Tag Archives: rules of writing

The Rules of Writing

Facebook has a fun little feature called ‘memories’ which shows people posts they made years ago on that day of the year. I go through mine because it’s fun to look at stuff that was important enough to post about in the past. This morning I came across a note I was tagged in by a writer friend nine years ago.

Toby Neal, a very successful author of mysteries set in Hawaii, posted this article by Elmore Leonard which first appeared in The Guardian newspaper. (I’d never heard of him, either. Read his bio here.) (BTW, if you like crime stories, do look at Toby’s work. They’re good. Click on the link on her name.)

Leonard Elmore

Using adverbs is a mortal sin (ME: I don’t know why this was on its own, I suppose because it is a MORTAL sin, whereas the other rules will only send you to purgatory.)

1 Never open a book with weather. If it’s only to create atmosphere, and not a charac­ter’s reaction to the weather, you don’t want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead look­ing for people. There are exceptions. If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways than an Eskimo to describe ice and snow in his book Arctic Dreams, you can do all the weather reporting you want.

2 Avoid prologues: they can be ­annoying, especially a prologue ­following an introduction that comes after a foreword. But these are ordinarily found in non-fiction. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want. There is a prologue in John Steinbeck’s Sweet Thursday, but it’s OK because a character in the book makes the point of what my rules are all about. He says: “I like a lot of talk in a book and I don’t like to have nobody tell me what the guy that’s talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks.”

3 Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But “said” is far less intrusive than “grumbled”, “gasped”, “cautioned”, “lied”. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with “she asseverated” and had to stop reading and go to the dictionary.

4 Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said” . . . he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances “full of rape and adverbs”.

5 Keep your exclamation points ­under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.

6 Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose”. This rule doesn’t require an explanation. I have noticed that writers who use “suddenly” tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points.

7 Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly. Once you start spelling words in dialogue phonetically and loading the page with apos­trophes, you won’t be able to stop. Notice the way Annie Proulx captures the flavour of Wyoming voices in her book of short stories Close Range.

8 Avoid detailed descriptions of characters, which Steinbeck covered. In Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants”, what do the “Ameri­can and the girl with him” look like? “She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.” That’s the only reference to a physical description in the story.

9 Don’t go into great detail describing places and things, unless you’re ­Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language. You don’t want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.

10 Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them.

My most important rule is one that sums up the 10: if it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

ME:

It all sounds good, doesn’t it? Yes? The general consensus was that as guidelines, Leonard’s ‘rules’ are worth considering. But not everybody agreed. Especially the late MM Bennets, who was a historian, author, and professional literary critic among many other things. She was a great help to me when I wrote To Die a Dry Death. I’ve condensed the comments on the post to make a more coherent narrative but I’ve not changed the words.

MM Bennets: Those are tremendous if and only if you wish to write like Elmore Leonard. I don’t. At all.

Whenever I read daft rules like Leonard’s, I think of the Sayer’s novel, The Nine Tailors, where she uses the weather of the fens as a metaphor for the roiling shared guilt that has destroyed this small community. It’s a monumental book…or think how Conrad used it as metaphor and almost as a character in some of his work…

I have to say this. Why are writers are desperately keen to subscribe to some fellow’s Rules of Writing. Why? Why won’t they read what they like, analyse those authors, or even the work of authors whose styles they don’t like, and then come up with what works for them? All of these rules by other writers are little more than literary straight jackets that don’t even fit right. It’s the literary equivalent of putting a straight-jacket made for Hagrid on Frankie Dettori.

I’ve just been thinking about this post while I made more tea. And Leonard’s advice contains some fundamental flaws. We all, when we go about our daily lives, are constantly taking in our surroundings. And the weather. This is a constant feed to our brains. If we desire to write books so that the reader is inside the head of a character or at the very least in the room with them, some of this information is essential. So that the reader is seeing what the character sees, and therefore can empathise. (If you want to be Albert Camus when you grow up–obviously, this is not the method for you.) The thing about the weather–that has to be dated. Because if you look at the most popular and fascinating of police work today, that’s the forensic work and a lot of that, much of it very detailed, is about weather conditions or the where it happened determining how it happened. So setting has become if anything more important.

