Tuesday, 8 May 2007

Of COURSE There Are!

Rules? It Depends What You Mean.

I've been watching a spat on a web-site recently. On one side sits a now-published chick-lit author who took something like ten years to get any real success, attended courses, had a mentor and finally struggled into print. But now she KNOWS there are no rules, no need for rules, rules are bunkum, and she seriously distrusts "those people who force rules down fledgling writers' throats".

And yet this same writer writes formulaic fiction, straightforward, easy-to-read prose with obvious characters, obvious settings, twists-in-the-tail (ie within a convention). This writer and one other says that "rule-makers" are those who imagine there's a short-cut, a cookie-cutting way to success and that giving beginners rules constrains them.

What total UTTER bullshit.

If we train a child in road-safety are we giving them more or less freedom? Should we give them the "freedom" to be flattened by a thirty-ton truck while expressing themselves? Is that freedom?

If we teach a language student the basics of grammar, do we restrict him or eventually give him the tools to begin to find the language for himself?

When we teach children to read, teach them rules, then teach them the fundamentals of writing we give them the tools to express themselves within a world of accepted conventions. oN other the foot speakie darg we neffiloo spenk a robbel.

If we drum into a soccer player how to beat the offside trap are we restricting him or showing him that the sport has structures he needs to be aware of?

When Tierry Henry or Ronaldinio does something breathtakingly beautiful ("impossible") he still does it bound with and playing within a set of conventions, rules, and very specifically LAWS.

These gifted young men may have kicked tins around backstreets but now, beneath their raw abilities they have had decades of drills, fitness training, team-play understandings. They know the grammar and syntax of soccer, and they are famous because SOMETIMES they do something no-one else has ever done before, but the reality is, for 88 out of 90 minutes those guys do the ordinary things very, very well. They are artists but their art arises from a grounding in craft.

These two aforementioned "gurus" can take any list you produce. If you suggest X is a rule and they in fact already follow that rule, then it isn't a rule, it's common-sense!

Here's one "Rule":

Language for language's sake is obtrusive and should be avoided. The language used should at all times be appropriate to the character and setting.

So do YOU, reader, think this is "obvious"? The "famous writer" does. Perhaps she should go back and take a look at her early work, say year six or seven.

What is the reality? What do many, many, many beginners do? What, in fact is the most common beginner error"?

I would say the most common beginner error (and not an uncommon intermediate error) is over-writing and "laying it on thick" or trying to make the banal seem better by making the language appear richer. My very last article here mentioned this problem and that for an author who has won two-dozen prizes! It's a trap which writers at every level are prone to fall into. It is not obvious. If it was so "obvious" why do people continue to make the error often deep into their writing careers? Some famous authors actually forget their own in-built rules and start leaving in the lard, or worse, adding it. For further evidence read John Banville's "The Sea".

The truth is this is a good "rule". It is not blindingly obvious. Even those who agree the rule still make the mistake of not following it. This is why the sub-rule emerged "kill your darlings", because chances are those pretty bits you really, really like will almost certainly be bollocks.

Note, by the way, that I put "rule" in quotes. This means that if you "break" this "rule", nobody dies. You are not fined, or beaten with a sharp stick. You are not dragged over spikes. You are not, even, forced to read womag stories for a day.

But do you know what the worst thing you can say to a beginning writer? It's this:

Rules are made to be broken. Rules are for cookie-cutter-writers.

That is a CRIMINAL thing to say, to ALL beginners, and ALL intermediate writers and 99% of developed writers writing at the top of their craft.

Later I will be dealing with the totally misunderstood adage "show not tell" (the guru previously mentioned does not understand it nor do at least 80% of creative writing teachers.)

But meanwhile, for simplicity, briefly imagine that "it's obvious" that show is infinitely superior to tell and "ideally" we should never tell. How then should we teach a beginner?

Answer, wire them to the mains and every time they tell AT ALL zap them with 250 volts.

What we should NEVER do is to say something wishy-washy like, "It's preferable to show, but it's not always possible. Sometimes it's necessary to tell."

When you do that, all you do is to give the snivelling, lazy beginner a way out. Now, when you say "That's tell!" they respond "It vas nec-ess-ary!" (in a heavy German accent.)

I contend that one vital strand in the teaching of good writing is to force beginners to write 100% show. Not so that, eventually this is the way they will always write, but so that they are capable of writing this way. Until you prove it to them, and they prove it to themselves they will continue in lazy habits, always take the easy way out.

We teach the use of strong verbs by banning adverbs. Again we do not give them ways out eg: "Sometimes a verb with adverb is closer to our thoughts, or sometimes we prefer it for the flow, the music."

NO! First make them see that they CAN write without adverbs (because in school they were once taught that loads of adverbs and adjectives were good things.) Show them that 99% of the time adverbs are for lazy writers who didn't think up the best verb but just took an off-the-shelf one and then modified it to suit because they had to.

