Friday, 6 March 2009

The rules of writing

It’s Charlie’s birthday today. And another rejection for her book flopped through the door and hit the porch floor with a smack that sounds just like the palm of a hand making contact with a cheek. To add insult to injury (or maybe someone somewhere has a dark sense of humour) the only other post for me was Help the Aged trying to tout a funeral plan. Reminds of that witty riposte, “Fuck off and die.” Probably not one of Oscar’s.

So. These rules.

I can hear people perking up. Is he, they wonder, going to let us into the secret of how to get into print? I wish.

The rules, such as they, are not about helping you to produce good writing so much as they are rules for how to not produce bad writing.

Look at any How-To book (or CW course material) and you will soon pick out the basics. These books are written by writers (and CW teachers and agents) so what they say must be true. They, of all people, must know what they are talking about.

So why, oh why, is it so hard to find a new book these days that abides by these rules? I’m not talking innovative, ground-breaking stuff that re-writes the rules on its own terms. I’m talking about all that run of the mill stuff that packs the shelves of book stores.

A case in point. I was recently a book to review. It was the third in a crime series. The first book had, according to the blurb, won prizes. The fact that I had the third book must mean that an agent and a publisher thought it was worth getting into print. Yet it broke all those rules. It was a crime novel – you know, one of those books in which a detective uncovers what happened – yet we were treated to a lengthy prologue which, presumably (I say presumably as I gave up on the book and sent it back) helped to set up the story. It was dull, plodding (all the sentences constructed the same, the same length, with events being laid out one after another), and apparently pointless. The first few chapters were much the same. After that I flicked through, just in case it got better. When I came across a paragraph that told me a character proceeded to explain something and told me what that was and how they did it; then followed up with several paragraphs of speech in which the character did the explaining, I knew this was a badly written book.

Yet it was in print

I looked up the author. Ah. Light dawned.

I’ll give another example of a book I saw recently that promised to tell me all the secrets of successful screenwriting and how to get my scripts taken up by movie companies. After an hour of searching I could find no screenplays credited to this author – produced, in production, or found as shreddings in the bottom of a hamster’s cage.

So how did this one get into print? I’ll give you a guess.

Another example in the making. A few days ago, a well known actress announced that she wanted to write some short stories. Not that she had written some, or was trying to, or was taking a course. Simply that she wanted to. And I bet within minutes of making the announcement, publishers were falling over themselves to offer a contract. Never mind there was nothing on paper, or that short story writing is a highly specialized art, or that established writers have trouble getting their short stories into print.

See a pattern?

I do.

I am not saying the whole of publishing is like this. That would be an insult to the many very good writers out there who slog their guts out on a daily basis and get into print. I know some of them. I admire their tenacity and, yes, I am sometimes jealous of their good fortune. Which is perhaps unfair. It’s not like I haven’t had books of my own published.

The trouble is, there is enough of this ill-considered mutual grooming going on to make the whole thing look like a sleazy, incestuous gravy train.

Perhaps the average person browsing in a bookstore doesn’t notice, or doesn’t care. Perhaps it has always been like – although I seem to remember a time when there was a greater variety of work available despite their being far fewer books making it into print.

And the point of all this?

If you have gone through all those How To books or been on CW courses and learnt all the rules, then forget them. You stand just as good a chance of getting into print and you’ll save yourself a lot of money and effort.

Oh yes, and make sure you know someone in publishing. It helps.

1 comment:

Papoosue said...

I see the pattern Graeme and it's not fair :-(