The internet is in love with twee lists of writing advice from authors – Geoff Quillpusher’s 8 Rules Of Writing, Dipstick McFamouspants’ 10 Laws Of Great Novels, etc. They’re never very enlightening, often strip-mined from larger works and taken out of context, but being short and coming from great novelists they take on a gnomic resonance they haven’t earned. Almost every single one is manifestly false, so general as to be useless, or just cute sloganeering masquerading as wisdom. As if sensing how crap and artistically bankrupt lists of writing rules are, authors often try to negate the lot with a final rule that constitutes a naff spin on – ‘don’t follow rules – forge your own path, man’. They might as well close with: ‘The above is utter bollocks.’
I realise, given that I foist advice upon authors every week, that my grousing about this may seem supremely hypocritical – use your own judgement on that. In fact, that’s what I repeatedly advise readers to do: don’t take my word for it, here’s the extract, looks for yourselves. Disagree. Post your counterarguments. Let’s engage with this, debate it.
The craft of good creative writing has principles – of course it does – but they’re mostly contextual. You can’t give someone directions by saying ‘turn left, head down the road 100 metres, follow the little dogleg round, and it’s second on your right’ unless you know where they’re starting from and where they want to get to.
Treat any claim about the craft with skepticism – have you checked to see whether the author follows this rule herself? Often, in lists of rules of writing (or stand-up, or whatever), you get the sense that the writer is just channelling their own self-loathing inner monologue, and correcting their own perceived failings. Either that, or they’re trying to sound entertaining and wise at the expense of truth. A lot of practical, bread-and-butter writing principles don’t translate well into glib maxims for the flouncy middleblow poetasters who comprise the majority of the audience for these tips.
More importantly – is the author any good? Would you want to write like them? I’ll wager there are several ‘esteemed contemporary authors’ who you loathe with the sort of passion usually reserved for the seagull that’s just knocked an ice cream out of your hand, who you would rather be impaled upon a cricket stump than emulate.
And bearing all that in mind, remember that even the rules you agree with, written by authors you admire who produce good books, are still worthless as a spaniel’s promise when it comes to materially improving your prose. Do you honestly think anyone, in the history of human endeavour, has read a shitty list article on the internet then returned to their work a better writer? ‘Oh my, isn’t Kurt Vonnegut witty with his self-negating contrarianism! Now the blocking in my second chapter is perfect and not at all confusing.’
Of course, this appeal to authority, judging an author’s advice based on the quality of their output, is spurious. Most editors haven’t penned so much as a short story (that they’ll admit to, anyway) but that fact alone does not make them unqualified to give advice on the craft of writing. A love of literature and years of experience dismantling and fine tuning manuscripts is qualification enough.
Besides which, truth value isn’t measured by who says something, but by what they say. Frankly a lot of authors are just fucking with you when they hand down pronouncements about the craft – perhaps because they realise that the alternative is repeating the drab edicts that everyone comes out with (show, don’t tell; engage the reader’s five senses; easy on them adverbs; stick to ‘said’ for dialogue attribution; keep control of your viewpoint; give us something or someone to feel emotionally invested in) and being ignored, because they’re not pyrotechnic or cutesy enough.
The reason I got started on this was because someone on my Facebook feed linked to one of several blogposts summarising Michael Moorcock’s rules for writing a novel in 3 days. He advises authors how to prepare all the elements necessary for an intensive period of production, with suggestions like:
Prepare an event for every four pages.
Prepare a list of images that are purely fantastic, deliberate paradoxes say, that fit within the sort of thing you’re writing. The City of Screaming Statues, things like that. You just write a list of them so you’ve got them there when you need them.
Very often a chapter is something like: attack of the bandits — defeat of the bandits. Nothing particularly complex, but it’s another way you can achieve recognition: by making the structure of a chapter a miniature of the overall structure of the book, so everything feels coherent.
There was a period in Moorcock’s output where he was allegedly knocking out prose at the rate of 15,000 words a day. Genre readers will have heard of him but for the rest of you, he’s very well-regarded in alternative SF circles, seen as one of the instigators of the New Weird movement, a champion of Peake’s Gormenghast and basically most stuff that isn’t Tolkien or Lewis. His essay, Epic Pooh, is just terrific. Moorcock is shrewd and incisive, moving from the level of the sentence to the whole of British society. He lambasts those he sees as hack writers of clumsy, bland, reactionary prose, and praises authors like Ursula Le Guin (who I agree is flipping excellent) for craft and maturity. Seriously, read it. I defy you to come away unimpressed with Moorcock’s wit and engagement with craft.
