Writing rules – helpful or not?

Jo Frost

Writing rules – don’t you love ‘em? Do this, don’t do that. I wonder if anyone’s ever added them all up? I’d try it myself if I ever had a few months to waste.

You might get the impression I don’t like them, but actually that’s not the case. Even if I’ve seen many of them before it’s always helpful to read them again, and if nothing else they can provoke some interesting debate.

For what it’s worth, here are my own rules. I can’t claim any originality here, but these are derived and distilled from the advice I’ve found most helpful:

  1. Write! Start, and keep going. A writer writes. And the more they write, the better they’ll get.
  2. Enjoy it – but also expect it to be work, and really hard work at times.
  3. Focus on quality. Never stop trying to improve – and a big part of that is keeping going (as in #1).
  4. Revise and revise again. Your first draft will be a deeply flawed rough diamond if you’re lucky, and total garbage if you’re not. But something much better will emerge as you keep hacking away at it.
  5. If you’re serious about publishing – whether self- or conventionally – you must get your work edited, reviewed and/or beta-read by someone whose judgement you trust. You will never achieve your best working totally on your own.
  6. Take careful notice of all the rules and advice you read, even when you don’t think you completely agree with it. This applies especially to advice from experienced writers, agents and publishers. These people know what they’re talking about. Having said that, writing is more art than science and no-one is always right about everything, and much advice is contradictory, so you will need to be selective in how you apply it all. And remember …
  7. … there is technically no such thing as ‘never’ in writing. Adverbs, adjectives, exclamation marks, parentheses and the myriad other things frequently decried – they are all tools at your disposal. But remember there are reasons why you’ve been warned about them. The best advice is to use them sparingly, because your writing will generally be improved by their absence.
  8. Some ‘nevers’ – like don’t start a book with a dream sequence, a prologue or the weather – are really more about fashion or personal opinion than anything else. That said, if you’re trying to get conventionally published then it’s undoubtedly wise to abide by what agents and publishers are saying about such things. (I’m not at the moment – probably a good thing since BASIC Boy starts with a dream sequence, with weather mentioned in the second paragraph – hmmm…)
  9. Try to avoid clichés. Find fresh, more interesting (but appropriate and meaningful) ways to say everything.
  10. Use the best words to tell your story, and not more than necessary. Cut out what isn’t really needed. It will usually take several drafts to do this effectively (see #4 above), and later drafts will almost always be shorter, sharper and more readable as a result.
  11. Finally … always be positive, work hard at your craft and keep chasing your dreams – whatever they may be. I believe that success, in whatever form that might take, will come if you do that. For most of us that won’t be becoming a full-time, best-selling author – but even that is possible and if that’s your dream, then great. But success might mean simply becoming a good writer, producing work you can be proud of, that gives you and some others pleasure. And if you write pretty much for your own enjoyment, rather than to be published, feel free to ignore any or all rules, including those above.

That’s it. I could add more, but for me that pretty much covers it.

And I didn’t even mention ‘show don’t tell’, POV or speech tags! Not because I don’t care about such things, but more that if I start listing all the fiddly stuff I look at while editing my work then this post will go on forever. No-one wants that. Maybe some other time, you luck things.

The power of words

Didcot

Reading and watching the news recently, with all the dark and deranged things going on (Gaza, Ukraine, Boko Haram, etc. etc.), it got me thinking not only about those things but about the various reactions to them. In the UK, as I guess everywhere, there’s been a fierce debate about the situation in Gaza and Israel’s role in it. And there’s been a lot of anger expressed, and many remarkably fixed and certain views about who’s doing what wrong and what they should really be doing instead.

I say ‘remarkably’ because, personally, I think the Palestine-Israel problem is a hugely complex, difficult and entrenched one that many more informed and well-placed people than me have proved sadly unable to untangle and resolve. Which makes it like an awful lot of other problems in the world. And yet people seem indecently, enthusiastically quick to take sides and to paint a black-and-white picture of victims and villains. Sometimes that bias is open and acknowledged, and sometimes less so, but more often than not it’s there in so much of what’s being written and said about Gaza and elsewhere.