Just read rule nine. Which is complete crock. What would Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights be without the moors? How well would Doctor Zhivago work without the snow? And I don’t even want to contemplate A Tale of Two Cities without the taverns, the guillotine, the prison…Or Miss Garnet’s Angel without Venice? Please…

Before Toby sends me to stand in the corner, I just want to ask why are writers setting their sights so low? Why are they not looking to Dickens, Austen, Bronte, Fitzgerald, Zola, Tolstoi, Cather, Twain, Wodehouse…these are the authors whose work has lasted, so why aren’t we asking ourselves how did they do it? What were their rules?

Judith Kinghorn is another successful author. She said:  There are a few obvious rules included here, but if we try to adhere to each and every list of writing rules – and get too hung up on them – what becomes of our voice?

I think prologues can and often do work: it depends on the story and how well the prologue is written! The weather: some of the very best and most evocative writing in the English language opens with the a description of the weather.

Almost everthing is a cliche, because almost everything has been said before…our struggle is to try and say it differently, and in the context of a new story. My advice is – read these lists of rules, but don’t necessarily adhere to all they say. Writers should, I think, break rules and create new boundaries all the time.

Garalt Canton, (yes, another author) came up with his own set or sules based upon Elmore Leonard’s.

Gary Canton’s 10 Rules…er..guidelines of Writing in response to Elmore Leonard’s stab.

1 – Opening a book is a physical act and a leap of faith. ‘It was a dark and stormy night…’ spoken in Highland Scots will only close that book again and quickly. Weather is relevant only if it is relevant to the character you are writing about or to the narrative you are writing.

2 – Prologues: If it is back story I’d advise splitting up the back story over the entire novel but if you are setting the scene or creating the world of the novel you might like to keep it short and relevant to the story.

3 – People talk to one another and so they say things. However, unless your novel is populated by speak and spell machines and Stephen Hawking you might like to include tones of voice – a warning – try to keep your actors keeping it real and not shouting, wailing, declaring and hissing at one another (unless you’re PG Woodhouse, that is). ‘Said’ works most of the time if you have a gift for dialogue but if not, and you have no plans to write in iambic pentameter, you may need to inject some tone of voice into your dialogue.

4 – Avoid tautologies in adverbs after speech actions”he shouted loudly”, “she whispered softly”. “I cooed cooingly” – You get it. In fact, avoid tautologies in all verbs: “He stabbed violently”, “she screamed hysterically”, “they ran quickly” etc.

5 – Kids love excalmation marks – ‘Nuff said.

6 – Actually what does all hell breaking loose look like, feel like, smell like, sound like? We’d like to know. – Suddenly – actually delays the action by three syllables so its not that sudden is it?

7 – Patois: regional accents or in my case translated Occitan: If both characters are speaking the same patois, English is fine. If one character is speaking unintelligible gibberish to another, why spend hours and hours spelling that out – just say it’s largely gibberish and pick out the important bits for the reader. Otherwise, think about writing poetry instead.

8 – The Dan Brown Trap! He is handsome and intelligent, she is beautiful and smart, even sassy. They both look like Hollywood stars and their vital statistics are as follows….Yawn Your characters lose audience the more definite they have been described. Proof? Where in the bible is Jesus described physically? Exactly!

9 – This is contentious – Are you Sir Peter Hall or are you Franco Zeferelli? Dogme works if you have done a LOT of work on your characters. Detail works if you have strong characters that stand out from the backdrop. The prisoner sat a cell. The prisoner shivered from the damp halflight that drifted down from the sole crack in the lichen covered walls. Both work. Describe that which we have never seen before.
But no need to focus on the intricacies of the traffic light – we’ve all seen one.

10 – Read a book – where did you feel longueurs? Did you feel naughty and skip forward to see how much more of this guff you need to wade through? Does anything change in the next three paragraphs? No? You can cut them if you like. The story won’t suffer. Do we learn something more about the character from the next three paragraphs? No? Red pen.

Oh – by the way, enjoy what you’re writing and write YOUR story.

ME: I’ve just finished re-reading Terry Pratchett’s Wee Free Men and I’m now reading the next book, A Hat Full of Sky. Pratchett doesn’t respect anybody’s rules and he completely ignores Leonard’s Rule 7. The Feegles always, always, always speak in broad, essentially Scots, dialect which does sometimes require a re-read. And he uses footnotes, such a basic no-no in fiction that Elmore doesn’t even mention it. As they say, ‘rules are meant to be broken’.