Obviously, the same applies to nouns. Strong, specific nouns don't require adjectives and usually will do a better job of explanation. Again we should insist that our neophyte writers eschew the modifier, and when they fail we should show them how they could have succeeded.

But once again, ultimately our student writers will have choice. Armed with the ability to choose strong stand-alone verbs and strong stand-alone nouns OR use nouns and verbs which require modification, they will have more ways to achieve their transmission of meaning in an entertaining and intellectually satisfying way. But leave them to their own devices and they will chunter out what Miss Clissit (Class Four English) thought was "good". Craft discipline creates freedom

That is, apparent restriction was just a teaching method to create more ability in the student and thus increase the student-writer's freedom.

Often the fledgling writer particularly if the writer is going to be great needs to be held back, held down and forced to practice his scales.

Two Football Analogies.

In soccer, the ability to use both feet is a very big advantage. Not many players are left-footed, and hardly any can use both feet well. Now you can tell a player, when he misses a goal and should have used his "wrong" foot, the mistake he made and he may well reply, "But I'm right-footed, Gaffer." You can "explain" that if he practiced with that other, useless foot he could be a star. But he won't unless you force him.

Why? Isn't it "obvious" that being two-footed is a massive advantage? Yes it's "obvious" as in when we stand back and look rationally we can see the advantages, but "our nature" is to use the most-natural foot.

Once upon a time managers used to go to training and make player wear a slipper or a plimsoll on their natural foot and a boot on the weak foot. That "persuaded" the players to use the weaker foot and thus made better players

John Aldridge

This is an old story of mine. Newport County Football Club discovered John Aldridge playing for an obscure non-league side and signed him up. He came straight into the first team and got goals. He was young, raw and very enthusiastic and looked like one of those players who just had an instinct for goal. The fans were thrilled.

So then they took John OUT of the first team and stuck him in the reserves for what seemed like forever. When, eventually John came back into the first team he seemed awkward, mechanical. Instead of running into the right spot instinctively he seemed to take a second, "work-it-out" and then go. He looked very ordinary. Had the club killed his talent? But slowly the learned craft and instinct combined.

"Aldo" went on to help Newport to promotion and cup success, then moved up through the leagues to play for Liverpool and 69 times for his country. His career total of 476 goals is the highest for any individual since the second world war.

The point is the club took raw talent and added discipline and method. Yes, for a while the marriage was difficult, but ultimately the product was far better than pure method or total intuition could ever have made it.

It is the same with virtually every craft. Why is it that these "gurus" attempt to argue that there are no rules, no mechanics, no drills, no basics when we use words, yet even the greatest musicians have to learn scales, to read music, to apply the conventions of their craft.

How about painting? In 2006 on Radio 4 the head of the Arts Council maintained that in the whole of the twentieth century in the UK just one prominent painter (Bacon) had risen to the top without attending art college. Did the art-college teachers say just slap it on and hope?

Back to Rules: Show Not Tell.

Here's an example of why some "gurus" argue against show-not-tell, another "stupid rule". They argue that you can't always show things. Sometimes you need to cut to the chase and get things over to the reader. Sometimes things are "too complex" or would "take to long to show".

In other words they don't understand show-not-tell.

I have written a number of articles called "Seduction-not-Instruction" where I argue that 100% of the time we should seduce and never instruct. What could be clearer?

Since seduction roughly equals "show" and instruction roughly equals tell, am I not saying we should "show" 100% of the time?

Well this is what these people might try to infer but that is not what I'm saying.

I'm saying you must, 100% of the time, seduce, involve, intrigue or entertain your reader. Not 90%, not 95%, not 99% of the time. All the time.

Can we get away with being less seductive? As it happens, yes. The reader skims, flicks pages. Sometimes we get away with it. But this means that at least some of our writing has not worked on the reader, has not engrossed her, has not captured her emotionally and/or intellectually.

We all know in the small matter of sexual seduction, that one false move can completely ruin the moment, can be a passion killer.

Ditto the passage of prose. One awful sentence, one grossly misplaced metaphor, a couple of horrible typos or one "Huh?" sentence can ruin a read, bring us out of the fictive dream, make us aware of the author and or the words and suddenly kill the magic.

We might find (in poorer readers, or more forgiving readers) that because the story as a whole, the novel as a whole, is interesting enough that our horrible patches are skimmed over or flipped past, but what should happen is that those passages are ALSO entertaining, enjoyable, intellectually stimulating and seductive.

Now, simple question, is the story we skim better or worse than the one that was too juicy to skim?

You might want to read those two articles at The Internet Writers Journal now. They argue that a story should seduce 100% of the time and never instruct. That's a RULE.

