Writing as paint-by-numbers

posted in: On writing | 14
Creative Commons Wikipedia
Creative Commons Wikipedia

Everybody’s got a novel in them, so they say. And as I’ve mentioned before, the novel writing business has become an industry in its own right. Everywhere you look you’ll find another course on how to come up with plots, write convincing characters, create a scene that ‘hooks’, edit your book so that every word counts. Writers blog about ‘how to’, things you should do, things you shouldn’t. What your novel must have to sell. Books have been written on how to market, how to sell, how to use the internet to create your ‘brand’. And so it goes. I wouldn’t say all of this is useless; far from it. I’ve done quite a few courses, read a few ‘how to’ books. But you know, I think the danger is that a novel can become over-engineered.

I wonder if Shakespeare, Dickens, Mark Twain, Jules Verne or more modern well-known authors like McCaffrey, Asimov, Stephanie Meyers and J.K. Rowling ever took much notice of ‘theme’ or ending every scene with the MC worse off. I don’t have to ask about Tolkien. He made his position very clear – he wanted to try his hand at writing a very long story that would entertain.

Let me give you an analogy. I would have loved to have been good at painting. I had a certain limited talent but (let’s face it) I wasn’t very good. That’s okay. I’m good at lots of other stuff. In the art world, though, I resorted to a few ‘paint by number’ kits. You know what I mean. A ‘real’ artist has created a painting of something (let’s say a horse) and the kit you buy shows the outline of the horse and its surroundings on a canvas and then various shapes are drawn, each with a number in them. You get a couple of paint brushes and little jars of paint, each with a number corresponding to the numbers on the canvas. And away you go. You carefully colour in each little shape and end up with a recognisable horse. But it isn’t art. Sure, you could improve your input by mixing the colours and blending them together, so it’s not so obviously a colour-in. That’s what it is, though – a colour-in.

I did one year of English at university. I’d always enjoyed writing and reading and I thought I’d enjoy English lit. But I very soon discovered that the profs weren’t interested in MY opinion of the books we were given to read. I was supposed to go off and regurgitate what other learned folk had to say about them. I walked away because I didn’t care. I don’t analyse books I read. I read for entertainment. And nobody can tell me I have to read Dickens if I don’t want to, if I find his style overblown, if I can’t relate to his characters. On the other hand, I LOVED Tolkien, even if his style was narrative and he went off into tangents that didn’t relate to the overall story.

I’d take a guess that among those hugely successful authors it wasn’t only Tolkien who ‘just wanted to write a story’. I fear that if we all go along with the ‘template for novels’ approach we’ll lose our spontaneity, even our creativity. Yes, I guess this is yet another rant about the Rules of Writing. Follow them slavishly and you have a paint by numbers kit.

I’m very interested to know what others think.

14 Responses

  1. Jude

    to me, winrtig is not about following the rules at all it’s all about communicating a message and since there are already so many exceptions to the rules …I for one have never embraced the “rules”I love and constantly use unnecessary quotes and…’s the ~’s and +’s are for artistic or dramatic value~as is one paragraphs like…Brilliant!!!I recklessly use exclamation points!! usually, two or three in a row!!not to mention the use of & and @ when I should be winrtig and or at~these are all part of my “charm” !!!now let’s talk about mixing cursive with printing and using a capitalized letter in the middle of a word…

  2. Greta van der Rol

    Thanks for popping in, Susan. Yes, I think people tried to retrofit what worked and come up with a formula. It doesn’t necessarily work, though.

  3. Susan S

    Great post, Greta. I completely agree that writing, for me, is about telling a fantastic story. Fantastic stories do have guidelines (some would say rules) … but in my opinion the rules are really more a reflection of people looking at great stories and trying to quantify what made them enjoyable – and they don’t always work the same for every tale. As you mention, telling the story you have inside you comes first. The rules can help when we get stuck, and of course some rules tend to apply most of the time (for example: not changing character POVs so often that the audience gets lost…though within that generality there’s lots of room for individual expression). Past that, though…the word’s the thing!

  4. EmAvon

    Children learn to language by being exposed to it. You learn writing and reading in school but it is said that if you read enough, your brain will learn all the grammar, syntax, vocab on its own. I think it’s the same for writing. I was a writer before I went to creative writing school and I must say the best thing about the school is that it forced me to write. Workshops were good too, but all one needs to substitute for that is a good writers’ group. The tricks of the trade you learn by reading, reading, reading and writing and being critical of your own work.

