I’ve been into this writin’ malarkey for a while now.
In my time I’ve been on writing courses, good and bad, and I've read at least a dozen books on how to write (the best actually being How NOT to write a Novel by Sandra Newman and Howard Mittlemark) - but as a consequence of crossing over to the dark side quite a few things I've held to be truisms over my 'writing' years have been thrown into a new light now that I'm on the other side of the fence.
So here are three Golden Rules of Writing that I now think new writers should treat with extreme caution...
1. Read More
It’s easy for new writers to translate this to mean: ‘Read more books by historical literary greats, because if you could learn to write like them, you will become, de facto, a great writer.’Once, on a diploma writing course, our class was asked to pick over that famous opening scene of Bleak House… the one with London in the fog. For our little writing group, for many years after the course, that opening became the embodiment of all we aspired to for the first page of our novels. We would hold each other’s opening paragraphs up to Dickens and find them lacking in comparison.
It did of course help us improve our prose style and better our writing ability – but we did it regardless of the type of book we were reviewing and with no thought to today’s book purchaser.
And my question is - would an agent or commissioning editor today become excited at receiving an opening page with prose as dense and wordy and lengthy as that fog scene however beautifully written it is? Would they take a red pen to cut down Bleak House's 350,000 words? And... as is often asked, would Dickens today have actually abandoned novels and be writing for Netflix?? All highly debateable and any views welcome, but I guess my point is that the rule really should be…
Read brilliantly written books to improve your prose style, but also…
Read more of today’s bestsellers in your genre.
That way, new writers can know what it is that current readers like, what agents and commissioning editors are wanting (as they often want what they already know sells), and where current trends are heading.
2. Write What you KnowThis can sometimes be taken by new writers to mean: you should write about something that you do – so if you are a doctor, you should set your book in a hospital, if you are a Uni teacher you should write a campus novel, etc.
But of course if everyone stuck to this rule, we would be missing half of fiction – as most novelists are not murderers, detectives, alien hunters, eighteenth century prostitutes and the like.
The important thing is not to write what you know, but to know what you are writing about.
You can tell within a page or two whether a submission has been properly researched or not. When an author knows the world of their novel inside out, it sinks into the page - it becomes imbued in the writing. When you read a Hilary Mantel not one word, person, object, background, building seems out of place – it appears effortless, but of course it is not.
So this rule should really be:
Know about what you are writing.
3. Write Drunk, Edit Sober
New writers beware. This isn’t really a rule – more a cautionary note. Trying to be a published writer is likely to turn you to drink...