How to write the perfect novel and breaking writing ‘rules’

(Originally posted 13th June 2013)

The age-old question that no-one can, or ever has, answered.

And isn’t that the whole point? Reading is subjective. What I like, you might hate.

Take The Catcher in the Rye. Hugely celebrated as genius. I thought it was a complete borefest. Or what about 1984? Again, bored me silly.

Fifty Shades of Grey sold 70 million copies in one year. That’s seventy MILLION. Maybe it’s down to marketing, or word of mouth, or the great unwashed and cultureless public snaffling anything controversial in this age where bad news dominates and celebrity culture provides youngsters with their role models. Sure, it won’t win the Nobel Prize for Literature, but something that entertains millions and brings fame and wealth to the author must be a good thing. As JK Rowling proved with her Harry Potter series.

For authors, there are a vast amount of books out there that purport to be able to make you a better writer, help you write a bestseller, improve your vocabulary and so forth. But the question then becomes: When does the esteemed author actually get any time to write the damn thing?

Then there are all the books that help you edit the novel when you do get it written. So, seventy shades of editing later and whoops, still no novel in the marketplace. That’s gonna bite.

Meanwhile tortured geniuses the world over buy another self-help book, in the hope that this is finally the one I’ve been waiting for.

Well, you can read all the self-help books out there and sure, they might help you improve slightly, but I think the old maxim works best:

You either got it, or you ain’t.

Readers want great stories, first and foremost. True, you ought to have a grasp on grammar (good title for a self-help book that!), and you ought to be able to spell, and you ought to know the rules of generations of writers who are using their experience to wax lyrical on how you should and shouldn’t write.

But shhh, here’s a little secret. Don’t tell anyone. Good writers, great storytellers even, break these so-called rules all the time. Sometimes they even break their own rules. Take the following two paragraphs:

‘She released the kite. It rose a foot or two, wagged naughtily from side to side, then took a dive into the sand. The breeze kicked up and it went skittering. She had to chase it down.’

‘ “Milo, come back!” Mom shouted. Her hair had probably started that evening tied up, but after several experiments in aviation, it hung around her face in strings. She pushed it away wearily with the backs of her hands.’

Do you see any problems with these two paragraphs? Well, let me give you a clue to help you. Many hundreds if not thousands of authors have, and continue to say, that you should avoid adverbs like they are the bubonic plague incarnate. They will destroy your credibility as a writer. Using adverbs is lazy. Show don’t tell. Ad infinitum.

One of the great storytellers of our time, and my personal favourite author, Stephen King, said, ‘The road to hell is paved with adverbs’. This he uttered in his celebrated, best-selling On Writing. I’m sure he sticks by it too. The other thing he said is that you should never use exclamation marks. He and many others.

So, therefore, in the two paragraphs above, which contain not one but two adverbs and an exclamation mark – and yes, reader, they are on the same page of the novel – the author has shown himself to be woefully inadequate and inexperienced, has he not? This is an author that by all the rules won’t make it too far in this business with sloppy writing like that, huh?

Hmmm, well what if I showed you this :

Yes, reader, or should I say Constant Reader? The example above is from Stephen King’s Joyland, which was released on June 4, 2013.

The same Stephen King who said the road to hell is paved with adverbs and that authors shouldn’t use exclamation marks.

King is breaking rules. His own rules.

But he is also telling a great story and bringing some great characters to the page.

What am I trying to say? Well, I guess I’m saying don’t get too bogged down in improving your grammar and your spelling and reading self-help books that tell you how to do it. Hopefully you will have a good level of grammar and spelling when you come to the page, but practise will see improvements, and reading a lot will help too (also things that SK lauds in On Writing). Beta readers can help draw your attention to errors and areas where you need to improve (as will negative reviews!), and if you are really serious then why not hire an editor?

Concentrate on knowing your characters inside out, how they tick and their past, their personalities and their relationships, and concentrate on writing a great story, and you’ll do okay.

Two more things:

1.    Improve a little, just a little, with every story or novel you write.

2.    Don’t worry about breaking the rules every time. Sure, try to avoid having adverbs in every sentence, every time you need to describe how someone does something, but don’t let yourself be dominated by rules. Take heed of what is considered a no-no in writing, and then do it sometimes anyway, just because you can.

After all, didn’t someone once say rules are made to be broken?

I’d love to hear the thoughts of others on this article. Let’s discuss! Oh, and thanks for reading.

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Posted in David McGowan
6 comments on “How to write the perfect novel and breaking writing ‘rules’
  1. Really interesting, and you’re right, it is subjective! For example, everyone LOVED ‘ The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo’ and I just couldn’t get through it at all! Beth

  2. Amber Dane says:

    Good post. I feel I improve with each book, Love the King and I too break some rules, but it is who I am. 🙂

  3. […] How to write the perfect novel and breaking writing ‘rules’ […]

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