Or, to put it another way, make up your own damn rules.

Can you call yourself a writer before you’ve written one million words? #amwriting

IMG_7874Okay, it’s rant time again. I regularly pop around the blogoverse to see what’s what and I’ll often read a writing-related post. I did that yesterday (sorry, can’t find the post in question) and read the whole damn thing even though I started rolling my eyes pretty early in the piece.

I just wish people would STOP INSISTING ON RULES CHIPPED INTO F***ING GRANITE.

Apparently you have to write a million words before you can call yourself a writer. It’s one of those bits of advice that does the rounds from time to time. This article went even further and said you should write ten one hundred thousand word novels and only try to sell the last one. Oh, I have to be fair. After you’d done that you could go back and re-hash the first nine because then you’d know how to do it. And the analogies were trotted out. It takes one million name-your-poison to achieve whatever. One million hours of practice to be a great violinist/pianist/guitar player. One million dabs with a paint brush to make a great painter etc etc.

So what makes a ‘good writer’?

Everybody knows Dan Brown, Stephenie Meyer and J.K. Rowling can’t write for toffee. But James Joyce, Charles Dickens and Ernest Hemingway can. Uh-huh. I’m a Philistine. Classifying something as ‘literature’ is enough to have me headed for the hills. I have not and will not read any more of Ulysses than the couple of pages I tried years ago. I never liked Dickens, despite having the books inflicted on me at high school and the one year of English Lit I should never have taken at university. No, I don’t think much of Dan Brown’s books, or Stephenie Meyers’. I wonder if they care? On the other hand, I loved Harry Potter and still do. My taste is for ‘genre’ fiction – science fiction, crime and fantasy. I love Tolkien, Asimov, Agatha Christie, Peter Robinson.

I’m quite willing to believe many of those writers I just listed wrote more than one million words. But not before they published their first work. And if you think you can’t sell your first novel, have a look at this list of ‘first novels’. I can add a few more, writers I know who have done exceedingly well out of their first novels. Toby Neal, whose Lei crime series has become a best seller and Elspeth Cooper, whose first two books were both nominated for the David Gemmell award. And yes, I know that Tolkien virtually rewrote The Lord of the Rings many times. I believe we refer to that process as ‘editing’.

Have I written one million words? Probably. A bunch of essays and a dissertation for my honours degree in history, a few short stories that disappeared somewhere, some fan fiction, numerous shopping lists, analysis reports for clients. Do they count? I had to learn to spell and use grammar correctly for some of those. Though I can’t vouch for the shopping lists. Few people are likely to realise that ‘ums’ on a shopping list at our house actually stands for ‘what are we going to have for dinner tonight?’

By now you’ve probably realised that I don’t think you need to have written a million words before you try to be published. Which does not mean that I don’t think it’s a good idea to hone your skills. Of course it is. However, you can be technically the best writer in the world but if you write a lousy story – you’ve lost the plot. Pardon the pun. In fact let me give you some examples. Asimov’s Foundation series is a classic of science fiction. However, I believe he took the series one or two books too far. I loved The Lord of the Rings but gave up on The Silmarillion. I’m sure we can all name examples where that’s happened.

Which simply illustrates the ONLY Rule of Writing that has any real credibility.

WRITE A GOOD STORY.

Ends rant. Got anything you’d like to add?

 

Writing advice to take with a grain of salt

As a writer, I rub shoulders (virtually) with lots of other writers. On Facebook I’ll often see quotes from people like Stephen King, or Hemingway and others. Inspirational stuff. I think. But sometimes advice needs to be weighed and measured before it’s blindly believed. Here are a few I’ve encountered.

Read lots

Really? Oh, I don’t doubt you’ve read heaps of books. So have I – both for pleasure and as part of my university degree. Piles and piles, heaps of books. But reading doesn’t make you a writer. My husband is a voracious reader – and I do mean voracious. He isn’t a particularly fast reader, but he would go through a book or two a week. The prospect of him writing a book? Somewhere between Buckley’s and none. Reading may lead you to writing, reading may provide you with knowledge about a particular genre, it may cause you to think that you could write a better book yourself. But reading does not make you a writer.

