Thursday, September 3, 2015

I despise the "Rules of Writing"

I don't actually subscribe to Chuck Wendig's Terrible Minds blog, but I quite often read what he has to say because it's so often shared by the writing community. Usually I agree with him. He's had much to say about important topics such as sexism and diversity. He has also often offered useful advice to writers - he's written a book on writing which I believe many people find valuable.

But his recent advice to newbie writers left me uncomfortable. Please - go and read it. I smell your rookie moves new writers. Some of what he had to say didn't fit with my own experience. But hey. I have a nasty habit of shrugging and saying, "What would I know?"

Not everyone took that attitude, though. Foz Meadows took furious exception, and made his counter case in I see your preferences Wendig. It's a long post, but well worth the read. Go ahead, I'll make myself a cup of tea while I'm waiting.


Really, I think the only point where I disagreed with Meadows was the one about grammar. Yes, I'm a bit of a grammar Nazi, and poor grammar makes my teeth ache. However, if the story grabs me, I'll sort of train my brain to ignore the errors and keep reading. That's not what's happening in Tim Winton's Cloud Street. Winton writes Literature, and be assured he knew exactly what he was doing when he used that approach. Which brings us back to the old argument that you need to know the rules before you break them.

We all have our own style of writing. And different stories demand different approaches. Let's take the example of starting a story with action. Linnea Sinclair drops the reader right into it with Gabriel's Ghost. But she doesn't do that with Hope's Folly. Personally, I prefer to be engaged with a character before I have to decide whether I want them to win a fight. Then there's cutting your story. Um... no, not for me. I always, always, always add detail. Several thousand words worth. So it depends on how you do things.

There's a real danger in listening too much to everybody else's advice. You'll lose your own voice and you'll end up writing a story that is not your own. I know this because I came very close to ruining my Iron Admiral stories. I shared that experience in a blog post - Yes, Virginia there is such a thing as over editing.

I'll share one small example of what I cut from those books. Admiral Saahren might be a great leader, but he's not much good with women. Since Allysha keeps him at a distance, he does the only thing he can think of to tell her how he feels - he sends her flowers. Here's the section.

The team had just started on their first exercise when the IS spoke. "Allysha, you have a delivery."
Allysha straightened up beside Sirikit’s workstation. "Delivery?"
"Yes. Flowers."
Leonov’s clerk brought them in and left. Allysha flushed. Flowers again. They were beautiful, ten tall stems with blossoms like wine flutes arranged to display their deep red throats. Their fragrance was unmistakable, delicate and delicious.
"Are they from Brad?" Anna asked, her eyes dancing.
All of the others stared at Allysha, equally curious. She felt like a fugitive under a spotlight as she read the note. ‘I hope your week went well. Brad.’
"Well? From Brad?" Anna repeated.
Please, leave it alone. But they wouldn’t. "Yes."
"Was he there? At that course?" Anna asked.
She had to think for a moment. Oh, yes. She was supposed to have been instructing at a senior officer’s course. "No, he wasn’t."
"Ah hah. So he is a senior officer."
"Where did you get that from?" They were guessing; they had to be.
"The way you said it. As though no, he wasn’t there but he could have been." Anna's eyes sparkled with gleeful delight. "Besides, these are love lilies."
"What?" Allysha collapsed into her chair. She didn’t need this. But she was intrigued. "Love lilies?"
"Yep. It’s a Fleet thing. If a man gives you just one of those," Anna jerked her head at the flowers, "it’s understood to mean he’s serious."
Sirikit nodded, her liquid eyes sparkling.
"They’re hideously expensive," Todd chimed in. Allysha thought he looked rather somber. They might be hideously expensive to a lieutenant, but not to the man who sent these.

In the interests of 'does the story work if you leave it out' I cut that passage to just being he sent her flowers and her team wanted to know who Brad was. That way I could also leave out this bit, when Allysha's back home, talking to her IS.

"Brew me some kaff, Albert, then tell me what you know about love lilies."
Allysha took her cup over to a chair while Albert talked.
"It’s something of a Fleet legend, Allysha. It harks to the times when space travel took months or years and even moving from a planet’s orbit to a point where a ship could transfer to shift space could take days. Captain Isaac Ishkar finally found the woman of his dreams. But he was called to war before they could marry. He knew months would pass before his return and, having very little time to do much else, he organized with a florist to send his lady one of these flowers every week to remind her of him until he could return."
"Hm. And did he?"
"Yes. He was captured and imprisoned so he wasn’t able to return for two years, but then, at last, they were married. And now it has become something of a tradition for male Fleet officers to declare their intent by giving their lady one of these flowers."
One. He’d sent her ten. "Are they expensive?"
"It depends on the time of the year. Perhaps I should say, they are always expensive. When supply is low, they are extremely expensive."
"Why is that? Surely they’re cultivated?"
"They are. But the cultivated blossoms are not of the same quality. They lack the fragrance and glowing color of the wild stock."
He’d sent her the wild ones, of course.

In the end I put it all back. Sure, it's detail. Sure, the story stands without it. But personally, I LOVE detail. I love that rounded feeling you get when you can tell the writer really knows her world. It's why I love Tolkien and Jack McDevitt. And Linnea Sinclair.

Getting back to my post about over-editing, at the end of it I wrote "I’ve learned a valuable lesson; to use a cliché, ‘to thine own self be true’. Write your own story and stick to your guns."

If you want any writing advice from me, I'd tell you to go and learn the 'rules' and take what you want from them. Then write your own story and stick to your guns.

Oh, by the way, the quotes are from The Iron Admiral: Deception. You can find it here.


  1. "Write your own story and stick to your guns."

    Amen to that, Greta. I think maybe we should start referring to them as Writing Guidelines or Suggestions, because when it comes to writing, there's no "Rule" that hasn't been successfully broken.

  2. I would agree on knowing them before you break them, but the longer I'm in this writing business, the more cross I get about being told (in general, not personally) not only how to write, but what to write. I'm all for the write your own story philosophy.


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