The Writer’s Retreat… with Helena Halme

Photo courtesy of Emma London
Photo courtesy of Emma London

Here is the scenario: You have one month alone on a remote Scottish Island.  You have a comfortable cabin and enough food to last the duration.  The only contact you have with the outside world is a radio.  There is no television, internet access or mobile phone signal.

This month’s Writer’s Retreat Resident is novelist Helena Halme.

What will you be working on while you are there?
During the month away, I’d be aiming to complete my latest project, which is a sequel to The Englishman. The novel is set in Portsmouth and London in the mid-eighties, so I’m not sure the location of the cabin would be particularly inspirational to this novel. I’m also still doing a lot of research for this book, mostly on the internet, so again, I’m doubtful whether I’d be able to get on with this particular project.
But since I often work on two or even three novels at the same time, I may find that I can get on with another sequel, this time to my spy novel, The Red King of Helsinki. This one already has a title – The King’s Daughter – and I’ve done most of the research, so this one might be a good one to get on with in a remote Scottish cabin.
Or I might start a new novel – I often do on a holiday, or when visiting my family in Finland or Sweden.
I may also start writing a diary (again). They’d make a good series of posts on my blog, Helena’s London Life, when back at civilization.

How will you structure your days?
I’d aim to complete a certain amount of words during the month – 50,000 would be a good number. I usually need a target, or a deadline, to work well (I have a very weak character – the Englishman refers to my willpower having the breaking strain of a warm Mars bar).
This ‘Warm Mars Bar’ means that I’d have to have a definite structure to my days. And this brings me to a request – could I take along my 10-year old terrier? ‘The Stinky’ would force me to take regular walks and he’d also get me out of bed in the mornings.
The radio would also dictate my routine – I’d wake up to BBC Radio Four Today programme, have breakfast while admiring the sea view, and make sure I’d had my walk and written at least 500 words before Woman’s Hour. I like to write in total silence, so I’d probably turn the radio off while writing some more before lunch and World at One.
The afternoon is usually my best working time, so I’d be looking to write at least 1,000 words before PM, the five o’clock news.

(Sally:  Yes, I think The Stinky should definitely have a place on the retreat, he sounds essential to your creative routine!)

How do you feel about being cut off from human contact as well as the social network?
A month of uninterrupted writing! It sounds like a dream come true and yet, also a complete nightmare. I’d miss my husband – the Englishman – as well as my grown-up children, who both live very close to us here in North London.
I’m also a self-confessed social media addict, and I have been known to go gaga after just one day alone in our London flat. And that’s with fast internet access and TV. On the other hand, if allowed, I can spend hour after hour alone in bed reading a book.
So it could go either way – after a month on my own I may end up as an emotional wreck, or a confirmed recluse. I’m a Finn after all, and we are known for our love of solitude.

What reading will you bring with you?
In the evening I’d probably listen to some plays, or 6Music or Radio One. I’d also find Finnish and Swedish radio stations, or local ones for a little variation. And I’d write more or read by the open fire (there’d be an open fire, right?) This brings me to another request – could the cottage be equipped with a well-stocked library? If not, I’d need to take at least two old-fashioned trunks of books, dictionaries and a thesaurus. However, if there was a library, I’d take pleasure in looking through the shelves and reading someone else’s book choices. It’d be fabulous! The only thing I’d need to take along with me would be Finnish and Swedish dictionaries. These days when I write, I often find that I can think of the right word in one language, but never the right one!

(Sally:  No library at the retreat I’m afraid, you’ll have to pack your books carefully, or bring your Kindle of course)

What essential items will you be packing?
I’m hoping the cottage is by the sea, so at least I can watch the occasional seagull fly past. I’m imaging a cabin atop a hill where during stormy weather I can watch the waves rise high as they hit the rock face below.
I’d pack my laptop (I can’t write on anything else), a good pair of walking boots, a warm waterproof coat, wellies and loads of cashmere (jumpers, socks, leggings, blankets), soft Egyptian cotton bed sheets, my orthopedic pillow and masses of chocolate. Oh, and playing cards for a bit of Solitaire.

