Whether or not you agree with the above quote by Josip Novakovich, it’s certainly one that makes you think, and question what it is that makes you love a novel or not. It’s an appropriate quote too because today we’re going to talk about writing rules – please present your tickets to the girl on the door then come in and have a seat. Ready? Then I shall begin…
I recently read a post by JM McDowell entitled Damn The Writing Rules—What Do Readers Like? She had written this as a result of feedback she received from some alpha readers of her novel – of which I was one (I will mention at this point that I loved the story and the way it was written). Her post was around the issue of writing rules, and who they are really for. You might want to pop over and read JM’s post before continuing here to get the background on this post.
Personally, I haven’t done a huge amount of fiction writing, a couple of half-finished novels, a couple of barely started novels, an occasional short story, mainly my bits of published writing have been non-fiction. I haven’t really learned the rules of fiction writing – I’ve picked some up along the way, mainly from blog posts written by writers, but I haven’t actively sought to learn what they are. Therefore when I read fiction, whether just for pleasure, or in the case of JM’s novel, to critique it, I’m not consciously measuring it against a set of rules.
When I’m reading, the negative things I tend to notice are:
- Something that doesn’t seem realistic within the context or world that has been created.
- Story threads that don’t go anywhere.
- Things left unexplained that I really wanted an explanation for.
- Anything that seems contrived.
- Descriptions that feel too lengthy and self-indulgent.
- Grammatical errors.
These are things that non writers might notice too, things that aren’t particularly to do with fiction writing rules. The one thing I do notice which would come under “writer knowledge” is the show-don’t-tell issue. I can really see the value of that one, and I admire it greatly it when it’s done well, it totally breathes life into the story.
What I do wonder though is where the rules come from. I know there won’t be just one answer to that, but how evidence-based are the rules? How many of them are proven to be key to a successful novel, and how many of them were just said by someone influential at some point because they sounded logical, and have then been passed on and quoted by everyone else, but actually don’t make any difference to reader enjoyment? It’s hard to be conclusive, you could no doubt find a correlation between rule-compliance and successful novels, but you couldn’t be sure that the following of the rules is what made them successful. Of course following the rules is part of the game you likely have to play if you want a traditional publishing route for your book, and that’s probably the main driver for following the rules for many writers.
Something that comes to mind here are the TV talent shows, particularly the singing X-Factor type ones (which yes, I do watch, sorry ‘n all). So many times when I’ve watched the early audition rounds, I’ve seen people who are a bit raw, a bit rough around the edges maybe, their personality is there and it draws you in, they’re different, and there’s something special about them. But then when they make it through to the live shows, they’ve been polished up, scrubbed to perfection, turned into a formula-looking and sounding pop singer. They’ve had that raw edginess, that quirkiness, that made them great taken away from them. I understand that it’s been done by people in the industry who presumably know what is needed to turn those people into money-generators, but it’s a real shame. And I wonder sometimes if too much strict adherence to the writing rules can at times do a similar thing to the writer’s story.
I don’t really have a conclusion to make here. I’m certainly not saying that writing rules are pointless, I understand that many of them are based on solid reasoning and have value to them, and in general I’m a rule-follower, but it’s the idea of blindly following them, or thinking that they are the ONLY way that something should be done, which I take issue with. But I’m no expert, and I welcome any counter arguments below. It’s a subject that gets discussed often amongst writers and there are many different views.
Speaking of writing and novels (notice how seamlessly I work this one in), over on my Sugarness blog, I have this week started a new series of posts in collaboration with author J Keller-Ford, where I have created recipes for each of the characters in her new novel In the Shadow of the Dragon King, to be published in 2016. The first recipe is Eric Hamden’s Red Wine Apple Pie.
What are your views on writing rules? Or if you don’t know much about writing rules, what things turn you on or off when reading fiction? Do you like apple pie?
photo credit (red-headed girl) : Girl and book via photopin (license)
photo credit (measuring weights) : Checking Accuracy of a Scale in a Feed Mill Establishment (FDA 117) via photopin (license)
photo credit (apple pie) : Me!