All my writing life I have come across Rules. Of late, however, the prevalence of these, and worse, people happily quoting them as though they were The Only Way To Write, has become a bane.
Let’s get a few things clear, especially for newbie writers out there who may be inadvertently lured in by these snippets of writing wisdom.
Writing Rules are usually written by successful writers; often quoted out of context; offer no guarantees whatever (thank God!); and can easily lead a writer astray. You may be mistaken for thinking that if you follow Kurt Vonnegut’s Eight Rules for Writing Fiction (merely an example; one of many) you will go on to enjoy the success that venerable author enjoyed. You would be wrong.
My rejection of Writing Rules is based upon the following: writing is a living creative art and, as with every other living art, it evolves over time. What was guaranteed Best-seller material in the 19th Century, will bomb today if written in the same way. What was popular in the 1970’s, will be labelled as pulp fiction by today’s readers. To try to clarify this, I’ll use as an example of how this evolution happens and can be seen in a single popular-selling ‘franchise’, the James Bond books. Now these may not be your favourite genre, but bear with me.
The initial novels, written by Ian Fleming, were outstanding for their day. They were short (by today’s standards), action-packed tales of mayhem, set in a black and white world of loyalties and allegiances, delivered in a stark manner, liberally peppered with gratuitous violence and sex almost unknown in mainstream literature of the period.
When these finished in 1966, Kingsley Amis, under the pseudonym Robert Markham briefly took over for a single Bond outing, which whilst Bond fans devoured the novel as a continuance of the much-loved character, didn’t take off – writing styles had changes and Amis was still in the Fleming-mould.
Then the late John Gardner took over in the early 1980’s, bringing a more up-to-date vision of the iconic spy. The world had progressed, and his Bond reflected this. His particular style of writing also brought a fresh wind to the saga. If you read his novels, it’s easy to detect the evolution they experienced as World events forever changed the backdrop for the tales. Also Gardner’s style, honed in the tongue-in-cheek Boysie Oakes novels, themselves a Bond spoof, tuned in with reader preferences. In all, Gardner produced fifteen Bond novels, the last in 1996.
In ’97 Raymond Benson took up the baton, bringing his own style to the saga. He was slammed initially because he is an American author, although his novels enjoyed some success. His writing style is very different from Gardner’s, and light-years from Fleming’s. Times have changed as well. Dramatically. Benson stopped writing the Bond books in 2002, and has since produced several novels featuring characters of his own creation.
In 2005 British author Charlie Higson penned a series of Bond books aimed at younger audiences. These books travelled back in time, featuring Bond while at school in Eton. Whilst set in an earlier time period to Fleming’s original novels, many were linked in with video games, and their style was very different from previous offerings.
Finally, to bring us up-to-date, Sebastian Faulks, another British author, more renowned for period pieces such as “Charlotte Gray” and considered more a literary author, celebrated Fleming’s centenary by writing another Bond novel. In it he expertly captures Fleming’s style of writing, tempering it with just enough modern veneer so as not to alienate readers unfamiliar with Fleming’s originals.
I might seem to be rambling here, and probably am, but my point is that since the earliest of Fleming’s novels to Faulks’ latest, both the way writers perform their art and readers' expectations and preferences have evolved substantially. Each of the aforementioned authors brought their own evolution as writers to the task of producing James Bond novels. What's important is that each of the writers evolved in a distinct manner, within the constraints and context of their own lives. If Ian Fleming were to have produced a set of writing rules whilst penning the original best-sellers in 1953 onward, and Faulks’ try to apply them today, I believe the series would not have endured.
So are any writing rules worth following?
Yes. What? you may ask. Haven’t you just said they are suspect?
To answer this apparent contradiction, I will share a piece of wisdom one of my Martial Art Sensei’s told me many years ago: “Use what is useful; throw the rest away.”
Writers, over time, develop their own style. They should nurture this, exposing it to different influences (through reading other’s works and being aware of how changing times brings changing demands from readers), and allow it to mature naturally into something that is, above all else, part of their trademark.
So, what advice/rules to use? Whatever works for you and what you want to write. Going back to my earlier example; Vonnegut’s fifth rule, “Start as close to the end as possible”, doesn’t work for the majority of thrillers, suspense novels, mysteries, etc. the reading public enjoy today.
Finally, and to definitively put nails into my own coffin, what are my own rules?
1. Write almost every day; convert it into something you need to do, not something you have to do.
2. Write with emotion and energy; it’s contagious, and through your words, your pace
and flow, you will infect your readers.
3. Nurture your words; they are the key to developing your style.
4. Never try to emulate someone else’s style; original is born not copied.
5. Read, every day, different genres, different authors; evolve.
6. Read your work out loud; it will help you be more critical of yourself and evolve more effectively.
7. If your writing bores you, it will bore your readers.
8. Write only for one person; yourself.
9. Last rule: There are no rules! (sounds a bit ‘Fight Club’ doesn’t it?).
Looking forward to reading your comments.
Eric @ www.ericjgates.com