If you could bring a fictional character with you as a companion, who would it be and why?
If I could have a fictional character as a companion, I’d have to choose one of Doris Lessing’s female leads, like Martha Quest, or Sarah Durham from Love Again. These women would be intelligent company and they’d provide some fantastic conversation over the long evenings.
As I write, rain is beating down my North London street, and the idea of a remote Scottish cabin by the sea with a full library seems suddenly highly desirable!

Thank you Sally for thinking of me and letting me dream of a writer’s retreat!

Amazon bio pic

Helena Halme grew up in Tampere, central Finland, and moved to Britain at the age of 22 via Stockholm and Helsinki. She spent the first ten years in Britain working as journalist and translator for the BBC. In 2004 Helena took a MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University having at last realised that she needs to take writing seriously.

Helena has written three full length novels, The Englishman, Coffee and Vodka, and The Red King of Helsinki. She lives in North London and can often be seen out and about in town, walking her Border Terrier.

Helena’s novel, The Englishman, is now out in paperback.

The Red King of Helsinki:
The Englishman:
Coffee and Vodka:

In Defence of Slow Reading

If Christmas is a time for book-giving, then New Year is a time for reading, and in readiness for this particularly indulgent time of year I cleared my reading decks so I was free for a novel I’ve been waiting to read for some time.

UnknownThe Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt, is a doorstop of a book at nearly eight hundred pages, and I wouldn’t expect any less as it took ten years to write.  I loved the gothic darkness of The Secret History, so I settled down on Boxing Day to absorb myself in this new wonder, only to find myself frustrated, re-reading the same paragraphs and making slow and painful progress.

In trying to diagnose the problem (a compulsive writerly affliction, I suspect), I reminded myself that I have a tendency to consume books quickly, eager to get to the end so I can move on to the next book, as though all those unread novels out there might one day disappear like one of Scrooge’s ghosts.  Reading slowly does not come naturally to me, but sometimes it is the book (or the writing) that forces me to change pace.

There are certain tried and trusted writers that I know I will whizz through.  Writers like Raymond Carver, Charles Bukowski, Roddy Doyle.  Their writing is spare and precise, the language so pared back that I barely notice the words.  This is what I consider to be full immersion, and surely this is storytelling at its best.  No elaborate flourishes or tricksy distractions, just the characters, their situation, and what happens next.

But then there are those other writers.  Margaret Atwood, Andrew Miller, Anita Shreve, and yes, Donna Tartt.  Their characters are also strong and distinctive and from the start you want to know what happens to them.  But the writing itself, now that is something else.  The writing is so beautifully structured, so fluid and mellifluous, that I find myself carried along by the flow of the poetics without following the concrete events and visuals of the scene at hand.

Now, I pride myself in my ability to multi-task, but I’ve now realised that when it comes to reading I find it difficult to focus on the events of the story as well as fully appreciating this kind of lyrical writing.  It’s debatable how much of this is a failing in the writing, or in myself, but either way a solution must be found.

So, here is the new approach.  Instead of sitting down with The Goldfinch as I would a cold beer, consuming it quickly with a pizza and an episode of Friends, I’ll give it a little more reverence.  The reading is more like a good quality bottle of claret, best enjoyed at a leisurely pace with a meal of many courses, not thinking for a moment how long it will take to drink but just enjoying one sip, one page, one chapter at a time. If I have to reread a paragraph, so be it.  After all, if the characters are fascinating, the story absorbing and the writing so well crafted, what’s the rush?

A Little Christmas Carol Love

As Christmas Day approaches  I go through my usual televisual routine of trying to decide which version of A Christmas Carol to watch.  Yes, I know, I should really be re-reading the book, but the story is so visually varied that I can’t resist turning to the TV.

