Friday, 24 January 2014

Creative writing rules

Gert loves to break the rules, so she enjoyed the piece by Anjali Sachdeva in 'Creative Nonfiction'‎ entitled

5 creative writing rules we could do without

The rules are:

1. Show, don't tell

2. You should only be a writer if you can't bear to be anything else

3. Write what you know

4. Don't use the Passive Voice

5. Use interesting verbs (she's made her own rule here: don't try them in dialogue tags. Stick to 'said.')

It's an amusing and thought-provoking article that would make a great creative-writing class exercise, with students searching out pieces of good writing that violate the rules.

Rule 2 is an interesting one.  Gert knows many people who would love to give up the day job and write full-time. It's her view, though, that it's good for writers to have to do something that keeps them in touch with the ordinary world of wage-slaves. Let her state a rule of her own:
if you really are a writer you'll write no matter what.


Dorothy Johnston said...

Interesting post! How and why do you think these rules become established?

joan and gabrielle said...

Hmm. Maybe the rise of creative writing courses is to blame. Any kind of “how to” course has to have does and don’ts. The four technical rules given here are useful for a beginning writer, but more as things to think about than rules. Unimaginative showing is just as clunky as too much telling. Describing the world via the senses is easier, actually, than trying to convey a complex inner state by “telling” it – and so it’s easier to write predictably, tritely, with “show, don't tell”. “Write what you know”- well, yes, as long as you can see the strangeness in what you know.
“Use interesting verbs” – i.e., don’t use any word automatically. “Don’t use Passive” – er, aren’t there always at least two different sides to an experience, depending on where you see it from? (Oh, dear, never end a sentence with a Preposition.)

And “Only write if you can’t bear not to” - this must go back to the Romantics. Should we apply it to all other aspects of life? “Don’t go to the gym/drink wine/have a baby/get a divorce/be a nurse/ buy a Porsche/dye your hair/ and so on, unless you can't bear not to”. What about “Write if you like writing or if you have to write to make a living”? That sounds like a reasonable rule.

Dorothy Johnston said...

I taught creative writing for quite a few years and it never occurred to me to make a list of rules. All my students wanted to be published and who could blame them? They paid good money for classes on technique, but basically this was their aim. And I was bound to disappoint them, because I couldn't 'tell' or 'show' them how to achieve it. All discussions and workshops regarding 'how to write' were subsumed under this over-riding aim. I now believe that most, if not all of my students must have found my classes frustrating because they wanted a list of rules, just like your character in 'Writing Is Easy!' You're spot on with that book!
But what's the answer? Abandon writing classes, advise anyone who asks for advice they're a waste of time?

joan and gabrielle said...

It's probably true that beginning writers want to be told 'how to do it,' like John Brow in 'Writing is Easy'. But once you get past that stage, maybe it's a bit like improving at playing an instrument.You don't play wrong notes any more, but how good you get depends on your ear and your feel for music. So I guess writing classes should be more about reading very good writers and talking about what they do - even trying to imitate them. Doesn't matter if you do it badly as long as you know what you're trying to do.