Sunday, June 16, 2013

Rules? It Depends What You Mean.

 Another Found Article

I've been watching a spat on a web-site recently. On one side sits a now-published chick-lit author who took something like ten years to get any real success, attended courses, had a mentor and finally struggled into print. But now she KNOWS there are no rules, no need for rules, rules are bunkum, and she seriously distrusts "those people who force rules down fledgling writers' throats".

And yet this same writer writes formulaic fiction, straightforward, easy-to-read prose with obvious characters, obvious settings, twists-in-the-tail (ie within a convention). This writer and one other says that, "rule-makers" are those who imagine there's a short-cut, a cookie-cutting way to success and that giving beginners rules constrains them.

What total UTTER bullshit.

If we train a child in road-safety are we giving them more or less freedom? Should we give them the "freedom" to be flattened by a thirty-ton truck while expressing themselves? Is that freedom?

If we teach a language student the basics of grammar, do we restrict him or eventually give him the tools to begin to find the language for himself?

When we teach children to read, teach them rules, then teach them the fundamentals of writing we give them the tools to express themselves within a world of accepted conventions. oN other the foot speakie darg we neffiloo spenk a robbel.

If we drum into a soccer player how to beat the offside trap are we restricting him or showing him that the sport has structures he needs to be aware of?

When Tierry Henry or Ronaldinio does something breathtakingly beautiful ("impossible") he still does it bound with and playing within a set of conventions, rules, and very specifically LAWS.

These gifted young men may have kicked tins around backstreets but now, beneath their raw abilities they have had decades of drills, fitness training, team-play understandings. They know the grammar and syntax of soccer, and they are famous because SOMETIMES they do something nobody has done before, but the reality is, for 88 out of 90 minutes those guys do the ordinary things very, very well. They are artists but their art arises from a grounding in craft.

These two aforementioned "gurus" can take any list you produce. If you suggest X is a rule and they in fact already follow that rule, then it isn't a rule, it's common-sense!

Here's one "Rule":

Language for language's sake is obtrusive and should be avoided. The language used should at all times be appropriate to the character and setting.

So do YOU, reader, think this is "obvious"? The "famous writer" does. Perhaps she should go back and take a look at her early work, say year six or seven.

What is the reality? What do many, many, many beginners do? What, in fact is the most common beginner error"?

I would say the most common beginner error (and not an uncommon intermediate error) is over-writing and "laying it on thick" or trying to make the banal seem better by making the language appear richer. My very last article here mentioned this problem and that for an author who has won two-dozen prizes! It's a trap which writers at every level are prone to fall into. It is not obvious. If it was so "obvious" why do people continue to make the error often deep into their writing careers? Some famous authors actually forget their own in-built rules and start leaving in the lard, or worse, adding it. For further evidence read John Banville's, "The Sea".

The truth is this is a good "rule". It is not blindingly obvious. Even those who agree the rule still make the mistake of not following it. This is why the sub-rule emerged "kill your darlings", because chances are those pretty bits you really, really like will almost certainly be bollocks.

Note, by the way, that I put "rule" in quotes. This means that if you "break" this "rule", nobody dies. You are not fined, or beaten with a sharp stick. You are not dragged over spikes. You are not, even, forced to read womag stories for a day.

But do you know what the worst thing you can say to a beginning writer? It's this:

Rules are made to be broken. Rules are for cookie-cutter-writers.

That is a CRIMINAL thing to say, to ALL beginners, and ALL intermediate writers and 99% of developed writers writing at the top of their craft.

Later I will be dealing with the totally misunderstood adage "show not tell" (the guru previously mentioned does not understand it nor do at least 80% of creative writing teachers.)

But meanwhile, for simplicity, briefly imagine that "it's obvious" that show is infinitely superior to tell and "ideally" we should never tell. How then should we teach a beginner?

Answer, wire them to the mains and every time they tell AT ALL zap them with 250 volts.

What we should NEVER do is to say something wishy-washy like, "It's preferable to show, but it's not always possible. Sometimes it's necessary to tell."