    I’m very cautious of writer’s tips and try to expose myself to them as little as possible. Prose isn’t as vulnerable as painting but I think it is possible for a writer to lose a piece of writing by overwriting just as it is possible for a painter to lose a painting.

    Writers’ books/course/retreats/seminars are a very useful way for other writers to earn a living. I see the same phenomenon in film.

    • Greta van der Rol

      Very true. Your comment about writing courses being a way for others to make a living from writers strikes a chord. I wrote something like that in a piece where I likened writing to a gold rush. The miners made less money than the people who provided stuff for the miners. It’s a trap.

      • Stella

        I beielve you’re right on target with this. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go collect my copy of Strunk White’s Elements of Style. I think it’s being used to prop up a table leg.

  5. Robin Helweg-Larsen

    I like the analogy with ‘paint by numbers’. That’s Rules of Writing. But I agree, I don’t think writing *has* rules. It’s a free-form sport. What it has is *tricks* – doing this will have this effect, doing that will cause that in your reader, and so on.

    Learning the Tricks of Writing is very useful. But which ones you want to employ is a matter of aim, intent, and style. You couldn’t possibly use them all simultaneously – well maybe you can, Harry Martinson wrote an SF novel in verse, ‘Aniara’, but that sort of thing verges on satire or frivolity…

    There are no Rules, just Tools of the Trade.

  6. Sheryl Dunn

    I sometimes worry about the same thing, Greta, especially when I’m rejecting a submission.

    But then I look at the manuscripts we’ve accepted, and I realize that when the author has a voice and a good story, I’m not thinking about the ‘rules;’ I’m thinking about the story and how it made me feel (and ways to improve it, of course.)

    That said, there’s a balance: so many authors who have no idea how to create a well-written story reject the so-called rules out of hand, without realizing that the ‘rules’ are actually ‘tools,’ and that when you know how and when to use them, and when to ignore them, your voice and your story will both shine.

    • Greta van der Rol

      I’d have to agree that people who reject the ‘rules’ out of hand are throwing away useful tools. As with everything in this area, it is a matter of degree. Anything overdone can jar. So yes, it’s like using herbs in a recipe. Too much of anything ruins the flavour.

    • Lulu

      With you on the rules thing, Carrie. It’s taken me years to get past nnedieg to use every last one of them with which I am familiar (still have trouble ending a sentence with a preposition, though).It turns out that good writing isn’t about following the rules that got us As. It’s about communicating clearly.And you, my dear, get an A at that, every time.

  7. Elisabeth

    Great post, Greta!

    I just recently heard the advice that every chapter should end with the character worse off. Every. Single. Chapter. I had to laugh! I mean, really? I just added that to the list of other “advice” that I completely discard–never use the word “that,” never use adverbs, never use the semicolon, etc.

    When I read advice like that, I wonder if those people actually read novels–if they read broadly and across genres. Because if they did, they would encounter great books written across countries and time periods that break every single rule they swear by.

    I understand the importance of rules and guidelines, particularly for the beginning writer. I teach expository writing, and I always tell my students that writing is both a science and an art. For beginning writers, they often need the “science”–rules for writing. An essay is a minimum of five paragraphs. The thesis statement comes at the end of the intro. A paragraph is a minimum of 5-7 sentences, etc. For more advanced writers, I encourage them to explore the artful side of writing: play with the organization of your body paragraphs, write a two paragraph introduction, use the (gasp) semicolon.

    So I absolutely agree with you. The rules of writing are good guidelines, but we all know that rules are meant to be broken.

    • Greta van der Rol

      Ain’t that the truth? Thanks for dropping in, Elisabeth.

      I will add that I agree that it helps beginners in any enterprise to have rules. I’m right into analogy today. When you learn to drive a car, every action is self-conscious. Foot off gas, clutch in, change gear, foot on gas. But after a while, you forget about it and just do it. That’s what needs to happen to rules.

  8. Greta van der Rol

    Yes, and isn’t that so very different to what we’re told to write? I dunno. I feel, every time, it has to come back to what readers want. But that, of course, is so hard to determine.

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