Great Writing Advice Great Writers Ignore

Transcript

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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Cockerings?

Nearly thirty years in the making, Cockerings is the new novel by Stevyn Colgan. I haven’t read it yet, because it’s not out yet, but I have read a few of his other books and I can attest that he is a thoroughly humourous and endlessy interesting bloke.

Cockerings is published by Unbound. Unbound is a publisher that works by crowdfunding. I think of it as pre-orders with perks. There is still a submission process for the author but, unlike traditional publishers, instead of paying the author an advance they leave it up to the readers to decide if the book will reach your bookshelf. Cockerings is currently 62% funded.

You know the really cool thing? Everyone who buys the novel at this early stage gets their name printed in the front of the book in recognition for helping to make it happen. I’ve got my name in the back of books by Stephen Fry and Terry Jones through Unbound. They are among my most treasured books.

I’ll be supporting Stevyn just as soon as payday comes around.

Check it out by following this link – 9

I think it’s a book that is well worth your support. Let curiousity get the better of you.

(If you pay a little extra you get to go to the launch party. Pay a lot more and he’ll name a character after you! Unbound make publishing just a little bit more interesting).

One Page Punch Up

I submitted the first page of my new book to The Bestseller Experiment podcast to be criticised in what they call a One Page Punch Up. There were many submissions but, to my joy (and sudden apprehension), I got selected!

And so best-selling author, Mark Stay (author of Back to Reality and the film Robot Overlords starring Gillian Anderson and Ben Kingsley) and Juliet Ewers (Publishing Associate at Orion Publishing who has previously worked with Ian Rankin and Michael Conolly) critiqued the opening page of Shelley Town RPG, my latest novel (it’s a Stephen King-esque horror).

The episode came out. Me and Rachel pressed play and listened. A grin started to spread across my face. By the time it was done we were speechless.

If you want yo hear what these two respected experts had to say about my writing you can listen on the link below! They reviewed five pages. Mine is first so you won’t have to scroll through the audio trying to find me.

EP231: One Page Punch-Ups with Juliet Ewers

The Rats by James Herbert – REVIEW

This book surprised me. I was expecting some schlock. Some B-movie pulp horror. A first attempt at fiction by an author who would become one of England’s best selling horror novelists. But actually, it was brilliant.

It has a few intentional false starts so you’re not sure for a while if the person you’re following on that page is going to die in the next. Or if he, or she, will go on to be the main protagonist of the story. At first the book is a series of vignettes of rat killings. But you don’t just get a violent attack. You really get to know every character before they are ripped to shreds.

It starts with a story involving a gay salesman struggling with his love for another man. You think he’s going to be the main character and then he wakes up to find he’s being eaten alive by a swarm of rats the size of a small dogs.

The depth James Herbert gets from his characters is impressive for such a small book. He wants you to feel something for them before their eyes are graphically chewed out.

There are lots of things about this book I want to spoil for you, but I won’t. The ending was absurd and brilliant. I absolutely recommend it.

The Proof is in the Post-it Note!

Holding the proof copy of Wode House by my beautiful and talented partner, Rachel Howells (@rachypetalface).

We are one day away from the big launch! Tomorrow, Monday, 3/6/19, is the day. Write it in biro on the back of your hand so you don’t forget. Put a post-it note on the foreheads of your children (in case the ink rubs off your hand). Spray paint the side of your vehicle so you are reminded on the way to work. Whatever you do don’t miss the opportunity to be one of the first to read this highly anticipated debut novel.

Click on one of the link below to get your copy.

Or, if link-clicking isn’t your thing, search for Wode House Rachel Howells, in the Amazon search bar.

Swearing in Literature

swear book

In Better Angels of Our Nature, Stephen Pinker says that swearing is a sign of a civilized society. You’re not going to be hung for comparing a member of the royal family to the back end of a donkey. We have progressed beyond that. There is no doubt that there is an offensive side to the English language but you are free to use it as you please. The question is; when should it be used, and when should it be avoided?

If you are writing a picture book for three year-olds it’s probably best that the talking squirrel doesn’t have speech bubbles filled with expletives. But that’s obvious to anyone so let’s focus on fiction aimed at adults. The reason this subject is on my mind is that I’m reaching the end of writing a horror/thriller novel and as the first rewrite looms I start to think about these things.

There is swearing in my book. It is occasional and mostly in the dialogue. I only paused for thought when I came to edit the moments where the fourteen year-old children in the book swear. To justify this I’m going to drag out two very important words; realism and context.