When you do that, all you do is to give the lazy beginner a way out. Now, when you say, "That's tell!" they respond, "It vas nec-ess-ary!" (in a heavy German accent.)

I contend that one vital strand in the teaching of good writing is to force beginners to write 100% show. Not so that, eventually this is the way they will always write, but so that they are capable of writing this way. Until you prove it to them, and they prove it to themselves they will continue in lazy habits, always taking the easy way out.

We teach the use of strong verbs by banning adverbs. Again we do not give them ways out eg: "Sometimes a verb with adverb is closer to our thoughts, or sometimes we prefer it for the flow, the music."

NO! First make them see that they CAN write without adverbs (because in school they were once taught that loads of adverbs and adjectives were good things.) Show them that 99% of the time adverbs are for lazy writers who didn't think up the best verb but just took an off-the-shelf one and then modified it to suit because they had to.

Obviously, the same applies to nouns. Strong, specific nouns don't require adjectives and usually will do a better job of explanation. Again we should insist that our neophyte writers eschew the modifier, and when they fail we should show them how they could have succeeded.

But once again, ultimately our student writers will have choice. Armed with the ability to choose strong stand-alone verbs and strong stand-alone nouns OR use softer nouns and verbs which require modification, they will have more ways to achieve their transmission of meaning in an entertaining and intellectually satisfying way. But leave them to their own devices and they will chunter out what Miss Clissit (Class Four English) thought was "good". Craft discipline creates freedom

That is, apparent restriction was just a teaching method to create more ability long-term in the student and thus increase the student-writer's freedom.

Often the fledgling writer, particularly if the writer is going to be great, needs to be held back, held down and forced to practice his scales.

Two Football Analogies.

In soccer, the ability to use both feet is a very big advantage. Not many players are left-footed, and hardly any can use both feet well. Now you can tell a player, when he misses a goal and should have used his "wrong" foot, the mistake he made and he may well reply, "But I'm right-footed, Gaffer." You can "explain" that if he practiced with that other, useless foot he could be a star. But he won't unless you force him.


Isn't it "obvious" that being two-footed is a massive advantage? Yes, it's "obvious" as in when we stand back and look rationally we can see the advantages, but "our nature" is to use the most-natural foot.

Once upon a time managers used to go to training and make player wear a slipper or a plimsoll on their natural foot and a boot on the weak foot. That "persuaded" the players to use the weaker foot and thus made better players

John Aldridge

This is an old story of mine. Newport County Football Club discovered John Aldridge playing for an obscure non-league side and signed him up. He came straight into the first team and got goals. He was young, raw and very enthusiastic and looked like one of those players who just had an instinct for goal. The fans were thrilled.

But then they took John OUT of the first team and stuck him in the reserves for what seemed like forever. When, eventually John came back into the first team he seemed awkward, mechanical. Instead of running into the right spot instinctively he seemed to take a second, "work-it-out" and then go. He looked very ordinary. Oh, No! Had the club killed his talent?

But slowly the recently-learned craft and instinct combined.

"Aldo" went on to help Newport to promotion and cup success, then he moved up through the leagues to play for Liverpool and 69 times for his country. His career total of 476 goals is the highest for any individual since the Second World War.

The point is the club took raw talent and added discipline and method. Yes, for a while the marriage was difficult, but ultimately the combined product was far better than pure method or total intuition could ever have made it.

It is the same with virtually every craft. Why is it that these "gurus" attempt to argue that there are no rules, no mechanics, no drills, no basics when we use words, yet even the greatest musicians have to learn scales, learn to read music, learn to apply the conventions of their craft.

How about painting? In 2006 on Radio 4 the head of the Arts Council maintained that in the whole of the twentieth century in the UK just one prominent painter (Bacon) had risen to the top without attending art college. Did the art-college teachers say just slap it on and hope?

Back to Rules: Show Not Tell.

Here's an example of why some "gurus" argue against show-not-tell, another "stupid rule". They argue that you can't always show things. Sometimes you need to cut to the chase and get things over to the reader. Sometimes things are "too complex" or would "take to long to show".

In other words they don't understand show-not-tell.

