In part 1) last week I looked at what for me is writers’ ‘gold’, those pieces of advice, those rules or tips that I need a very good reason to ignore. I say that because I don’t believe any rule should be followed slavishly.
However, before I go on to those ‘rules’ that to my mind need to be treated with caution there is another one that should go in the ‘gold’ category that I forgot last time. So my thanks to a comment from Deborah Jay (deborahjayauthor.com) for reminding me not to flip POV (point of view) in a section. If you are going to change character POV you need a clear break. Constantly changing POV becomes confusing. I would also add that I’m conscious of not having too many points of view in my books. As a rule I keep to between three and five.
Anyway back to those writing ‘rules’ I have been given or seen that I now treat with caution.
- Show not tell: This is another one Deborah Jay mentioned in her comment. I did think about this for my ‘gold’ section. And it is something you see all the time. On second thoughts though, I would change it to keep the telling to minimum. Sometimes you can’t avoid it and in my opinion it gives a change of tempo allowing the reader to catch their breath. However, when doing those revisions and you find a piece of ‘telling’ it is worth asking if you could show instead.
- Use of dialect: Again, I almost put this in my ‘gold’ section but decided to keep it in ‘use with caution’. I have seen it used well, where the odd word of dialect suggests an accent or way of speaking and the rest is left to the reader to fill in. However, it has annoyed me as well. I recently read the classic ‘Mote in God’s eye’ by Jerry Pournelle and Larry Niven and it was excellent. However a number of characters came from a Scottish background and, for me, the use of (or over use of) things like ‘yer ken’ and many other ‘Scottish’ phrases became a distraction, almost a parody.
- Descriptions of people, also descriptions of places and things: Elmore Leonard recommends keeping these to a minimum and as you’ll know from my last blog I take his advice (10 rules of writing) seriously. However, I read an Alistair Reynolds novel recently set in an alternative nineteen fifties Paris, where he broke both these ‘rules’ in places. But it worked. It evoked the atmosphere he was trying to create. I understand what Elmore Leonard is saying i.e. you don’t want to get in the way of a readers imagination. However, I think there are times when you need that description. A critique of one of my books was that my aliens were not alien enough, so I had to think in more detail about how they looked and their characters and convey that to the reader.
- If it doesn’t move the plot forward take it out: A piece of advice I was given early on and a tricky one. Whilst I agree with the idea of removing unnecessary padding I don’t go along with the concept that everything has to be ‘moving the story along’. As a science fiction writer I need to create those alien environments, give people at least a sketch of those worlds as I see them. Then they are free to fill in the details (as with the Alistair Reynolds book above). I don’t give it all in one lump, I try to deliver it in small pieces. I see some of this (as with telling) as giving a breathing space and a change of tempo to the story. I’ll describe things that I feel would interest/distract my characters, perhaps in a lull from whatever they might be doing. We do it all the time, why wouldn’t they?’ I guess the key is not to overdo it.
- Prologues: Another Elmore Leonard rule, don’t use them. My first novel ‘Ancestral Dreams’ originally had a prologue. I was advised to take it out and I did. The reason given was that I was writing sci-fi and the prologue was more fantasy which would confuse the reader and if it ever got on the book shelf, the person allocating it to a section. However, I have read books with a prologue used to good effect, to set the context of the story, which is in some ways what I was trying to do. So, now that I have more confidence (and it only sits on an electronic bookshelf), when I’ve finished books two and three in the trilogy I might change it back. Or I might let the readers choose?
Having written two blogs on advice I’ve been given and what I think of it, I would emphasise that I am trying not give advice but rather share my thoughts and hope they resonate. I suggest the more you write and the more you build your confidence the more you can make up your own mind on these ‘rules’. Not everyone has to do things or see the world the same way or believe in the same things. Also, of course remember it is your story.
As always comments are welcome.