I’ve been having some discussions lately about rules in writing.
Do this; do that. Don’t do this; don’t do that. Some exampls include: Should a writer always use ‘said’ for dialogue? Never use ‘said’? Describe their characters? Let the readers imagination conjure up each character’s image for themselves? Kill off favourite characters? Not kill? Use a single space or a double between sentences? And so on.
Some of these are subjective, some are more fixed. Others are rules that evolve with time. I was taught to type way back when the typewriters were huge clickety things that made a satisfying noise and allowed no room for error. I liked that. (It was one of only two subjects I got an A Grade for in my GSCEs.) I think learning on a typewriter made me careful. I am not careful anymore. I’ve even forgotten most of the rules.
The only one I really remember – the one that is an ingrained habit – is ‘put two spaces between sentences’. Rather annoyingly, that is one that has evolved with time and technology and nowadays is not acceptable. Luckily, I also know a shortcut-quickfix, so while I still automatically do it, I can amend an entire manuscript in a couple of clicks, and submit it in the newly acceptable manner. Rules that affect the formatting of the manuscript are one thing.
Rules of what to write and how to write it are other things. I have been to school, to university, and I have studied small writing courses and a large intensive creative writing course. I have learned the rules of how and what to write. I know about story arcs, plots, denouements, voice and all that stuff. I will almost certainly write a blog on that stuff one day soon. (I have some fancy-schmancy plot mountains filled in by awesome six-year-old students that I am itching to show off. Maybe next week.) But, above all, above all of those rules, the most important thing I have learned is which rules I am happy to break, bend,or ignore.
In my first novel, Dear Isobel, I followed no real writing rules. I sat down; I wrote. I didn’t think about the plot or the sequence of events, or the pivotal points or how to solve the characters’ problems. I wrote because I had a story and it wanted out. Unfortunately, when I came to edit, I found that having totally disregarded writing to any structure or plan, I had a massive amount of fixing to do. I had plot holes, a confusing timeline, and a rather random mix of tenses, often all within a single sentence. I also had a great story, so there was that. Nonetheless, I had to make some decisions. Which way did I want to go with it? Would I organise the timeline better? Make it more linear? Add more backstory? Leave it jumping around between the here and the then? And I did go back over it, many times. And my editor just finished going over it last week, and then I went over it again and made a few more changes and now my publisher will go over it again and we will do this on rinse and repeat until we have not only a great story, but also a coherent one.
Does this mean I make every change that my editor or publisher suggest?Nope.
Does this mean that I compromise the original story for small things like commas or double-spaced gaps between sentences? Nope.
Does this mean that if they want me to change something that I believe is fundamental to the bones of the story or the emotion that is behind it, I roll over and say ‘okay’? Nope.
And here’s why:
For every rule, for every choice, there is always an opposite view. When I am out walking, and see a sign that says ‘You can turn left here’,
if I come at the same path from the opposite direction, there’s a matching sign saying ‘You can turn right’. And I tried to consider how my story looked from every direction but in the end, the main direction is that of the main character. If I turned another way, it would tell the story (possibly equally well) from a different view point, but it would no longer be the same voice telling the story. It would be the person on the other path.
For every part of my story, I had to make a decision. What to leave in? What to leave out? Where are the dead ends, the no-through roads? Where are the important plot twists, or danger zones? Is that marker a sign that something is wrong, or a sign that there is something important there to notice?
But then there are more choices to make. Writing necessarily involves letting some private emotions or secret thoughts out in public. Which of those roads does the writer want to invite the reader to walk down?
Of course sometimes, the writer will choose to go there regardless, and end up in deep water. Then they may choose to delete or not publish those sections, redo it or edit it, or go ahead regardless. It’s amazing how fast you might learn to swim if you are in deep enough water. Or drown. Choices, choices. Sometimes, it is necessary to walk along a road that goes nowhere, if only so that you learn when you need to turn around.
Sometimes, going slow just isn’t enough. Sometimes, it is necessary to
Not go that way at all; reconsider, rewrite, go another way. Or wait there for a while, taking a breath to consider when to move forward again.
In Ireland, and rural parts of England, we have an unusual sign; one not seen in many other parts of the world:
This, I think, is the most important part of the writing process. ‘Yield’ means ‘produce‘ or ‘provide‘ but also ‘give way to pressure‘ and writing a book for publication is a perfect mix of those things. I, the author, must provide my story; produce it. Then my publisher must produce the book, provide it with a market. Together, the team we have will provide the readers with what we have produced. Meanwhile, we will also have to know when to give way, when to make changes in the process to ensure we have the perfect product. Sometimes I will give way; sometimes I won’t. Our yield will be ready, and the best we can make it.
I give my story to the pages. I give my heart and soul, those cliched blood, sweat, tears. I give it as much as I can. When it is ready, I will give it to you.
And never forget, that when you see ‘turn left’, you only have to meet someone coming in the other direction to see things from another way. There is always a choice, but every path will lead to somewhere.
Tread your path well. This life we have is a journey and not a destination.