The Rules of Writing by Janet E. Cameron
Long hours, endless rejections, that perfect word that just keeps slipping away…this writing thing is hard, isn’t it? But it doesn’t have to be! All you need are The Rules! Stick with me and you’ll be zooming up the charts in no time! And here they are:
1) Go into bookstores now – see what’s on the bestseller lists, look at the busiest sections, follow customers around the store and hang over their shoulders breathing heavily and asking intrusive questions until someone calls security. Then, once you’ve figured out what’s popular (Vampire squirrels! Of course!) go home and write something exactly like it. This should take anywhere from six months to several years – longer if you have no special interest in vampire squirrels. Then, after a still longer time finding a publisher and editing, you’ll launch that novel or trilogy – just when the trend has moved on without you. Piece of cake.
2) All writing comes from experience, so if you lead a boring existence, your books will be boring too. Shake things up a bit and get out of your comfort zone. Rob a liquor store. Spend a week wearing clothes made up of dried mushrooms. Whack yourself on the head with a brick – you won’t know how much fun it is till you try it. Wait for smiling crowds to emerge from cinemas and then start randomly slapping people around. End your days shunned, toothless, decapitated and insane, isolated in some decrepit mountain shack with only the lemurs for company. Mission accomplished! Now’s the time to start that novel!
3) Begin every book, poem, or short story with the words ‘Mama Pyjama’. It’s the opening phrase of Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘Me and Julio Down in the School Yard’, and I believe the song’s still very popular in a variety of markets.
4) Readers want a personality to follow, not a name on a spine. Blogging about your teakettle and tweeting pictures of your toenails is good, but the connection’s never going to be personal enough, and you need to reach out. Now is the time to start ringing random strangers and telling them all about your lousy day.
5) There are no rules.
I think I’m going to go with number five here. Carlo Gébler said it on the National Emerging Writer Programme DVD, and he’d know.
Now, you might snicker at my goofy list, but I’ve seen some bizarre advice for writers on random blogs lately, most of them promising to turn my career around over a four-minute read. Why does the internet – and an army of how-to books – seem to think it has the key to making us all better writers?
To be fair, not all of this advice is silly; in fact a lot of it is very good. Tips and guidelines can be wonderful for getting a bit of outside perspective and sending your thoughts in unexpected directions. But here’s the thing: you’re not assembling a bookcase here. Writing is personal, and beyond obvious generalities like ‘don’t be boring’, or ‘try not to intentionally confuse people’, no one ‘rule’ is necessarily going to apply to you or your work.
I don’t mean to say that writers should ignore other people’s opinions. I’d pay to get decent critiques of my stuff, in fact I’ve paid a fair amount for courses and writing programmes over the years. But even when you’re dealing with real people who know your work, you’ve got to be careful. Readers can have contradictory opinions about the same piece. So can writing teachers. Sifting through these reactions requires a fine balance between cowering and stubbornness, and at the very least it means that you need to know your own work better than anyone.
And it’s not just random bloggers and how-to gurus who set out lists of rules – teachers do it as well, whether they realise this or not. Think of a writing course you’ve taken recently. Couldn’t you predict your teacher’s reactions after a while? Of course they respond to each piece individually, but sooner or later their favourite points will emerge: X is going to tell me to add description. Y is going to talk about back-story. Z will insist on more vampire squirrels. This doesn’t mean that they’re wrong – they just have different sets of inner tenets guiding them. I’m sure we all do, even if they’re not easy to articulate until they emerge as advice for others. I remember critiquing stories with fellow students in workshops. I always believed that I was doing my objective best – until one day I realised that I wasn’t actually reacting to a friend’s story as it stood. I was thinking about how I’d rewrite it if it were mine. But it wasn’t mine, and my private set of ‘rules’ weren’t going to apply.
Why can’t we all agree to a nice selection of guidelines for everyone? Because nobody really understands how this writing thing works. Where do the words come from? How do you keep them coming? You can’t control it and you don’t know when it might decide to shut itself off or turn into drivel. If there really were iron-clad rules that would protect me from this, I’d embrace them, wrap them around me like the flowered bathrobe that the hero of Michael Chabon’s The Wonder Boys believes he needs to wear before he can write. But I suspect that these rules don’t exist, or if they do, they apply to one person on earth – the writer who thought them up.
I finished a novel by ignoring a lot of the sensible advice directed at me. ‘Go straight through to the end,’ everyone seemed to be saying. ‘Worry about revising when the whole thing is complete.’ This sounded reasonable. But at the same time, I knew that in my case it wasn’t going to work. Instead I edited each chapter laboriously and struggled on like a turtle in a snowstorm until I finally got to the end of what was still a first draft, a year and a half after I’d started. But I did get to the end, and soon I’m going to be holding a published copy of the book in my hands. Would this approach work for everybody? No. Is it working for me now, as I wrestle with the second novel? Hell, no! Would I have advised someone else to do this a year ago? Probably. Because at the time, it was getting results. Now I need a new set of rules.
I’d love for all of this to be as simple as assembling a bookcase. It will never be. My rules are changing every day, and I’m coming to realise that I’m the only one who can draft or enforce them, no matter how many how-to articles and books I sift through.
Not so easy, is it? Mama Pyjama!
(c) Janet E Cameron
Janet E. Cameron’s first novel, Cinnamon Toast and the End of the World, will be published by Hachette on 1 March, 2013. A Canadian writer and teacher, Janet has been living in Ireland since 2005, where she teaches ESL at Dublin Business School. She has also lived, worked, and taught in Halifax, Toronto, Montreal, and Tokyo. Last year she graduated from Trinity with an MPhil in Creative Writing. Cinnamon Toast was one of the winners of the Irish Writers’ Centre’s inaugural Novel Fair contest. For more information or to contact, go to www.asimplejan.com