Do more writing courses

How many have you done? Lots or none at all? I’ve done a few. But at the end of the day, all you’re doing is training up for the real event. Would I suggest people do writing courses? Absolutely. Then go away and think about what you learned and how you might want to apply that knowledge (if at all). Writing courses are subjective, in a way that (say) basic physics is not. You can learn Newton’s three laws of motion – and if you’re writing science fiction, that’s not a bad idea. They are facts, just as 1 + 1 = 2. But writing courses will teach you how a certain person thinks the job should be done. Do you think Shakespeare, or Dickens, or Tolkien, did a writing course? You might as well have done lots of reading (see above).

Take lots of editorial advice

So you’ve written the first chapter of your masterpiece and you take it along to the local writers’ group for comment. Or, in this electronic age, you post it to to Authonomy or some other, similar, group. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a necessary step along the way. Float your little paper boat and see how long before it sinks. Some will say they love it, some will say they hate it. Whose advice do you take? If you’ve done the writing courses, you’ll recognise others who have done the same courses. But beware, take care before you take advice from people who don’t read the genre, or people who haven’t read the whole book. Consider opinions by all means, but don’t turn your book into a hippogriff by trying to pander to everyone’s whims.

It’s cool to collect rejection slips

Sure, it’s part of the process. But you know what? It doesn’t happen to everybody. I have a writer friend who sent the synopsis and first three chapters of her first book to five well-respected agents. Within two (2) weeks she had a contract for three (3) books, with a six-figure advance. The other four agents passed – but she didn’t much care. Sure, I know some will paper their office with rejection slips. It might be smarter to think about why you’re getting so many? Have you targeted the wrong agents/publishers? Do your queries stack up? And then (um) is your book any good?

Your work is good enough to publish

Maybe it is. If you’ve been through rigorous quality control. That’s what it is, really, getting a book ready for publishing – even if it’s self publishing. Find out if people enjoyed the read – and I don’t mean the people who will love anything you do, including those sausages you burnt at the last family barbie. That’s where critique groups are useful if you can find people prepared to read the whole book and give you fair comment. If they say the ending’s weak or there’s lots of loose ends that go nowhere, maybe you need to reconsider your plot. But for now, let’s assume that’s not necessary. A professional edit from someone who knows what they’re doing is still a very good idea. So is copy editing. Remember that husband I mentioned? The one that reads a lot? He’s no academic, but he knows ‘drug’ or ‘drugged’ is not the past tense of the verb ‘to drag’. He knows the difference between their, there and they’re. If you write “apple’s”, he’ll wonder “apple’s what?” If you don’t understand all of these, go and learn English.

So what do you think? What other “advice” would cause you to pause and think?

Before you take well-meaning editorial advice…

I finished reading a book a few days ago. The cover’s at left – A Darker Moon, by J.S. Watts. This post is not a review. Yes I wrote one, and it is on Amazon, but I want to talk about the danger of making changes to an MS because of comments someone makes on a partial read.

I first encountered this book on the Harper-Collins slushpile site, Authonomy. This was some time ago, during a brief revisit to what had been a great place for me in the past. For those who don’t know, authors post at least 10k words of an MS on the site and invite people to read and comment, maybe offer some constructive criticism. The hope is the HC pixies will notice your masterpiece and sweep it into publication. It doesn’t happen often.

Watts posted the first eleven chapters of A Darker Moon. It was one of those rare books which grabbed my imagination, well written, intriguing. Despite the klutziness of the Authonomy reading interface, I read all eleven chapters – a rare and wonderful event. The book is an autobiography and a mystery as a man tries to find out about his past and why his mother abandoned him  on the steps of a synagogue shortly after his birth. I always tried to offer some constructive suggestions when leaving a comment on a book, or at least an idea of my feelings as a reader. In this case I had little to offer apart from “I loved it – I would buy this book”. If I’d been an agent I would have asked for the full.

Some time later (still on Authonomy) I happened upon the book again and had a look at some of the other comments, posted after mine. One attracted my attention, written by a gentleman well known on Authonomy for leaving detailed criticism extolling the virtues of ‘show don’t tell’ and exhorting the author to learn the rules of writing offered in a certain ‘how to’ book. He panned the novel. Tell, tell, tell is all it was (he said). How much better if Watts had shown her readers what was happening? He gave many examples and many suggestions along those lines. And indeed, maybe that’s why the book hadn’t been snapped up by an agent or publisher at that stage, since ‘show don’t tell’ has become a mantra. I might add that I have absorbed that mantra and use it in my own writing (although I didn’t buy that ‘how to’ book).

