only checked his mss over to correct any spelling or grammar errors before sending them off. To which Heinlein replied: "Why don't you get it right the first time?"

I guess my personal rule, one I don't think I've inherited or adapted form anyone else, is pretty straightforward:
Trust your voice and tell the story.

Fia said...

Not sure if it's the 100th or 101st as my 7/2/08 coffee morning isn't showing in the table.

A lorra, lorra posts anyway:)

Sabrina said...

I was pleasantly surprised that Coffee Break: Racer's Rules" is the first entry my eyes should see upon deciding to follow your blog. I belong to a local writer's group, and at our very first meeting our leader informed us of "the rules" - then told us that he breaks them more often than abides by them. I agree with DOT about them being more guidelines rather than rules set in stone, so writer's shouldn't feel bad when and if they have to break one. Or two. Or three... ;)

Captain Black said...

Fia: You're quite right. I've added your post to the list now. The centennial post award therefore goes to Flowerpot.

Beleaguered Squirrel said...

Liane: I saw that episode too, and was struck by it. Thank you, it really helps when people say stuff like that.

Fia said...

Does that mean Flowerpot buys the cakes?

Perhaps on the next 100th or maybe 125th(?) one of us could write a poem for the occasion - not me:)

Annieye said...

I'm back in the land of living post-Euro and local elections. I hope there's some coffee left because I am in dire need.

I read rules with interest and try to obey them if it sounds right. I've learned, though, that they stifle my writing and take all the enjoyment out of it so that it becomes more like a job. In my last novel I just wrote what I liked, in the way I wanted to write it and then edited with one eye on the rules afterwards.