If it's not a fundamental TRUTH then why are we writing? Are there people out there who think we write fiction but DON'T want to create a fictive dream, an illusion, characters and dialogue and settings and smells and sounds in the reader's head that fill them up?

Oh, wait a minute, it's obvious, right? Silly me!

Do you, reading this, right now, even understand the difference between show and tell or the difference between seduction and instruction? I strongly doubt it. Beginner, ask your guru, but before you do, I'll tell you what they'll say, shall I? They'll say, "Don't SAY he was angry, don't TELL ME, show me, show me." And then they'll talk about clenched fists, teeth bared, raised voices etc.

They do this because that's about as far as 95% of CW teachers CAN go. Don't get me wrong, many will write well, seduce rather than instruct, but they've never really, not quite, worked out what they were doing.

I remember struggling for years trying to understand show-tell and finally I got it all at once in an excerpt cited by James Frey when a Korean War Sergeant says, "I'm eating chocolate an killing gooks." Now, in the context that entertains, that illustrates, and at the same time gives us the sergeant's ruthless attitude. All that bollocks about "angry' had never worked for me.

But guru might retort: "What about those situations where it's required that the reader knows that the hyperflingle valve, if opened more than one-point-one millimetres, will cause a retroflash psychotic reaction in the disimiallirification grommet?

Answer. Readers rarely do require that knowledge. All it requires in that situation is for someone to say, "Fer Chrissakes, just a millimetre!"

But what if the nature of your story does require a large amount of fact? Well, first, does it - you will be amazed how a small amount of factual information can be stretched by the reader. But if it does, why not separate it out in a prologue, or use trickery such as Isaac Asimov's Encyclopedia Galactica, italicized excerpts at the opening of each chapter. I used this technique in my Bridport Second Prize winner The Last Love Letter of Berwyn Price. The story involved a man from a family of International rugby players who had fathered only daughters. How to get his history over very quickly and in an interesting way?

I put his playing record at the start of the story as an almanac entry. Because it's there and merely there, explaining nothing, it doesn't "instruct". The reader has to apply intelligence to eventually get the meaning (the sign of something being right).

Or (if you can do it expertly in a way that isn't clunkingly obvious) have information delivered naturally in dialogue. When this is badly done, it's usually badly done, it really sucks.

But what is vital is that any delivery seduces. That is it involves the reader's emotions, entertains, intrigues, looks for empathy with. What it doesn't do is merely explain everything in a way that the reader is absolutely passive.

Another Rule (actually the same rule rephrased).

If the reader's role is totally passive the writing is shit.

I could go on, but my boy wants me to watch Prison Break.


JP Maloney said...

Rules are made to be broken. Rules are for cookie-cutter-writers.

That is a CRIMINAL thing to say, to ALL beginners, and ALL intermediate writers and 99% of developed writers writing at the top of their craft.

Well said, that man.

It reminds me of someone on my university course who didn't read anyone else's printed work because "he didn't want to be influenced by anyone".

His work broke all the rules... and it was truly, truly, abysmal.

JP Maloney said...

In fact, as "show don't tell", here's the opening paras of one of his uninfluenced works:


To fester in the cloying warmth of my bed all day would be a finer thing than to bound naked across my room to the heap of crumpled clothes in the corner. But i know that soon the stagnant comfort and darkness will chafe against the ticking of the clock, and the birds and engines outside my window, and that i'll no longer have a choice. The sweat cools in the bedroom air and a winter saturday begins as i rush my socks on and launch into jeans and a jumper. Now to stumble to tea and toast and a filthy kitchen, crumbled shards of detrius beneath my soft soles, the wind at the window raking and jeering in mid-morning bitterness. I smear the dirty pane to blur the edges of the stabs of bare oak and hawthorn that glumly hunch over the cold street outside. Blend the dim colours, lose the clarity and definition of the view, return to the warmth of the haze. How i miss the summer. My bones ache for its return, as the marrow freezes and the congealing chill listlessly bubbles in my blood like a slow death.

I need a cigarette.

The tea and toast mix uneasily in my empty stomach, so i down half a carton of orange juice, which doesn't help at all. Though the vitamin c sits easily on my mind at least. I wrap up warm and open the door to walk the half mile to the nearest shop. Fist clenched, ready to rap stands a middle aged lady in a Barbour jacket and snood.
"Oh! Hello there. I was just about to knock you up!" She says, beaming a wide smile over gritted teeth and chapped lips.
"Yes, what can i do for you?" I force back.
"Wwweeeellll..." she drawls as her gloved fingers fumble and fail to seperate a pamphlet from the pile she carries under her arm. "I'm, ah, just calling round to the, ah, neighbourhood to see if - "


Someone, please, give him a rulebook!

The Boot Camp Diaries said...

Anonymous entries deleted as usual.