And often that bias is shown in something as subtle as the writer’s choice of words. Take these examples.

A particular point of view is reported by the media. If you agree with that point of view, it’s a viewpoint, a perspective or an explanation. A response. Perhaps it’s even just telling it how it is. But if you disagree, then it’s propaganda. And that propaganda is peddled by a lobby.

If an individual, group or country continues with a controversial course of action in the face of strong opposition, and you approve of it, you might say they are being principled, resolute or robust. Perhaps courageous. If you don’t agree, you’re more likely to say they are being dogmatic, doctrinaire or divisive. Possibly even callous.

Whereas if that party changes its approach following criticism, and you agree with that, then you would probably describe them as responsive, humane or flexible. They’re listening. But then, hang on, they might be weak, indecisive, inconsistent or bending with the wind. Quite possibly unreliable or unprincipled. Oh dear.

And anyone putting over a different point of view might kindly be called thoughtful, open-minded or impartial. Or then again, less kindly, branded an apologist, a dupe or a useful idiot. The might even be a denier, which is almost always bad, whereas a contrarian is generally better.

Writers should be aware of the power of words; and I’ve no doubt many of the above examples are used in full knowledge of their impact and subtext, deployed deliberately to support a particular point of view. Other times they are used less artfully, an unconscious choice that may reveal more about their user’s beliefs and pre-conceptions that they imagine.

No wonder words should be used with care.

37 things that always happen during a heatwave

sun

OK it’s got nothing to do with writing, but I saw this article today and found it quite amusing. The weather in the UK has been amazingly warm recently and I can identify with many of the things mentioned. Brits aren’t very good in hot weather – just not used to it. Sleeping at night is a particular issue.

And of course summer can be a big distraction from writing – and quite rightly so, really. Who wants to be hunched up in front of a keyboard, in a dim curtained room, while the sun blazes invitingly outside? Well … sometimes that sounds pretty good actually – beats getting sunburnt – but I do love summer and it’s good to get out and about. Heaven knows, it’s cold and wet enough of the time in the UK, we’ve got to make the most of fine weather.

But I have been getting some writing done too, here and there, and the project I’m working on is something of a departure for me – more on that soon. In the meantime – enjoy the summer* everyone.

(* Except if it’s winter where you are, in which case – well, erm, enjoy that …)

Is Amazon actually evil?

Jeff Bezos devil

Are you pro- or anti-Amazon? Or somewhere in between? Many people seem to be jumping to condemn them, especially now they’re in a not-so-secret dispute with the big publisher Hachette. Reading some of the increasingly lurid and extreme criticisms, I’ve felt my level of bemusement rising along with the rhetoric.

So, to get it off my chest, I wrote a piece on it a few days ago. I then had second thoughts about posting it, not because I changed my mind about the contents but rather because I’m never too sure how many people actually read longer opinion pieces like this. So if you don’t want to read it all (it’s about 1,400 words), here’s a very quick précis:

  • We don’t know the details of the Amazon-Hachette dispute, even though we can speculate.
  • So the fact that so many have jumped on the anti-Amazon bandwagon probably says more about their pre-conceived notions and/or their self-interest than anything else.
  • Much of the criticism levelled at Amazon has been extreme, hysterical, unfair, bizarre, short-sighted, hypocritical, or some combination of the above.
  • They are not a threat to the existence of books or literature – or at least, no more than the conventional publishing industry is.
  • Amazon aren’t perfect but they are generally very good at what they do.
  • They have, on balance, been a good thing for writers.
  • They are not an all-powerful monopoly, and what power they do have will not last forever.

That’s basically it. Do you agree or not? (And should I be saying ‘Amazon is ..’ or ‘Amazon are …’? Not quite sure.) Comments welcome.