This is one of my favourite stories, not just for Christmas but at any time, and I’ve been thinking about why this is.  Why do I still go back to this story year after year, and why do I feel the need to pass it on to my children too?

Here are my five reasons why I think this story stands the test of time:

1. The complexity of our feelings about Ebenezer Scrooge.  He starts as a man the reader/viewer loves to hate, but we can recognise ourselves in him too.  Who hasn’t wanted to say Bah Humbug! when the festivities become a little too much?  Who hasn’t wanted to hide away in a darkened bedroom and pretend it isn’t happening, even if it’s just for a moment or two?

2. The threat of tragedy is a constant, whether it’s the dark visitation of Jacob Marley, the fragility of Tiny Tim or the ominous final ghost that only needs to point at the ink-black open grave to send a shiver down the spine.

3. The atmosphere is filled with light and shade.  A ghost story is always good on a cold winter’s evening, but here we have the contrast between the fear of the visitations and the joy of the feasting, and I think this reflects how we often feel at this time of year.  Another year is over, we may have lost people in that year, things have happened to us, and in everything there will be the light and shade of reflection that ultimately makes us think about the coming year too.

4. It’s about the choices we make in life and having power over our own destiny.  It tells us that even if we are mildly unhappy or in deep despair, if we look into our past, our present and our future, we can find a way through. And it’s worth remembering that for Ebenezer, however mean and unpleasant he was to the people around him, once he experienced change (truthful and genuine change), all those people were still there for him.

5. And that brings me neatly to my final reason.  It’s a story about transformation.  The scenes when he goes out into the snowy world on Christmas morning to see the people he knows are the scenes I love the most.  The shock of his changed behaviour wrapped up in the joy of this realisation can warm even the most icy heart, and then surely we know that however badly we’ve behaved, if we can change and grow we will still be loved.

And so to that decision I have yet to make.  Of course it is the black and white Alastair Sim version that is seminal, but there’s something about the rather cheesy 1970 version with Albert Finney that makes me nostalgic, maybe for the films I watched as a child based on the Hans Christian Anderson fairytales.  Or will I go with my guilty pleasure, a version that’s astonishingly close to the original even with the selection of puppets in key roles and a magnificently grumpy Michael Caine.  Yes, I think there’s nothing wrong with a little guilt on Christmas Eve, so I may well be stealing chocolates from the tree and watching The Muppet Christmas Carol while I wait for the witching hour.

And so, as Tiny Tim so bravely said, Merry Christmas to us all; God bless, us everyone!

The Glitter of the Grade

It’s that time of year again.  The shops are full, the fairy lights are going up, and my students are handing in their submissions before going home for the holidays.  For the next couple of weeks writing may be low on the list of priorities, but when we come back in January, thoughts often turn to one thing.  The grade.

But here’s the thing.  The grade awarded to a piece of creative work (any piece of work in fact) is just the side-show.  The main event is the tutor’s response to the writing, the comments and notes on the page, the highlighting of what has been done well and suggestions on how to improve.  The problem is that the main event is a spit-and-sawdust affair, rather drab, sometimes slow and confusing, whereas the side-show promises sparkle and the flurry of glitter.

The honest truth is there is nothing to be learned from the glitter of the grade.  A student that just looks at the number they’ve achieved and moves straight onto the next piece of writing, the next assignment, is unlikely to improve.  They might get lucky, they might hit upon a winning formula once, or even two or three times, but this is unsustainable if they don’t understand which aspects are working in a piece of writing, and which aspects are not.

I know this because I had a dilemma when I came to submit on the MA at BSU.  By the end of the year I had a first draft of my novel, but I only needed to submit about 40,000 words.  The choice was simply this.  Should I work on the 40,000 words only, trying to achieve the first I needed if I was going to get into teaching?  Or should I work on the whole, knowing that progress would be slower and therefore less polished?  The novel was at that delicate stage where the structure, emerging themes, plot and character development were still young and fresh, when the broad eye was essential to see the bigger picture of the aspects that were working as well as the flaws.

