Writing rules really rile me. Nowadays it seems the world and its aunt is a literary expert, handing out gratuitous and often spurious dos and don’ts on how to write fiction, produce prose and create characters. I even came across a tweet the other day giving tips on naming characters. Strikes me if you want to be a writer and need that much help, maybe stick to the day job.
It’s not just unsolicited guidance that irks me, I find rigid grammar rules annoying as well. I’m rigorous about correct spelling and punctuation, but splitting the odd infinitive? Ending a sentence with a preposition? Beginning a sentence with a conjunction? They’re all fine in my book(s).
Unlike misspelt words, missing apostrophes and misplaced commas – split infinitives don’t change what a writer’s trying to convey, neither does a sentence that ends with a preposition. In fact sticking to the preposition rule can sound preposterous. As Winston Churchill pointed out when admonished for breaking the rule: ‘This is the type of errant pedantry up with which I will not put.’ Nor do I.
And as for not starting a sentence with a conjunction. And not writing incomplete sentences.
Or one-line paragraphs.
Or eschewing contractions.
It is daft, is it not?
But back to all the gratuitous writing advice that flows on Twitter and Facebook et al, my main gripe with the literary largess is that it assumes what works for one writer will work for all writers. The way I see it, the one-size fits all approach is not only patently wrong but – like Lassa fever – it’s something to avoid.
The whole point of writing fiction is, surely, to create a unique authorial voice, not slavishly follow other people’s well-worn blueprints of general and often inherited advice.
I get particularly tetchy when a rule starts with the word ‘never’ – as in, never do this, never do that. I’m thinking of instances like: never open a book with the weather or, never start with a prologue. Avoid overuse, sure. But, never? Personally, I think it’s a tad presumptuous on anyone’s part to lay down the literary law like that.
Another bugbear of mine is, show don’t tell. The term’s blithely bestowed on all beginner writers but when you think about it, it’s pretty meaningless. There are times an author has to spell it out or risk confusing the reader or failing to convey essential information. I’m talking here about weaving a little seamless clarification into a scene, not spoon feeding huge chunks of exposition and/or explanation.
And then there’s the old chestnut: write about what you know. I’d be nuts to stick to that little pearl of wisdom. In my books, I kill people for a living. My villains range from murderers to kidnappers; blackmailers to serial burglars. My plots have featured prostitution and paedophilia. My latest novel – Overkill – looks at rival pimps. You get the picture. And that’s what I do – picture action sequences and create characters in my head. It’s called imagination.
Of course I also use my experience and expertise as a former TV journalist. The media features heavily in my novels but as a crime author my mantra is: write what you can find out about. And that means doing extensive research and owning a burgeoning book of contacts. Mine’s mainly full of police officers, lawyers and medicos. I talk to them when I need expert knowledge to add authenticity to my work. (I say ‘talk’, it’s more a case of badgering them with questions.)
I have other pet hates in the field of unasked for tips and unwarranted advice, but you may feel differently. Maybe you find them helpful. I’d love to hear your thoughts. Each to their own and all that. It’s just that I prefer making up my own rules and I’m definitely not in the market of foisting them on anyone else.
The way I see it a writer needs the confidence and self-belief to develop a distinctive writing style, to come up with original material and to craft it in the best way they can. And if that means breaking the rules . . . bring it on.
For me it’s about engaging the reader with an engrossing plot and entertaining characters. And for that, I keep in mind the three Cs: communicate, clarify, connect.
Carter’s rules. But not for general consumption!