Fourteen year-olds swear. You might not hear them doing it, and not all of them do, but most, when amongst their peers, use “bad” language all of the time (in fact I’ve questioned my twelve year-old daughter on this and she has confirmed that many of her friends do indeed have potty mouths. She of course is an angel, or so she tells me). You can avoid it in your writing but sometimes avoiding it takes away from the realism of what you are writing. As I’m currently writing horror I’ll use horror as an example. Let’s say we have a fourteen year-old boy named Billy, and Billy has just witnessed the violent death of a parent. Is he more likely to mutter the word, “Gosh.” under his breath, or something more visceral? The word gosh would immediately destroy the believability of the scene. However, if you are writing a scene where Billy is enjoying a particularly good ice cream it would be unnecessary for him to comment on how f***ing delicious it was.

Here’s my dilemma, and the one that got me onto thinking about this in the first place; when is it okay to swear in prose, outside of dialogue? My thoughts on this are straight forward (but I have gone against my own advice a few times as I’ve looked at each individual case). If you take the swear word out no one is going to notice that it isn’t there, and so all should be eliminated. Whether or not swearing is okay in a civilised society there is no doubt that some people find it abhorrent. So take it out. People will happily read the murder scenes in your book and not flinch but as soon as they come across an F-word in the middle of a descriptive passage a big bell will ring in their head. Even if that ringing stops pretty quickly it is still jarring enough to drag you out of the scene.

So why have I left a few in? Sometimes your descriptive prose will reflect the thoughts of whichever character is in that scene, and that’s okay. It helps to clarify the mood your character is in. So you have a scene that goes – Terry stood on the side of the road looking at his smashed up car. The other driver, some drunk moron, was still sat in his driver’s seat, bleeding from the ears. Terry had two options, call a taxi and make it to the wedding on time, or help this stupid fucking drunk.

Alright, so that’s not a great example, but hopefully it illustrates my point well enough. Sometimes your prose reflects the thoughts, or the mood, of the main character in the scene.

swear keyboard

It’s interesting to me that there are no age guidelines with books, as there are with film and television. It is up to the responsibility of the author. But we’re not talking about sex and violence, we’re talking about language. You might lose some readers because they think your use of language is vulgar, but remember, that just makes you more civilised than them. Don’t swear for the sake of it though, the novelty wears off pretty quickly for the reader. So long as your portrayal of life is true then you won’t need to think too hard about whether or not that particular word is necessary.

And should not be at the beginning of this sentence.

StrunkAndPtah

I don’t know what the key to this whole writing thing is. I’ve spent the last fifteen years trying to find out. I must have read fifty books on the subject. I think maybe its clarity. So much writing is just filler, or confusing sentence structures.

It becomes a kind of music. I know I break some grammatical standards but hopefully not in a way that jars. There is no sensible reason for a sentence to not start with and. Or begin with or. Here is some dialogue between two students whispering to each other in an English lesson –

“Why can’t a sentence start with and?”

“Because she said so. And maybe she’s right. Fuck it. I don’t know. And anyway, that’s not how we speak so why write like that?”

“But what if we lose marks by writing realistically.”

“You shouldn’t start a sentence with but,” says the Teacher, overhearing the conversation.

“Why?” says the boy.

“Because that is the rule.”

“You shouldn’t start a sentence with because,” says the boy, “It’s a subordinate conjunction that requires more than one clause.”

“I’m glad you’ve been paying attention,” says the teacher, “but my first clause was in the sentence you interrupted when I said; ‘You shouldn’t start a sentence with but’.”

“This is all very confusing,” says a drunk man stumbling into the classroom by accident.

“Can I help you sir?” says the teacher.

“None of this is real,” says the drunk.

Why did I write that in the present tense? The second most difficult tense for a reader after the second tense. I’ve never written in the second tense before. I think I’ll give it a go;

               You walk into the gents at the pub. A man by the urinal is touching   himself inappropriately. You enter the cubical with the broken lock. You drunkenly undo your trousers and let them fall to the ground. You sit down and pee. You would have pissed at the urinal if it wasn’t for that masturbating man. Why did you sit down anyway? Too drunk to stand. You focus on a round convex lens on the back of the cubical door and think to yourself, why is there a camera in here? And decide it’s time to stop drinking in this particular watering hole.

Good. That was fun. You know, as these blog posts get further down the page the empty beer can count on my desk gets greater. It’s no wonder I lose focus.