The first post on an editorial blog should, rightly, be about rules. Are there rules for good writing? Do you have to follow those rules? What about the successful authors who didn’t follow the rules?
Let’s start with the act of writing. What are you trying to do, by writing stuff down? Well, unless you’re writing a diary that’ll never be seen by anyone but you, you’re trying to communicate thoughts and ideas, feelings and memories, to other people, using words. The only reason there need be any rules at all in this process is that we need a common frame of reference. Your audience needs to be able to understand what it is that you’re saying.
Let’s take a simple example: My daughter grew up calling elephants “bumbiyahs” (my closest phonetic approximation!) until she was about four years old. She saw the film Dumbo and it obviously made a vivid impression. But no-one outside our immediate family would know what she meant if, at age fourteen, she wrote in her school copybook, “We went to the zoo at the weekend. There were some mangy lions, some penguins and a small bumbiyah.” We learn words (and how to correctly spell them) in order to communicate clearly a particular image or concept.
The same with rules of grammar. It’s important to know the rules of punctuation, because two identical sequences of words have completely different meanings with the omission of a comma.
“Let’s eat, Grandma!”
or the rather more sinister
“Let’s eat Grandma!”
So where rules are necessary to correctly communicate what the writer wants to say, they have to be followed. What about those other rules though, the “rules” that some people say are guidelines and not rules at all? What about the “show not tell” rule? Or the “unattributed pronoun” rule? Or the “don’t start a book with a waking up scene” rule?
Editors are often taken to task for being overly didactic about the implementation of commonly received “rules” about good writing (that’s not true of the editors at editorial.ie, by the way!). In many instances these rules, or guidelines, have evolved over time as “best practice”.
For example, the reason that professional editors and agents blanche at seeing, as the first line of a book, “I woke up. It was a lovely sunny day”, is that failing to know where to start your novel is a common failing amongst novice authors. Just because everyone who’s not dead wakes up every day doesn’t mean that your story starts with the moment your character woke up on that particularly sunny morning. So it’s not a “rule”, per se, but it sure is a likely indication of a novice author whose work is likely to contain other significant structural problems.
Must you never “tell”? Must you always “show”? There’s a good reason for that creative writing course mantra. We are deluged these days with visual media, TV, film, adverts, on our TVs, our computer screens, even our phones. In a confrontational scene, how do the actors convince us that they’re angry? Do they turn to camera and say “I’m angry”? No, they emote anger. Their eyes narrow, they shout, they wave their arms about, they hit things. The mark of a good actor is how closely we come to believe in and empathise with their emotions. The same with writing. The common (and usually sound) advice is don’t tell readers your characters are angry. Show them by word and deed that they’re angry. It will be an altogether more immersive experience for the reader, like watching the actor’s eyes narrow.
But must you never “tell” anything? I think that kind of blanket rule is lazy advice. Picking up two books at random from my bookshelf, On Chesil Beach, by Ian McEwan, and The Shipping News, by Annie Proulx, I don’t think anyone can accuse these two authors of being novices, or not being fully competent in their craft. Yet Proulx starts with the line “Here is an account of a few years in the life of Quoyle, born in Brooklyn and raised in a shuffle of dreary upstate towns.” McEwan is even “worse”. His book starts “They were young, educated and both virgins on this, their wedding night”. Both openings set a tone for the rest of the book. Both sentences convey vital information in few words (in McEwan’s case, almost the entire plot) which would have to have been laboriously “shown” over many paragraphs. It’s key that these are opening sentences. The need to get information across quickly must be balanced with the normal requirements of providing an immersive experience.
Over the course of the next few posts on this blog, I’m going to look at all the “rules”, one by one, and see how they hold up to inspection in the real world of published books. Since “show not tell” is the rule mostly widely touted as being misrepresented, misapplied and misunderstood, we’ll start there.