My final decision was dictated by my passion for the story.  I wanted my work (not my grade) to be the best it could possibly be, so somehow I managed to ignore the glitter of the grade, and committed myself to the main event instead.

Students may be tempted to think that this dilemma is only applicable to study, that once they graduate they will no longer be tied to achieving grades.  But then they will be faced with that other glittery prize that is ready to dazzle and distract, the prize of publication.  I spent many years rushing my writing, always working towards publication, until I realised my work was deteriorating and had become shallow and lifeless.  I’d stopped believing in it because publication was more important than my story.  Once I realised this I slowed right down, let that elusive prize fade into the distance, and suddenly my work came back into focus.

Throughout your writing life these prizes will throw themselves in front of you, shiny and new and demanding attention.  Their glitter will try to draw you in, promising glory and accolades and a seat at the top table.  But don’t be fooled.  The main event may be slow and difficult, but it will make you a better writer and nothing is more important than your story or your poem or your script.  So show up, stay for the duration, and only brush the sawdust from your boots when you (and your writing) are truly good and ready.

The Path To Independence

About a year ago I decided to become an independent writer.  For me the word independent has many connotations, both positive and negative.  It makes me think of being alone, an absence of support, a need for resilience and a determination that can only come from me.  But it also makes me think of freedom, being in control, and having an influence over my own creativity.

As with many things in life, you have to face the fear of the negative in order to achieve the positive, and for this project it was a case of putting one foot in front of the other, powering through the fear.  The practical application of this was an elaborately bullet-pointed list using a variety of headings and sub-heading, and included anything from proof-reading and formatting of the manuscript itself, to the marketing aspects, setting up a website, getting author photos, etc.  In short, anything I needed to do to start taking myself seriously as a writer and a business.

I’ve already documented the various wrong paths I’ve traveled down, the time wasted and the sleep-reducing frustrations, but when it came to it, all the months of preparation finally condensed itself into a couple of days last week.  Probably less than that.  Half a day for the website to go live (all the pages had been written and re-written over the past few months, so it was just a case of double checking and smoothing out the aesthetics).  Then it took precisely five and a half hours to upload the book itself onto Kindle.

I sat with The Editor in her attic office, following the instructions on the KDP website and drinking coffee.  The process of uploading and previewing was time consuming and confusing, and much of the time we felt we were only half understanding the process, but once we realised that between our two partially functioning brains we actually had a whole one, things seemed to fall into place.  A quick health warning for anyone interested in doing this themselves — the US tax questionnaire and international banking details aren’t as intimidating as they sound.

Once all the computer work was completed there was nothing else to do but drink a glass of bubbly and wait.  Amazon said it would be twelve hours before the book would go live, but in fact it was only five.  It was quite a thrill seeing The Big Deep image on the website, knowing that readers could download and read with just the click of a button, but in the middle of the night this week that thrill was strangely equaled when I woke up and remembered The List.  I realised that because everything was stored in my head I hadn’t actually looked at it for weeks, possibly months, and all those things to be done were now  things that had been done.  They were things achieved.  So the first thing I did the following morning was go back to The List and cross everything off.  It was as satisfying as a cappuccino and a large slice of carrot cake.

So, my suggestion for anyone considering doing something a little bit scary, something that makes you feel the fear.  Make a list and make it thorough.  Take small steps.  Take your time and prepare.  Find someone who can share not just the burden, but also the sense of adventure.  But most of all believe in yourself and what you can achieve.

Go on, just do it.

When The Cupboards Are Full…

There is an element of feast or famine to the writer’s life that can make even the most resilient lose faith.  Particularly for novelists, there will be many years of writing with blind hope keeping them going and determination that not only will they finish the masterpiece, it will also be published and read by millions.  This obvious success may never happen, and if it doesn’t, it’s on to the next project, the next grand passion and the whole cycle starts again.

