Tuesday, February 22, 2011

WMW Introduces Anne Lyle

Anne Lyle is a UK-based writer of historical fantasy. Her first novel, set in an alternate history Elizabethan London, is out on submission and she is currently working on the sequel. When not writing fiction she blogs about books, movies, renaissance history, SF&F conventions and anything else to do with the fantasy genre that piques her interest.


The Rules of Writing 
Elizabeth: Wait! You have to take me to shore, according to the code of the Order of the Brethren.
Barbossa: First, your return to shore was not part of our negotiations nor our agreement, so I must do nothing. Secondly you must be a pirate for the Pirate's Code to apply and you're not. And thirdly, the code is more of what you call guidelines than actual rules. Welcome aboard the Black Pearl, Miss Turner.

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl

When you are a new writer, you hear so many rules being bandied about. "Show, don't tell!" "Write every day!" "Never use passive voice!" Like a small child trying to make sense of the world, it's easy to absorb these without analysis and parrot them back at other writers as well-meant "advice".

However these rules are, as Barbossa says, more what you'd call guidelines. The important thing is not to follow the rules over a cliff but to understand why they exist and how to apply them to your own writing. So, I'd like to take a closer look at three of these so-called rules and give my thoughts on them.

Write every day
So many writing instructors and successful writers laud the discipline of writing every day, and it seems like such an obvious, sensible thing to do. After all, if you write a little bit every day - 100 words, maybe even 500 - then you'll soon have finished your novel. Now, I totally agree that you need to build discipline and write regularly; that stands to reason. But you have to build habits and schedules that work for you, or you'll just avoid doing the work at all.

For example, I prefer to work in sustained bursts with breaks in-between. I might spend a month or two hammering out a rough draft at 1000+ words a day, then put it aside for a couple of weeks and just chill out, reading and watching movies. I might spend four months rewriting a novel, putting in 20 hours every weekend but managing only the odd morning or evening session during the week (I have a full-time day job). It's actually rare for me to write every single day, and yet I get the work done.

And then there's the risk of feeling stressed and guilty if you skip writing with good reason, like you're unwell or you have a major deadline at work that leaves you brain-dead every evening. People often post on writers' forums asking "Should I take a break from writing because I have exams/a personal crisis/sick family members to take care of?" They panic that if they don't write, they're going to lose interest. Well, I have to say that if you lose interest in writing because of an enforced break, you're probably not meant to be a published writer in the first place. If we replace "interest in writing" with "sex drive", how much sense does that scenario make? "Doctor, I'm afraid I'll go off sex altogether if I'm hospitalised for a month." Yeah, right. If it's what you really want, absence will make the heart grow fonder. Don't beat yourself up if life explodes on you and more important things have to come first. Your book will still be waiting for you when you're ready, like a faithful lover.

So, write regularly by all means, even on days you don't want to. Set schedules and deadlines and stick to them. But if you can't write every single day, it doesn't mean you're doomed to failure!

Show, don't tell
The thing that irks me about this one is it's often used as a mantra by people who don't actually know what it means.

What "show, don't tell" really means is that unless you are writing as an all-knowing omniscient narrator, you do not interpret the scene on behalf of the reader, you simply describe it - at least in the narration. So, for example, you don't write:

A beautiful young woman entered the candlelight ballroom room, and everyone admired her exquisite features.

but:

"A young woman stepped into the ballroom, the candlelight gilding her delicate features, and every head in the room turned in unison."

The reader is shown the events and left to interpret them as admiration of her beauty, rather than being told what to think by the author.

If one the other hand you are writing first-person narrative, or a third-person character's internal thoughts, it's perfectly OK to tell.

"Miss Bennett was the most beautiful girl I had ever seen. No wonder every man in the room was staring at her."

Of course you'll still need description in there at some point, to back up the character's opinion (or contradict it if you have an unreliable narrator), but telling is not in itself wrong.

The other issue is that telling is not the same as narrative summary. Some of the events in your storyline will be dramatic and significant, and will require a scene with detailed action, dialogue, etc to give them full weight. Others are trivial and only mentioned to move the story forwards, for example an unremarkable journey between two locations. In the latter case, narrative summary helps to move the story along at the appropriate pace. It's telling in the sense that you report the events rather than showing them unfold - but it's not what the "show, not tell" rule is about.

Write short stories before attempting a novel
This one is mainly for the science fiction, fantasy and horror writers out there. The market for short fiction in other genres is so minute, it's not even an issue.

Back in the day, when pulp magazines ruled, a writer could make a living and build a career through publishing short stories. And whilst short fiction is still popular in some genres and markets, and is indeed making a comeback thanks to the e-publishing revolution (no more reliance on fitting stories into a print magazine), it is by no means necessary to get stories published before you write a novel.

For starters, the shortage of markets can make it harder to get a short story published than a full-length book. Yes, you can almost certainly get a competently written story into a small 'zine that pays in copies, but the agent you query about representing your novel has probably never heard of it. You could spend years honing your craft in order to get into Asimov's, years that could just as easily be spent writing a novel that would earn you ten times as much.

Secondly, short stories and novels are very different beasts. Novels lend themselves to big themes and conflicts, whereas in a short story you have to focus on something smaller: a single character's immediate problem, for example. If, like me, you love creating a rich, complex world and exploring it from a variety of angles, you may struggle to come up with an idea that will fit into less than ten thousand words. That's not to say it's impossible to write on any topic at any length, but you may find you have a natural length that you write to, just because of the kind of ideas you have.

The one advantage of short stories for all writers is that they offer instant gratification. It's possible to write the first draft of a short story in a day or two, whereas a novel is going to take weeks or months at a bare minimum. It's easy to hold the entire short story in your head and see the structure: beginning, middle and end. It's also easier to get a short story critiqued than an entire novel. So, they can be useful as practice pieces, even if they're not your forté and never get published.

In summary, if you love short stories, by all means write them - if you have a gift for them, it may well help to sell your first novel - but don't panic if you can't write short fiction for toffee. Many many successful novelists have never written a short story in their lives, or at least not had one published. Just write what you love, and write it well.

So, there's my thoughts on some of the cardinal "rules" of writing. But remember, this is just my opinion - you need to make up your own mind!

Brian: You're all individuals!
Crowd: Yes, we're all individuals.
Brian: You're all different.
Crowd: Yes, we are all different.
Man in crowd: I'm not.
Crowd: Sssh!

Monty Python's Life of Brian
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Thank you for taking the time to share your post with us Anne.  We wish the best success with your submission and future writing career.