Yet for A Darker Moon that approach would have been quite, quite wrong.

Abe, the main character of the book, tells the reader his story. He shares what he sees, his insights, what’s going on in his head as he meets the love of his life, as he doubts his sanity, as he’s faced with increasing strangeness. He also mentions things in passing, clues for the reader. He doesn’t join the dots – that’s your job. In a way the book ends up in the air, leaving the reader to draw their own conclusions. It’s kind of ‘this is my life – deal with it’.

If J.S. Watts had used the ‘show don’t tell’ mantra this would have been a very different book. Would it have been as good? I rather doubt it because the narrative would have lost that brooding psychological depth. At a few points, the reader is even directly addressed, told, effectively, to mind their own business. What’s more, right at the end the reader learns why this book was written in the way it was.

So – listen to well-meaning advice. Most advice is well-meaning, even if it’s delivered as ‘this is how you should have written’. But take all advice with a bucket of salt, especially if the person offering the advice has not read the whole book. Remember, the rules of writing – aren’t rules.

What about you? Have you received ill-advised advice to change a story? Please share.

The Rules of Romance

I’m in the throes of editing. I’ve written a good story but it needs some restructure and it needs a lot more romance. That last is a skill I have yet to properly master but I know and understand it must be done. Apparently I was quite successful in my Iron Admiral books, but not so much in Morgan’s Choice and Starheart, which are principally action-adventure stories with romance as a side dish. (See books for more info)

Many people scoff at romance. Sure, there are pot-boilers – as there are in every other genre, but it isn’t necessarily an easy genre to write well, as I have discovered. I’ve also learned there are Rules. You know me and rules, know ’em so you can break ’em. The one that really, really bothers me about romance is the one that says ‘when the hero and heroine first set eyes on each other, they shall have no eyes for anybody else’.

I kind of understand the reasoning, here. It isn’t about reality, it’s about an ideal, if you like. But it comes down to male versus female needs/wants/desires. Alan and Barbara Pease, who wrote an iconic book about body language, also wrote another book entitled “Why men want sex and women need love”. To me, the argument they give is compelling and they could easily have used ‘males’ for men and ‘females’ for women in the title because the behaviour is found in many, if not most, species. (I know some species form a monogamous relationship – but even the fabled swan mating has been shown to be not quite so monogamous as we’ve been led to believe.) Males spread their sperm around to father offspring. Females are usually shouldered with the job of raising said offspring. They need the support of a loving male to help them do so. Fair enough.

Now back to our mythical couple. It’s love at first sight. But there are problems and setbacks and she knocks him back. We have a frustrated male. Yet when I suggest he would go and find consolation in the arms of an acquaintance, friend, or hooker, this is deemed wrong. I’ll bet it’s realistic, though. Men’s urges and motivations aren’t the same as a woman’s. Is it just that (as a friend told me) women read romance to escape reality?

Any thoughts on all of this, people?

McDevitt breaks the rules

By Source (WP:NFCC#4), Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41634317

I’m updating this post because I’ve just read an article about the ‘10 writing rules we wish more science fiction and fantasy authors would break‘ As if happens, the articles reverberated with me because I’ve just finished reading a Jack McDevitt novel, ‘Seeker’. He breaks the rules, pretty much all of them.

To start with, he always begins with a prologue. I confess I’m not a lover of prologues. I’d rather just get into the story. You’ll find plenty of people who’ll tell you prologues are not ‘liked’ by agents so best to avoid but if you must have one, make it short. His can take up thousands of words. But I’ve learned that you really must read McDevitt prologues because in them he sets up a mystery which is solved in the rest of the book.

His pace is often leisurely, with a great deal of dialogue as he lovingly peels away the layers of the mystery. He often adds paragraphs of narration, unashamedly stopping to explain to the reader the history of a particular city or planetary despot. He adds colourful asides which do no more than add some depth to the story. He goes off at tangents which are presumably ‘red herrings’. In the vernacular, these are known as ‘info-dumps’.

At times I think you’d be hard pressed to explain how bits and pieces fit into the ‘every word must count’ theory. In many of his books he relates at some length the plot of a movie or sim or book a character is involved with. Then some tiny snippet of that tale is used elsewhere. I love it. It’s exactly how people think.

