5 Thou Shalt Nots of the Writing Craft

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Writing Mirror – June Perkins

Once we have beaten writer’s block, found our stories, and drafted them, then comes the intense process of editing.

This is where we put ourselves to the mirror as writers and start to notice the blemishes and strong sides of our writing.

Over time there are rules that we learn from editors, teachers, readers, bloggers and other writers that make that looking glass moment bearable.

These vary from ‘Thou Shalt not’ to ‘our writing will be stronger if we do …..’

Then there are specific formulas to poems, novels, genres within novels that gradually  become set in stone, and then are challenged by those who don’t want to follow rules but make new ones.  Before we break rules it is good to understand them, and then work out why it is we might depart from them or reinvent them.

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Writing Looking Glass – June Perkins

Thou Shalt Nots’ tend to stay around for longer and follow each new rule.  The main ones I have heard continuously are:

1 – Don’tTell, show, (I like to think I am a camera with this one, and it works well with sensory language and seeing a character through their actions and not just their words.’

2- Don’t add useless words, make every word count (there are huge lists of these, very, really, but I’ve come across lists saying avoid saw and sit and find new words)

3- Don’t use words that are overused and mundane, be surprising (this list might include words like saw and sit and it changes as the popularity of words changes, this one is a tricky one, but lots of editors are aware of this list, which can remain secret unless you read a lot and see that truly some of the best writers avoid these words like the plague).

4- Don’t use overly predictable plots, provide twist (there are set plots that are frequently used, polyplots, and yet the challenge is to put something extra in and play with the expected).  Some of the most annoying plots might be ‘then I woke up and it was all a dream’  and the romantic plot where the two main protaganists hate each other at the beginning and end up together)

5- Don’t sink into cliche, surprise (again it’s about the unexpected and surprising situation or image, and so love and rose becomes something to avoid it is so over done, but also there are so many crime stories it is becoming harder and harder to avoid cliches, they then start making the characters the unique thing to avoid cliche even whilst working in the set plot (more on this in future posts).  One thing I love with the use of cliche though is humour and a twist, here it begin with the cliche but ends in a different direction.)

With writing that surprises, the twist is never seen,  the plot is keenly anticipated and theorised yet tricky, the image is unique, every word is doing work and there isn’t any  padding and love is raised above the expression of desire and roses;  yet even as we learn and follow these ‘thou shalt not’ rules there has to be something in the story that people recognise and follow that has its origins in the past.

One of the surprises we learnt about when I was studying modern fiction was the rise of the ‘unreliable narrator,’  where the character narrating a story is lying to you, and yet you don’t realise it until almost the end of the story.  At the time this began being employed as a technique it was surprising, and yet now it can be cliched as people took up the trend and employed it in their writing.

Memoir has always fascinated me because we have come to expect the author to be as reliable as possible, even as they write from a slanted perspective, and yet there are now some highly publicised memoirs, that have turned out to be mostly fictions.  If only they had been written as fictions their authors would not be being sued by publishing companies, but the catch is that these authors have sought the authenticity mantle as a selling point for their work and cheated the public reading it for that element.

The challenge for  contemporary writers, is perhaps how can we keep it surprising when so many have come before us and set up patterns.  This then is the role of the imagination and pushing ourselves with our craft.

Who are the contemporary writers who most impress you with how they do any of the above?

8 thoughts on “5 Thou Shalt Nots of the Writing Craft

  1. My own slight variation is, “don’t tell, show—when it’s important.’ I read a short story once where EVERYTHING was told…the character took so long to develop I was asleep before they got there.

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