Orange Tree MuralI’ve had a lean couple of years.  I’ve been writing, yes, but there have been manuscripts rejected by agents, short stories ignored in competitions, scripts just sitting on my laptop thinking they were invisible.  All this output with so little purpose.

But sometimes, just occasionally, those lean times suddenly become plentiful and your creative tree is full with fruit.  This month I had a short story and a piece of flash fiction accepted (indeed I received a cheque in the post this week, whoop whoop!), then I had a request to submit two radio plays (both works-in-progress with no guarantee of acceptance, but heck, someone want to read them), and I’ve nearly finished a couple of short stories I’ve been working on for the new website.  And finally, next weekend, I’m going to be sitting down with The Editor and an inexhaustible supply of coffee, and we’re going to download The Big Deep to Kindle.  In theory, if the technology is kind to us, it will be available to buy bright and early the following week.

It’s no wonder I had a dream this week that the cupboards in my kitchen were heaving with food, the fridge overflowing with bottles of fruit smoothies and delicious treats, a sudden and unexpected bumper crop.

Of course this rare sense of success isn’t what keeps me going.  The paradox is that the lean times are important, those days when I’m sitting alone in a room and uncovering characters and stories, shaping and cajoling them and helping them on their way.  As lean times go, they’re pretty special and I feel privileged to be able to spend my days this way.

For now though I have to make the most of this feeling that all the hard work is paying me back. This is the writer’s life after all, and you can’t have the feast without the famine, just like you can’t have the cheque without the story, so I’ll be back to the daily grind soon enough, with those radio scripts needing a rewrite, a couple of ideas for short stories that need developing, and oh yes, there’s that other novel waiting for my attention…

The Wisdom of Hunter S. Thompson

UnknownHunter S. Thompson was a successful man.  I say man instead of writer because he lived his life on his own terms, which can best be classified as anti-authoritarian and sometimes downright illegal.  He was a thinker and philosopher, he cared about politics and the world around him, and he’s probably most famous for creating gonzo journalism (as well as being played by Johnny Depp in the quite brilliant Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas).  This was a man who even managed the spectacular in death with his ashes being fired from a cannon.  He was original.  He made his mark on the world and part of his success was not in what he produced, but in the way he lived.

Over the week I’ve been going back repeatedly to an article on Brain Pickings (a website I recommend but not if you’ve got stuff to do), where some of his ideas are explored.  Within the various quotes he talks about how people are formed and changed by experience, and the importance of taking control of your own choices.

What really struck home with me were his thoughts on striving towards a goal, and what a risky endeavour this can be if a person is faced with ‘the terror of seeing his goal wilt or lose its charm as he draws closer to it’.  Anyone who faces professional self-doubt, rejection or just sheer exhaustion from the daily grind of trying to move closer to their goal must have this fear.

So how do you keep going?  A change in approach, that’s how.  Thompson suggests ‘we must make the goal conform to the individual, rather than make the individual conform to the goal. In every man, heredity and environment have combined to produce a creature of certain abilities and desires—including a deeply ingrained need to function in such a way that his life will be MEANINGFUL… rather than bending himself to meet the demands of that which he seeks, he [must] bent his goal to conform to his own abilities and desires.

‘In short, he has not dedicated his life to reaching a pre-defined goal, but he has rather chosen a way of life he KNOWS he will enjoy. The goal is absolutely secondary: it is the functioning toward the goal which is important. And it seems almost ridiculous to say that a man MUST function in a pattern of his own choosing; for to let another man define your own goals is to give up one of the most meaningful aspects of life — the definitive act of will which makes a man an individual.’  (I’d like to point out that I’m pretty sure this philosophy works for women too).

I spent many years writing towards the goal of publication.  That was the only thing that mattered to me and as a consequence I rushed my writing, I stopping enjoying the process and it showed in my work.  It has taken me a long time to realise that publication will not make me happy.  Of course I want people to read my work.  Spending years writing a book with no-one to read it at the end is soul-destroying, but I now know that it’s the writing itself, the way of life, that is most meaningful to me.  Those mornings when I’m sitting  on the sofa, a cup of freshly brewed coffee to hand, and I’m writing stories.  It is the experience and the process that equal fulfilment, publication is just a side-effect.