And for those interested, here is the longer version …

Judging by the tidal-wave of criticism engulfing them during the past few weeks, since its dispute with the publisher Hachette first became public, you might easily conclude that there must be more than a whiff of sulphur lingering around the e-commerce giant. It certainly seems to have become highly fashionable to be anti-Amazon – a position that was increasingly popular even before the Hachette spat blew up, and has become exponentially so since.

Amazon have been accused of all sorts of things. A cynical monopoly, bent on using its dominant position to bully and control the whole publishing industry. (The fact that Amazon sells an awful lot of things that aren’t books doesn’t normally get much of a mention. Presumably TV manufacturers can look after themselves.) Attacking publishers, authors and readers. Even threatening the future of books, of literature itself. Tax dodgers. The mafia. Vladimir Putin. Darth Vader. I haven’t yet actually heard them being compared to the Infernal One, but I’m quite sure they must have been by someone, somewhere.

Here’s just one article summarising many of the criticisms levelled by Hachette authors, bookstore owners, and various industry spokesmen.

To be fair, I’ve also seen other opinion pieces that have attempted to restore some balance to the debate. See here, here, here and here for some examples. There are a number of reasons why I agree with much of what’s argued in these articles, and why I believe that the anti-Amazon frenzy is largely misplaced and bordering on the absurd. (Actually, more than bordering – it’s crossed the border, built a big house with a massive swimming pool, and taken up permanent residence.)

First, and most obviously, we don’t know the precise details of the dispute with Hachette. Too many people are assuming that it must be Amazon being greedy and unreasonable, because that fits in with an existing, widely-held narrative about them and their allegedly negative effect on the publishing world. But what if Hachette are trying it on? Or what if it’s simply a bit more complicated, less black-and-white than one of them being in the right and the other in the wrong? Things are rarely that straightforward in the business world.

Second, Hachette are not some weakling little indie. They’re a substantial multinational, one of the world’s leading publishers. Admittedly not as big as Amazon, but – crucially – be in no doubt they can hold their own in corporate guerrilla warfare. They know full well that the prevailing mood of the industry is solidly behind them, and that other major publishers will be secretly rooting for them. It’s not insignificant that it will soon be the turn of those other publishers to enter the ring with Amazon, and that the outcome of the Hachette negotiation and the precedent it sets will therefore be highly significant for them.

Also, the recent Apple saga demonstrated that the big publishers are not above collusion, and although there’s no suggestion that anything like that is happening right now, it’s clear that their interests are closely allied in this dispute. That might be another reason why Amazon doesn’t want to lose – they must know full well this isn’t a battle with Hachette alone. Also, Amazon are not the all-powerful mega-monopoly they are too often lazily portrayed to be. All those Hachette titles can be obtained from sundry other outlets, and already a number of those outlets have taken advantage of the situation by offering the affected books at a discount, including the new J. K. Rowling (sorry, Robert Galbraith). This is not a risk-free game for either side.

Third, much of the most strident criticism of Amazon has come from those with the most invested in the status quo, such as high-profile Hachette authors who have done very nicely from the conventional industry structures and business practices. Now those authors are entitled to defend their livelihoods of course. But never forget that this industry has given us inflated e-book prices, celebrity-penned ‘novels’, and Stephanie Meyer and an endless stream of Meyer wannabees. It is not necessarily the guardian of high literature, even if it’s very quick to claim that mantle at times like this.

Fourth, there’s a not-so-faint stench of hypocrisy clinging to much of the more strident down-with-Amazon rhetoric. Big publishers are suddenly earnest cheerleaders of the small bookshop, when until recently they’ve been too busy cozying up to the big chains to notice. Those same big chains have spent years trying to extract the best possible terms from publishers, yet now Amazon are vilified for doing the same thing. Big-name authors complain that Amazon have cut the discounts on their books – and yet the same company is criticised for forcing down the price of e-books, a move that will apparently destroy conventional publishing and the livelihoods of authors (and note how those two things are implicitly conflated). It’s not apparently such a big deal that publishers attempt to inflate e-book pricing while paying the same desultory royalty rates to authors. I know that publishing is a business, and a risky and (the rare Fifty Shades-like mega-hit aside) not outstandingly lucrative one at that. They have every right to fight their corner. But, please, spare us the woe-is-me, shining guardians of literature act. It doesn’t wash.

