Great Writing Advice Great Writers Ignore


If you are looking for tips to improve your writing you will find them here. But you will also discover that doing whatever the hell you want can work just as well too.

Gertrude Stein, the famous American novelist, poet, and playwright said –

Punctuation is necessary only for the feeble minded.

Before we venture into the spiralling madness of authors who go against the rules, I just discovered that the word “playwright” is written P L A Y W R I G H T . I assumed it would be spelled P L A Y W R I T E . Like someone who writes plays. Playwrite. This might be because I am a fool. It might also be because the English language is endlessly surprising. Etymologically speaking Playwright is similar to wheelwright. A wheelwright was someone who wrought wheels out of wood and iron. And so a playwright is someone who has wrought words into a dramatic form. Like the words have been hammered and bent into submission.

But this isn’t about playwrights. This is about rules god damn it, so let’s get to it.

There are hundreds of books about the rules of writing correctly. As authors we walk a tightrope of good grammar. At any moment we could fall into a pit of dangling participles, passive sentences, repetition, the much feared adverb that reveals the writers inability to show instead of tell, repetition, a misplaced comma, and god forbid; a rogue semi colon. And worst of all, repetition.

But how important are these rules and how much are they going to actually hinder your success?

Rule one

Only ever use he said or she said, and never follow it up with an adverb.

You don’t even need to use he asked, or she replied. He said is a tag to notify the reader who has spoken. They become invisible to the reader. We scan over them as we read.
Of course you can say, said Graham, or Susan said, but be warned; only do that if you have characters named Graham or Susan. If not, I would recommend using the names of your own characters. The key here is economy of words, and clarity. The reader wants to know who is speaking but nothing more. All the dramatic work should be done in the dialogue or the surrounding prose.

You might have a character at the breakfast table. His wife has prepared breakfast for him. And we get the following piece of dialogue. “I wanted my eggs runny, not raw,” said Graham, angrily.

Instead of using the word angrily, you would write something like, “I wanted my eggs runny, not raw,” said Graham, picking up his plate and throwing it at Susan.

You see, we have a vivid image, instead of “angrily”. There is no doubt that replacing the adverb is better.

Unless of course, you are one of the bestselling authors of all time.

Stephen King said about J. K. Rowling –

Ms Rowling seems to have never met an adverb she didn’t like.

It’s true. Her prose is littered with them.

I’m a sucker for this rule and I try to never use adverbs. But maybe I shouldn’t be afraid of throwing a few in every now and then. It hasn’t exactly hindered the success of Harry Potter.

Exclamation marks!

Avoid them. If you have more than three exclamation marks in your entire novel you have too many. It is lazy. It doing work that should be self-evident in the words being spoken, or the events that are unfolding. If you need to add a nudge at the end of sentence to let the reader know that THIS BIT IS REALLY SURPRISING then something is wrong.

Your words should speak for themselves without the fanfare to highlight how loud someone is shouting or that an explosion is really big. And just on an aesthetic level it makes the page look cluttered and messy.

Having said that, in Joe Hill’s hugely successful book, NOS4A2, there is an exclamation mark every time Charlie Manx, the bad guy in the story, speaks.

You will also find an excessive use of exclamation marks in the books of Tom Wolfe, F Scott Fitzgerald, Jane Austin, and of course the biggest offender of all, James Joyce.

Some people think of those authors as being amongst the best literary writers in history. So maybe using more than three in a book won’t be so bad.

Speech Marks

Here’s a curious one; when writing dialogue should you use the double quotation mark or the single one? That has a straightforward answer.

The publishing standard in the UK is to use a single quotation mark. And in the US, they use the double quotation mark.

Unless of course you’re the bestselling author Roddy Doyle, who uses neither. He just starts each piece of dialogue with a dash.

Cormac McCarthy, author of No Country for Old Men, and The Road, didn’t believe in speech marks either, saying –

I believe in periods, in capitals, in the occasional comma, and that’s it.

On the subject of basic punctuation, in the last twenty-four thousand words of James Joyce’s Ulysses there are only two full stops and one comma.

So what’s the point of all this? Well, simply, there is no right or wrong way to write well. You can do whatever the hell you like. The books that break through and become huge bestsellers are littered with broken rules. Nobody in the publishing industry can predict what makes a book become a bestseller. Writers have tried to hone their craft with best practices but, ultimately it’s for nothing.

My advice is that you should learn and understand all these things and then use them at your discretion. Be free to write the way you want to write.

Maybe you don’t need to polish your prose into a smooth perfectly formed generic thriller. Let it be a bit rugged around the edges. Let a bit of your voice come through.
Writing is like music. You can release a highly produced pop song that does well in the charts, and you will do well. For me, those songs are polished so smooth I bounce right off.

Or you can be like Bob Dylan. Sometimes he would screw up a word while singing and just say the word again. He didn’t even go back and rerecord it. It’s right there in the song. He might screw up twenty seconds in and just start eh song again, and it’s right there in the album. It’s those cracks in the perfection that let us in. It’s true for all art, and it’s especially true for writing.

That’s all from me!

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Another Year Burns to Ashes

In a few days I will be older than I was one year ago by exactly a year. It is quite remarkable. The same thing happened to me last year.

Last year, on the 12th of May, I was one year older than I was the year before on that exact same date. It really is a marvel. Something to be celebrated. A thing has been achieved. I must be showered with presents.

Once a year, on the day we slipped into the arms of a midwife – covered in God knows what – we push wax into cakes and light them on fire. Completely normal behaviour. The seasons have changed, I have less hair and am marginally uglier. Yippee. Let’s blow out some fire.

Time is spinning down the drain like dirty water. I have no idea what age I will become on the 12th of May (which is a Tuesday by the way. A day that nobody has any use for. What interesting thing has ever happened on a Tuesday? Only dull things. Meetings, rain, bills, stubbed toes: these are all Tuesday things.) I suppose I could work out how old I will be. I was born in 1984 so somewhere in my mid-thirties.

I have tried to forget the exact number. I am prone to thinking I am older than I am so it’s always a nice surprise when I discover my actual age.

I have just asked my partner, Rachel, and she says I will be turning thirty-six. I have no reason not to believe her.

People have been asking me what I want for my birthday. I have been replying with the answer, “Nothing.” Apparently this is not a good enough answer.

So I gave in. I decided fine, if they want to buy me presents, I will choose some presents.

I have logged into Rachel’s Amazon account and put things in her basket. I did the same with my mother’s account (for I have their login details. Bwa Ha Ha!).

I have been ordered to forget what these things are so they are still a surprise for me when I receive them so I’m afraid I can’t tell you what they are, for I have forgotten.

I will be back on the 12th May to share with you what I got. One of the items is over ten feet squared, so who knows where I’m going to put it? It won’t fit where we live.

If you would like to buy me a present (to celebrate the incremental journey to my eventual demise) you can do so by buying a gift for yourself: One of my brilliantly funny, witty, and just overall excellent novels.

Actually, you don’t even have to buy them. Below are links to the audiobooks of my first two novels where you can get them for free (UK only unfortunately). You enjoying my writing is as good a gift to me as anything. If you don’t have much use for an audiobook then both of the titles are available in paperback and on Kindle on Amazon. I will leave you to search for them, rather than littering the page with links.

Tripping the Night Fantastic audiobook.

The Accidental Scoundrel audiobook.

Leave nothing to Death but a burned out castleNikos Kazantzakis