Writers have to define their own understanding of success, whether that means great sales or just finding a way to keep writing.  It’s clear that there is no right or wrong way to live a writer’s life, and in this digital age there are more alternatives than ever to the traditional publishing route.  Social media, collaboration and innovation all have their part to play, not just in the development of individual writers, but also how the written word is going to evolve in the future.  At the heart of this though has to be the work itself.  Strong imaginative storytelling.  Compelling and original characters.  A writer with something to say to the world, something to share.  These are my definitions of success. and while I’m not planning on blowing my ashes out of a cannon anytime soon, I’ll be striving to live my life on my own terms until I do.

Ta da! Finally, ‘The Big Deep’ Has a Cover…

Back in August I posted about my very angst-ridden time trying to get a cover design for my young adult novel, The Big Deep.  Believe it or not this whole project (getting it published on Kindle) was supposed to be done and dusted by September, and the various hitches/bad choices with regard to the cover design were just one aspect of the many hold-ups.  As ever sheer determination (ie. bloody-mindedness) wins the day, and The Designer proved to have insightful clarity when it came to interpreting the story in a visual way.

The Designer is Jade King at BlackInk Communication, and I gave her very little guidance of what I wanted, except that I felt it was important to reflect the dark tone of the story (so no pink and fluffy, no stock-teen-lit images of shoes and dresses) and I was happy to keep it clean and simple as this works best as a thumbnail image (Amazon’s stock-in-trade).

Unknown-3UnknownUnknown-2I also gave her the covers I like; the Gone series by Michael Grant, anything by John Green, and Ketchup Clouds, by Annabel Pitcher.  As you can see it’s all about creating a striking layout by combining colour with an effective font design.

So, after mulling over various ideas and fiddling around with the nitty gritty detail, I finally have my cover…

TheBigDeepWhat I love about this is the simplicity of the image and the suggestion of sinking into darkness, The filled-in letters of the font add a further dark undertone, and there’s not a fluffy pink shoe to be seen.

I’m now in the process of planning a coffee-fuelled weekend with The Editor to bring everything together, and will be wrestling with document formatting, blurb writing, etc over the next couple of weeks.  The process of uploading to Kindle is sure to be a testing few days, but I’ve a feeling that after all the months of angst, wrong paths and uncertainty, there may be a Margarita or two at the end of it…

The Writer’s Retreat… with Anna Freeman

The Writer’s Retreat is a new regular (or possibly irregular) feature.

Photo courtesy of Emma London
Photo courtesy of Emma London

Here is the scenario: You have one month alone on a remote Scottish Island.  You have a comfortable cabin and enough food to last the duration.  The only contact you have with the outside world is a radio.  There is no television, internet access or mobile phone signal.

This month’s Writer’s Retreat Resident is performance poet and novelist, Anna Freeman.

What will you be working on while you are there?
Urgh. That question speaks itself in the sliding tones of my own inner guilt-voice. I have too many projects at once, at the moment. Mostly I’ll be finishing editing my novel and re-writing the show I’m doing with Chris Redmond and The Tongue Fu band, which tours next summer. It’s a comedy thing about how music shapes our identity. I don’t know how much of it I’ll be able to do alone, though. Maybe I need Chris dancing about at me.

How will you structure your days?
Oh, the same as here. Hunt around the cabin for excuses not to write, clean stuff that doesn’t need cleaning, drink too much coffee, write a bit, get twitchy, realise what I’ve written is rubbish, throw myself to the floor in despair etc.

How do you feel about being cut off from human contact as well as the social network? That’s what being a writer feels like anyway, when you really get going. It’s possible that I’ll miss Facebook more than real people. I’m a compulsive FB checker, even though I have absolutely no idea what I’m looking for.