Fifth, it seems disingenuous at best to seek to blame Amazon for many of the changes that are sweeping the industry. To be sure they’ve driven much of this change, taking a key role in popularising e-books for one thing. But they invented neither the e-book nor the Internet. Electronic publishing was happening anyway. Of course, the major publishers would far rather have carried on controlling the whole thing themselves, rather than some upstart e-commerce company yanking the carpet out from under their feet.

I might also add here that the fear and loathing of Amazon misses the point that they won’t be dominant forever. The biggest players come and go. They always have and always will. Change was their making and change will one day be their undoing. It won’t be the defenders of the status quo, but another bright young upstart that works out the next big thing and does it quicker and/or better than Amazon.

Finally, I really think that Amazon has been a power for good in many ways. They have made a vast selection of competitively-priced books more easily available to everyone. They have made self-publishing easier than ever before (though they didn’t invent that either!) – and at royalty rates far higher than those offered by conventional publishers. (Not that you can directly compare them, as Amazon don’t of course provide all the value-add services of a conventional publisher. The whole topic of whether Amazon has been a generally good thing for writers or not is a complex one – but I think on balance they have.)

Crucially, their customer service is, in my experience, generally excellent and clearly superior to that offered by most other large (or even small) companies. When you deal with Amazon, they make it seem so easy you wonder why no-one else can get it right. Everyone plays lip service to this but very few other big corporations really take it seriously enough. This is no small thing – and I believe that it’s if and when Amazon stop excelling in this area that it could all start going wrong for them.

Note that none of the above seeks to paint Amazon as a paragon of virtue, an alloyed good thing in the world. They are a big corporation. They negotiate hard and take no prisoners. And sometimes they make mistakes. But they are exceptionally good at customer service, they have (for better or worse) enabled countless indie authors to realise their dream of getting their books ‘out there’, their website has made online shopping easier than ever before, and – best of all – they’ve managed to annoy a lot of people who probably deserved to be.

And they’re not actually evil.

 

Airplane shorts

Stephen Stucker

A bit of movie trivia for you: last weekend I bought a pair of shorts at J. C. Penney, and they were on sale price. I now refer to them as my Airplane shorts. Why?

(Well, one reason is that I clearly have a rather weird sense of humour, but apart from that I mean.)

This is my first post for a month, I’ve just realised. This was going to be a serious, deep ‘n’ meaningful opinion piece about Amazon, specifically in light of their current dispute with Hachette. I still intend to write that, but I’ve been putting it off because I’ve struggled to find the time. Hence the short shorts thing.

There is another angle to this though. If you’ve been paying attention, and you know a bit about me, you might be thinking, ‘hang on, this guy lives in the UK, so what was he doing in J. C. Penney?’. Which is a good question. The reason is that I work in a UK office of a US-based company, and my day job recently took me to the HQ in New York. (Actually, New Jersey, but only just over the Hudson from Manhattan, and New York sounds better – sorry, NJ’ers.) Hence I found myself in Penney’s in a Jersey City mall one Saturday afternoon.

All of which made me reflect on the fact that, in common with hordes of part-time writers, I long to write full-time and hence can tend to regard my day job as a necessary evil at best and a damned pain in the proverbial at worst .. and yet that day job has compensations. Like the occasional week in NJ/NY, including a Sunday in Manhattan, which on this occasion I spent at the fabulous Metropolitan Museum of Art, one of my favourite places on earth. Plus my job is actually quite interesting – and has become a little more so recently – and I do work with some seriously nice people too. So the lesson is – I should count my blessings.

I’d still rather be writing though …