I have written a number of articles called "Seduction-not-Instruction" where I argue that 100% of the time we should seduce and never instruct. What could be clearer?

Since seduction roughly equals "show" and instruction roughly equals tell, am I not saying we should "show" 100% of the time?

Well this is what these people might try to infer but that is not what I'm saying.

I'm saying you must, 100% of the time, seduce, involve, intrigue or entertain your reader. Not 90%, not 95%, not 99% of the time. All the time.

Can we get away with being less seductive? As it happens, yes, we can, and the reader skims, flicks pages. Sometimes we get away with it. But this means that at least some of our writing has not worked on the reader, has not engrossed her, has not captured her emotionally and/or intellectually.

We all know in the small matter of sexual seduction, that one false move can completely ruin the moment, can be a passion killer.

Ditto the passage of prose. One awful sentence, one grossly misplaced metaphor, a couple of horrible typos or one "Huh?" sentence can ruin a read, bring us out of the fictive dream, make us aware of the author and or the words and suddenly kill the magic.

We might find (in poorer readers, or more forgiving readers) that because the story as a whole, the novel as a whole, the plot, is interesting enough that our horrible patches are skimmed over or flipped past, and we "get away with it", but what should happen is that those passages are ALSO entertaining, enjoyable, intellectually stimulating and seductive.

Now, simple question, is the story we skim parts better or worse than the one that was too juicy to skim?

You might want to read those two articles at The Internet Writers Journal now. They argue that a story should seduce 100% of the time and never instruct. That's a RULE.

If it's not a fundamental TRUTH then why are we writing? Are there people out there who think we write fiction but DON'T want to create a fictive dream, an illusion, characters and dialogue and settings and smells and sounds in the reader's head that fill them up?

Oh, wait a minute, it's obvious, right? Silly me!

Do you, reading this, right now, even understand the difference between show and tell or the difference between seduction and instruction? I strongly doubt it. Beginner, ask your guru, but before you do, I'll tell you what they'll say, shall I? They'll say, "Don't SAY he was angry, don't TELL ME, show me, show me." And then they'll talk about clenched fists, teeth bared, raised voices etc.

They do this because that's about as far as 95% of CW teachers CAN go. Don't get me wrong, many will write well; they will seduce rather than instruct, but they've never really, not quite, worked out what they were doing.

I remember struggling for years trying to understand show-tell and finally I got it all at once in an excerpt cited by James Frey when a Korean War Sergeant says, "I'm eating chocolate an killing gooks." Now, in the context that entertains, that illustrates, and at the same time gives us the sergeant's ruthless attitude. All that bollocks about "angry' had never worked for me.

But guru might retort: "What about those situations where it's required that the reader knows that the hyperflingle valve, if opened more than one-point-one millimetres, will cause a retroflash psychotic reaction in the disimiallirification grommet?

Answer. Readers rarely do require that knowledge. All it requires in that situation is for someone to say, "Fer Chrissakes, just a millimetre!"

But what if the nature of your story does require a large amount of fact? Well, first, does it - you will be amazed how a small amount of factual information can be stretched by the reader. But if it does, why not separate it out in a prologue, or use trickery such as Isaac Asimov's Encyclopedia Galactica, italicized excerpts at the opening of each chapter. I used this technique in my Bridport Second Prize winner The Last Love Letter of Berwyn Price. The story involved a man from a family of International rugby players who had fathered only daughters. How to get his history over very quickly and in an interesting way?

I put his playing record at the start of the story as an almanac entry. Because it's there and merely there, explaining nothing, it doesn't "instruct". The reader has to apply intelligence to eventually get the meaning (the sign of something being right).

Or (if you can do it expertly in a way that isn't clunkingly obvious) have information delivered naturally in dialogue. When this is badly done, (it's usually badly done), it really sucks.

But what is vital is that any delivery seduces. That is it involves the reader's emotions, entertains, intrigues, looks for empathy with. What it doesn't do is merely explain everything in a way that the reader is absolutely passive.

Another Rule (actually the same rule rephrased).

If the reader's role is totally passive the writing is shit.

I could go on, but my boy wants me to watch Prison Break. 

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