What reading will you bring with you?
I’ll bring the to-read stack that sits next to my bookshelf. It’s all the books I’d love to read, but which have no relevance to my own writing, so they tend to get sidelined. At the moment it’s getting a bit tall and precarious, it’s probably time I made an inroad. At the top is The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt and State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett.

What essential items will you be packing?
Um… wine? Wine and winegums.

907645_10151661512630881_839239495_nAnna Freeman is a multiple slam champion, novelist, creative writing lecturer at Bath Spa University, and an activist for ginger rights. Her work is often humorous, with a spine of genuine pain and humiliation at the inarguable fact of her own existence.
Anna has performed her poetry in myriad cities including Edinburgh, London, Bristol, Manchester, Vancouver and Seattle, and appeared as part of Radio 4’s Bespoken. Let The Pig Out, Anna’s brand new spoken word/live music collaboration with Chris Redmond and The Tongue Fu Band, is taking bookings to tour through the second half of 2013 and into 2014. Her first poetry collection, Gingering the World from the Inside, is published by Burning Eye Books and her first novel, The Fair Fight, won The Tibor Jones Pageturner Prize 2013 and will be published in 2014 by Orion..
‘A superb act of imaginative ventriloquism’ – James Pusey, Tibor Jones
‘A hearty recommendation for Anna Freeman’ – Guardian Books
‘She twists up the awkward, confusing and the painful into slick balloon animals’ – Buddy Wakefield
‘A rising star’ – Venue

Here here!  Thank you Anna, for being the first guest at The Writer’s Retreat (hopefully you’ll leave some of those winegums behind for the next guest).  Very much looking forward to reading The Fair Fight next year — 18th century women bare-knuckle fighting… what’s not to like?

Rule Follower or Rule Breaker?

Many reports of Elmore Leonard’s recent death included mention of his 10 Rules for Writing.  This list is something I often use as part of a classroom discussion on differing approaches to writing, but it also brings up thoughts on rules, ie, to follow or not to follow.

Following the rules will keep things tidy but...
Following the rules will keep things tidy but…

For some people this is exactly what they’ve been looking for all their writing life.  A fool-proof list of do’s and don’t’s and all they have to do is follow the rules and they have a bestseller on their hands.  Other writers are yelling noooooooooooooo at their screens, you wlll not stifle my creativity… I refuse to live in a dictatorship!

Most writers probably fall somewhere in between, because while some rules may fit into your own ideas of form, structure, characterisation, etc, others may go completely against the grain.

For example, EL’s Rule No. 5. Keep your exclamation points under control.  You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.  For me, this makes absolute sense.  Exclamation points are like someone wearing a T-shirt with the word Sexy printed across their back – they’re just trying so hard to convince you that it makes you instantly doubt their claim to said sexiness.

However, EL’s Rule No. 1. Never open a book with weather, seems a little authoritarian, especially when you consider:
May in Ayemenem is a hot, brooding month.  The days are long and humid.’  The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy.
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.’  1984, George Orwell.
‘To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth.’  Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck.
That said, if you are going to open with the weather make sure it’s damn finely written weather, or you’ll end up in dark and stormy night territory.

...sometimes you need a creative break-out
… sometimes you need a creative break-out

One thing I’ve learned as a teacher and as a writer is that following the rules has its place, as does breaking them, but that everyone’s place is different.  I’m only just beginning to get the courage to do some rule breaking myself, and I posted a while ago about my longing for A Satnav To Life, a way of finding the path that’s right for me before I make mistakes.  One good thing about rules is that if you find yourself going down the wrong path, you can use them as signposts to help you find your way back, and this means next time you see one of those smaller pathways that suggest uncharted territory, you won’t be afraid to venture down.  Rule breaking, the unknown, the possibility of failure, these are all conditions where original voices and daring ventures begin, enabling you to imagine stories that you and only you can create.  And this, after all, is why we write in the first place.