Rules is Rules, discovers Griselda Heppel, Even When They're Not.

Here’s a tip for new writers. When, in a creative writing workshop or author talk, a bright-eyed, successfully published author assures you -‘There are no rules in writing! Write whatever you want, how you want. No one can tell you what to do!’ - don’t believe her. She’s trying to be positive and encouraging but actually this is a pretty unhelpful thing to say. 

Of course writing has rules. And of course you can break them if you want. It just means you haven’t a snowball's chance in hell of being published if you do. 

So what are these rules? 

Well, if I list some of them, chances are you’ll throw me a puzzled look and say well of course, doing X/not doing Y is a given. As one of these cheery speakers said to me, years ago, when I picked her up on her blithe statement. 

The Pursuit of Love
by (rule breaker) Nancy Mitford
OK, so here are a few of these Not Rules That Are Rules Really:

1. You need a strong main character. If telling the story, she/he can’t be just the observer, it has to be about her. (So there, Nancy Mitford, even if The Pursuit of Love is a wonderful work that never goes out of print, You Got This Wrong.) 

2. All characters must have back stories. 

3. Every scene, in fact every sentence, needs to count towards the plot. They can’t just give atmosphere, reveal character, or be set up to tell a joke. All those aspects are important, of course, but have to happen while the action is moving on. This is why writing is so DIFFICULT. 

4. Point of View is always with your main character. Yes, I know, many writers ingeniously switch between several characters, or view the whole story from the Omnipotent View of one standing outside, but you need to be Very Advanced In Technique to bring this off. I’m still working on it. 

5. Even if your story takes place in several different places/times, with parallel narratives, it has to begin with your main character. 

You may have guessed by now that I have fallen foul of all these rules – and many others – in early drafts of my books. And I have to admit that submitting to the first 4 did strengthen my writing and tighten up the plot structure. These rules do make sense, and while you’ll always find examples of writers who’ve broken them and still succeeded (eg Nancy Mitford), the key – as with all crafts – is in being skilled enough to know when to do so. 
The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst 
by Griselda Heppel: inaugural read of 
Christ Church Cathedral School's book club.

The reason this is in my mind right now is that a couple of days ago, I was delighted to be invited to a Q and A session at Christ Church Cathedral School, where The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst had been chosen as the inaugural read of their newly found book club. Knowing I’d be grilled by a group of sparky 11 year-old boys, I thought I’d better reread the book to refresh my memory. 

Jolly good thing I did. I’d forgotten how complicated the plot is, a dual narrative set part in the present, part in 1586, in which 13 year-old Henry finds his problems mirrored in those of a 12 year-old Elizabethan boy, Thomas Striven, whose diary Henry stumbles on in the school library. So that when Thomas, in desperation, calls up a demon for aid, Henry follows suit…. With dark and terrifying consequences. 

To my great joy, the boys were gripped by the story, taking the switch between 21st and 16th century chapters in their stride, and being unfazed by the fact that in structuring the story, I broke Rule 5. 

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell 
by Susanna Clarke
I tried hard not to, I swear. I changed chapters round, wrote a whole new chapter… but ultimately the only way I could set up the story was to begin with Thomas, not Henry, even though Henry is in the book’s title, not Thomas. 

I suppose I could have called the book The Tragickall History of Thomas Striven and Henry Fowst but crikey, what a mouthful. Reminiscent of Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (interestingly also featuring ancient magic and demons) which I could never get to grips with. Instead, the Elizabethan-style spelling of Tragickall is supposed to hint at Thomas’s story, and prepare the reader for a historical element. 

It’s not ideal, I know, but it hasn’t worried any of my readers.

Sometimes one can be too hung up on rules.

                                                                                        OUT NOW                                                                    

                                                                    WINNER of a Wishing Shelf Award 

                                                                       by the author of Ante's Inferno  
                                                                    WINNER of the People's Book Prize


Susan Price said…
Great blog, Griselda -- thanks. I enjoyed it a lot.
Agreed with everything you say -- except 'Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell', which I love. But there you go -- as my mother often said, 'If we all liked the same things, we'd only need one of everything.'
I'm glad to hear someone else couldn't get to grips with Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. I don't think I had the stamina for it, apart from not really being in tune with the supernatural.
Peter Leyland said…
An interesting blog Griselda. Were I a writer of novels, I expect I would have fun playing around with the rules for writing them. As an an avid reader of them, however, I often have fun trying to work out what the author is doing. A favourite for this is Julian Barnes who loves playing around with any rules of writing and readers' expectations, although his last one (Elizabeth Finch) left me a bit puzzled, (even though it was about an adult education teacher!!)

And, if you could go back in time to the 19th Century could you ask Wilkie Collins why he brought in Miss Clack for a big chunk of my current reread, The Moonstone, just when it was getting interesting...

Great also to hear about you going into a school to talk about your novel, The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst. Years 5 and 6 were always my favourite teaching groups.
Griselda Heppel said…
Many thanks all for your comments. Your mother was a wise woman, Susan (but you knew that) and I love how your and Cecilia's differing reactions to JS and Mr N put her wisdom in a nutshell.

Peter, I've only read one Julian Barnes novel, The Sense of an Ending, and was actually disappointed at the poor structure: the 'twist' stood out from the start, which made the great reveal a bit of an anticlimax. But he does write beautifully.

Ooh, The Moonstone, now there's a book I must read. (The only Wilkie Collins novel I've read is No Name, which is an extraordinary book, way ahead of its time.) I'll look out for Miss Clack.

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