Which would be all very well if Moorcock weren’t guilty as hell of the things he accuses others of. Have you read his sequence, The History Of The Runestaff? They are easily some of the shittest SF novels I have ever read. I didn’t find out until afterwards that he had written them at a rate of 15,000 words a day, but I was not at all surprised – and even bearing that in mind, they’re not particularly good!
Admittedly, the first book starts off okay, if a little thin, but Moorcock’s pen is writing cheques his butt can’t cash. How will they get out of this scrape? you wonder, only to discover the answer is: cheat. Repeatedly. The series rapidly descends into dross.
The prose is vague, godawful tat with nothing to excite the senses, lurching between white-room syndrome and fits of clanging purple whimsy. The plot is asinine, relying entirely on incompetence, repeated deus ex machinas, and false peril – the villains tie the heroes up repeatedly then leave them, unguarded, supposedly huge armies that we’re assured are deadly prove unaccountably useless in combat, magic items and mysterious saviours pop out of the woodwork again and again to rescue the heroes (who never exercise any sort of wit or originality in service of their goals). The thinly-sketched setting is just a heap of incoherent vaguely gussied-up clichés. He solves problems with glib magic and enigmatic floating demigods so many times that there is zero tension. The characters are basically faces drawn on lolly sticks, utterly forgettable, flat, unconvincing.
Here’s an example of dialogue, picked at random:
‘We must descend,’ Hawkmoon said finally.
‘But we are only two against a thousand!’ D’Averc pointed out.
‘Aye – but if the Sword of the Dawn will again summon the Legion of the Dawn, then we might succeed against them!’ Hawkmoon reminded him.
Wretched, hobbling stuff. And it’s all like this – humourless, one-note automata declaring exactly what they think. Forget monsters and ghoulish armies – the darkest malefactor hovering over this book is The Tin Ear Of Moorcock. I’ve read amateur manuscripts professionally for almost a decade now, and rarely are they so howlingly bad.
And the novel practises exactly what Moorcock takes other authors to task over! The people of Granbretan (the Dark Empire taking over the world – the ‘twist’ in this story is that the baddies are English and the hero is German, which – aside from a couple of Beatles references – is the closest we get to any sort of subverting of expectations) are presented as mercilessly, psychopathically evil. They have no motivation aside from their nationality – it’s presented as intrinsic to Granbretanians: racial essentialism, in other words. The hero, Hawkmoon, takes this as licence to execute every Granbretanian he encounters, except one, who, unaccountably, he doesn’t. It may be that we’re supposed to infer that D’Averc is less corrupt because he’s French, (his transformation from sociopathic killer to freedom fighter seems to be based on little more than a whim) but frankly the plot and characters are so tissue-thin that any sort of analysis is like talking to a Wotsit. It makes Hollyoaks look like Pinter.
It’s fucking awful, lazy and hacky. I’m not a snob. I’m totally down with a novel full of pew-pew or zzzzap-growl-clang or whatever. I enjoy a lot of the old pulp stuff! But the novels produced to Moorcock’s ‘formula’ are total dogshit. It’s the formula for dogshit, you guys.
I was shocked. Moorcock comes across as erudite and witty in his essays, and I know he’s held in high regard. I suspect he wouldn’t hold up The History Of The Runestaff as his best work. Perhaps I chose the wrong book to begin with. Maybe I will live to regret denouncing such a well-loved SF stalwart so publicly! All I know is, The History Of The Runestaff is dire, and if an experienced, intelligent author slavishly follows a set of rules and produces an abysmal broth of bum-gravy, what are mere mortals like you or I likely to produce? That’s not even a rhetorical question. What comes below bum-gravy? Help me out here.
Let me be clear – I’m not having a pop at speed-writing or NaNoWriMo. I have huge respect for the work ethic and enthusiasm of anyone who takes on such a cool challenge. It’s like committing to a rigorous training regime and it demonstrates real spark. I’m sure aspiring authors learn a lot from seeing it through. But most authors who produce something for NaNoWriMo do not, at the end of the month, expect strangers to pay £15 each for the privilege of reading it. That would be arrogant and stupid.
By all means, trawl the internet gathering rules and laws and tips and blueprints for writing novels. But smell the results of someone’s baking before you try out their recipe. Otherwise, don’t be surprised if you cut into that pie crust, only to discover the rich, gooey filling is hot turds.