The Boot Camp Diaries said...

I love how these pathetic cowards keep reading the blog
(it's so good)

and keep coming back for more
(it's so good)

and keep posting anonymously
(they are so pathetic)

and keep being deleted (they are so powerless)

Seamus Calhoun said...

Without 'rules', creative writing tutors and authors of God-awful how-to books would be out of business, lol...!

Seriously, the problem with 'rules' is that so many would-be writers quote them ad nauseum because they've read somewhere - or some idiot tutor has told them - NEVER, EVER to do x, y or z, without properly explaining why, or that these 'rules' can indeed be broken. The emphasis should be on AWARENESS rather than never-ever. I can tell a writer who's been thrashed with the rule book a mile off - the writing's self-conscious and pretentious, and (horrifyingly) labels itself as literary and therefore good!! I despair, I really do.

So, would-be writers, burn your how-to books and forget creative writing courses (most of which are restricted by the tutor's likes and dislikes, and tend to be run by writers with no teaching qualifications whatsoever). You don't need them. Instead read contemporary fiction of all genres; it will improve your writing overnight.

The Boot Camp Diaries said...

First, define "rule". In these arguments it's rare to see people first agree definitions and to argue ONLY once the definition is agreed.

IF (note if) I "stated a rule" that rule MIGHT be

100% of the time do this, and NEVER do that, and there are no exceptions.

But it might be: "If you always go this way and try your darndest never to go that way, 99% of the time your writing will be better for it."

I would use that for dialogue openings that are hanging in space. I onced studied the literature looking at over 500 stories and showed conclusively that since WWII at least, such dialogue openings were associated with shit writing.

Being able to produce one, or two or three or ten "decent" dialogue openers proves FUCK ALL not id we can show that Nobel winners, BASS writiers, OHenry writers almost exclusively avoid them.

And YES I explain WHY they are bad.

I have also explained why in 101% of cases there was a better alternative

Or the rule might be:

"It's good to avoid these Xxxx's whenever possible because they are poor constructions, or seen as amateurish, or inferior to YYYYY.

HOWEVER, if you are consciously choosing these XXXX methods FOR A SEPCIFIC LITERARY REASON then they MIGHT be better

Without 'rules', creative writing tutors and authors of God-awful how-to books would be out of business, lol...!

It's easy to make cracks like this, but let's ask the questions. Why do publishers buy these manuscripts and invest in them?

Why are SOME CW tutors capable of producing some fine graduates?

We can name dozens of quality writers who did MAs and MFAs.

it's easy to make jokes like yours. Not so easy to prove you're right.

PS I believe that a VERY HIGH PERCENTAGE of how-to books are crap.

Seriously, the problem with 'rules' is that so many would-be writers quote them ad nauseum because they've read somewhere - or some idiot tutor has told them - NEVER, EVER to do x, y or z, without properly explaining why, or that these 'rules' can indeed be broken.


AT LEAST 90% of people pretending to write are complete crap and will never write seriously well. These are precisely the people who fall for the BS you talk about and speak as you describe.

I used to say to attendess at writing conferences that most of the people listening to my lectures did NOT come to learn. They came to cherry-pick from me and other tutors, those things which gave them support for what they did anyway.

If they "told" they looked for the tutor who said "tell" is sometimes OK.

The student who arrived prepared to genuinely change his mind was incredibly rare. That's why you have to shout at them.

The emphasis should be on AWARENESS rather than never-ever.

Of course, in an ideal world it's about "awareness", but when teaching beginners (AND intermediates) it's better to be ruthless and dogmatic.

You don't have the time to deal with the but-but-butters

A good writer will become better no matter what you say but some really do need a big stick

I can tell a writer who's been thrashed with the rule book a mile off - the writing's self-conscious and pretentious, and (horrifyingly) labels itself as literary and therefore good!! I despair, I really do.

I think you mean "I can spot wankers"

They are ther in every field.

An ounce of common sense should tell any wannabe that writing is a serious art and is complex.

That does NOT mean you cannot break it down and simplify it. Many great craft-arts can be shown to be built from definable bricks

So, would-be writers, burn your how-to books and forget creative writing courses (most of which are restricted by the tutor's likes and dislikes, and tend to be run by writers with no teaching qualifications whatsoever).

I could not disagree more strongly. I struggled for YEARS to "get" theme. I finally "got it" from a How-To book.

No tutor had ever got close.

You could read ten thousand books, the best or the worst and still not understand theme.

Once you do it's obvious. Until you do it's mysterious.

You don't need them. Instead read contemporary fiction of all genres; it will improve your writing overnight.

I disagree. i know thousands of people who read and read and read but cannot write.

Many people who might be able to write, and read a lot, still need "steering" until they find their own way.

third, if reading teaches you to write, GUIDED reading and quality discussion should accelerate the process.