I’m not saying there’s no action in his novels. In ‘Seeker’, as in all the other Alex Benedict/ Chase Kolpath books, somebody is out to kill them and the author has fun coming up with ingenious ways of getting them out of various predicaments. In fact, in ‘Seeker’ I could have done without the ‘someone’s out to get us’ thread. I found it a little bit implausible. But it didn’t matter. The REAL story is the mystery and the science.

Yes, he has FTL (faster than light travel). In fact, his ships have quantum drive (!!!) Instantaneous transfer – although rendered a little more ‘believable’ because there are certain limitations which extend the duration of travel. No portals, but then, with a quantum drive, who needs ’em?

McDevitt is touted as the ‘logical heir to Asimov and Clarke’ and I wouldn’t be arguing. The science is great, so is the historical grounding of his universe.

This author is a best-seller in hard science fiction. I get the idea he writes the stories he wants to write, the way he wants to write them.

Jack McDevitt is the author of “A Talent for War”, “Polaris”, “Seeker” and “The Devil’s Eye” – all Alex Benedict/Chas Kolpath stories, as well as a bunch of others. Two of my other favourites are “Omega” and “Slow Lightning”. And I’ve just read ‘Odyssey’, which is pretty well written in third person omniscient.

IO9, are you sure McDevitt didn’t write that article?

Writing as paint-by-numbers

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.

What is it with prologues?

Should you write a prologue? I don’t know – it’s your story. I can tell you what I think and if that helps, hey – I’m chuffed. But I’ll tell you two things up front – one, I don’t usually like prologues and two, I’ve written one myself.

I don’t usually like prologues because so very often they are used as an opportunity to dump a whole heap of background information on the reader. Or sometimes a prologue is written because the story in chapter one isn’t interesting enough to grab the reader, so the author writes the gory bit first, hoping you’ll read the rest to see how we get there.  I think that’s why agents tend to rail against them and I tend to agree. I often don’t read prologues. I just move on to chapter one.

However, as with all the Rules of Writing, this one has been successfully broken. Jack McDevitt, award winning, best selling science fiction author, ALWAYS has a prologue. The structure of his books tends to be to introduce a mysterious event in the past, which the MC works to understand many years later. So his prologues are usually what happened in the past, which constitutes at least a whole chapter, followed by the real story, where the Mcs try to unravel the mystery. This works well in “Slow Lightning” (“Infinity Beach” in the US) but (for me, anyway) the prologue was just plain irritating in “A Talent for War”. I went back to read the prologue again after I’d finished “A Talent for War”, where it made a bit of sense but it certainly didn’t lead me into reading the book. To be honest, I would not have read past the first page of the prologue if the book hadn’t been recommended by a writing tutor. By the way, after I’d forced myself to read the prologue, I LOVED “Slow Lightning“. It’s a great read.

Given all that, I wrote a prologue myself. It’s in “To Die a Dry Death” and it’s about one page, so at least I kept it short. But why did I feel I needed one at all?

In my case, as a book-end. You will find the answer to the prologue at the end of the novel. I wanted some way of adding a ray of light to what was overall a dark and depressing tale. Feedback indicates it was a good move. Yes, all right, I admit that since I had a prologue I included a few facts that might help the reader understand the background to the story a little better. The test, though, is do you HAVE to read the prologue? Not to read the book, no. But when you get to the final pages you might well flip back to the start to see what you missed.

That said, I avoid writing prologues. Start at chapter one and write your story is my take on it.

What about you? Do you hate prologues or love them? Have you written one yourself? Why?

The Rules of Writing. The crucial first chapter.

I’ve been doing a *lot* of editing lately and, I confess, a bit of writing and some reading. As a result, I’ve become a tad introspective about the Rules of Writing. You know the ones, my authorial friends; thou shalt not use adverbs, thou shalt minimize adjectives, thou shalt not reveal Back Story in the first chapter, thou shalt mesmerize your audience from the first word.

Actually, I do agree with the last one. In fact, within reason, I tend to agree with many of these so-called rules. But what has really caused this post is the subject of first chapters and “back story”. Like many of us, I have struggled with these two things. As you may know, I recently decided that the story I told in two books and then tried to tell in one, shorter book was really two books. But where to start?

The Rules of Writing state that thou shalt start where everything changes. Hmmm. Sounds simple, does it not? Take ‘Morgan’s Choice’ for instance. I know you’ve never heard of it – it’s my soon-to-be-published book. I had two, maybe three points where ‘everything changed’. Which to use? When I started with ‘first encounter with aliens’, some readers wanted to know how Morgan got there, out in the back-blocks of space. And I could (and did) write an exciting chapter to show that part of the story.

At this point, I shall discuss one of the best known books in the fantasy genre, J.R.R. Tolkien’s ‘The Lord of the Rings’. For me, this was a ‘can’t put down’ and I really, really mean that. My first time through this novel consumed every bit of free time I had. I read obsessively. And after I’d read it the first time, I read it again. And again, many times.

Okay, let’s assume, like me, you don’t read the long, involved introductory chapter which explains what Hobbits are and their history. Not the first time through, anyway. I read the prologue many times after I’d read the book. And then I went and bought the Hobbit.

Back to LOTR. Let’sdive right into the story. Remember, accepted wisdom is that one starts the story ‘where everything changes’. Fine. We start at the eleventy-first birthday party. And yes, everything does change. Bilbo disappears and passes into… back story. Frodo takes over and we read quite a bit about this and that until Gandalf turns up and describes the history of the One Ring. Sure, you could argue that this piece of ‘back story’ is part of Frodo’s tale. Whatever. Then Frodo leaves the Shire. Do you see the problem? We have, in effect, three instances where everything changes; the birthday party, Gandalf’s return and Frodo leaving the shire. I could make a pretty solid case for number three.

You want a more recent example? Let’s look at the first Harry Potter book. It starts, I’m sure you know, when Voldemort has been defeated and Harry is delivered to his aunt’s front door. The point where Everything Changed. But then we watch Harry’s excruciating childhood until we finally learn he is a wizard. Now I could probably, if I were so inclined, come up with an argument that the story REALLY starts when Harry gets that letter, that the rest is back story which could be revealed through the rest of the book. But the kids who read ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’ didn’t know that. So they read it anyway.

What do I think is the mark of chapter one? Pretty simple, really; suck the reader in, get them interested in your world, in your characters, so they’ll keep reading. And if you happen to tell them some back story along the way, there’s a good chance the reader won’t even have noticed.

Which brings me to another Rule of Writing; thou shalt edit out everything which does not ‘belong’ to the story. Sounds sensible, doesn’t it?

Back to Professor Tolkien.

Hearts thumping, we have accompanied Frodo and his companions as they evaded the Nine and escaped across the Brandywine. And then we enter a billabong, a back water, a swamp.

Neither Peter Jackson in his much-acclaimed movie version of LOTR, nor his predecessor who created a truly horrible animation of the first half of the book, included any of Frodo’s escape into the Old Forest, the encounter with Old Man Willow, Tom Bombadil or the drama in the Barrow Downs. One might ask why Tolkien’s editor did not excise whole chapters which (let’s face it) were irrelevant in the unfolding of events. Yet I loved those chapters and was disappointed when they were left out. And what about Aragorn’s references to events in the distant (irrelevant) past? Let’s remember, too, that Jackson makes a point of starting the movie with two slabs of back story; first, the history of the ring which in the book is simply a narrative told by Gandalf, then he proceeds with the prologue, for pity’s sake, that loooong chapter where Tolkien describes Hobbits and their history. Why? Because then the people watching the movie know what he’s on about.

I wonder, too, what writers of thrillers make of this rule. Elements are deliberately introduced to wrong foot readers, to keep them guessing. Of necessity they are not part of the story.

There will always be parts of any book that some readers could do without. If I could end this rant with a quote from Tolkien:

The prime motive was the desire of a tale-teller to try his hand at a really long story that would hold the attention of readers, amuse them, delight them, and at times maybe excite them or deeply move them. As a guide I had only my own feelings for what is appealing or moving, and for many the guide was inevitably often at fault. Some who have read the book, or at any rate have reviewed it, have found it boring, absurd, or contemptible; and I have no cause to complain, since I have similar opinions of their works, or of the kinds of writing that they evidently prefer. But even from the points of view of many who have enjoyed my story there is much that fails to please. It is perhaps not possible in a long tale to please everybody at all points, nor to displease everybody at the same points; for I find from the letters that I have received that the passages or chapters that are to some a blemish are all by others specially approved.

So… I’m not going to let myself get too hung up on the Rules of Writing. Readers don’t.