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Messes, clones, and plots like a W

Anyone who's ever hung around in an online writing forum knows that, apart from religion and politics, the subject that's guaranteed to start a ruck is 'the rules'. Whole sites have been embroiled in the fallout, as people attack and defend and take up entrenched postions. Those sites which are already cauldrons of spite, jealousy, and obssessiveness have been known to be brought down altogether. And when people have their cherished rules disproved, example by example of acknowledged good writing, their distress - though it may take a defensive form - is very obvious.

So what are these 'rules'? Generally speaking, they're the easy-to-remember things about writing that many aspiring writers get told are the key to writing better, by teachers or fellow writers or how-to-write books. 'Show don't tell,' is the most famous, but there's also, 'Don't start with dialogue', 'Use active verbs', 'Don't use adjectives', 'Cut out all adverbs', 'Stick to a single point-of-view within one scene/chapter/novel', 'Shape your plots like a W', 'Each character's name should start with a different letter'. And even - I'm not joking - 'Go through and take out anything involving the word was.'

And on the other side are the writers who react furiously to any suggestion that they shouldn't follow their natural creative instincts wherever they lead. 'How can you be creative by rules?' they say. 'The only criterion for judging writing is what works!' 'Austen/Dickens/Joyce/the first three books I've picked of my shelves did/didn't/always/never...' I'm always staggered by how passionately people feel on both sides, and I don't think they do just because people tend to be either rule-breakers or rule-keepers in life.

It must be very obvious that the basic creative impulse knows few boundaries, beyond those which delineate the possibilities of what the creator can make understood. So how do these 'rules' come about? And why do some good writers get so distressed by having their rules taken away? New writers have always been helped and advised by older ones. Even if we hope that the writer who told Charlotte Brontë that her writing would serve nicely to occupy her till she took up her proper destiny of wife and mother, is roasting in Hell, such exchanges are central and essential to the history of literature. No work of art, however great, springs naturally, unmediated, from the soul. But now there's an ever-growing corpus of writing about creative writing; of the textbooks, inspirational [sic] manuals and scholarly compendia, some are brilliant and inspiring, most have a few useful things to say. And there are more and more people teaching writing, some more gifted than others. The impulse is powerful to codify how writing works, pin down good practice, and cut it into exercises, workshop-sized or module-sized chunks that the less gifted can handle. There's also the body of Theory in such subjects as Narratology, which classify and taxonomise things like narrators, points of view and structure. And if you throw in script-writing, which is a much tighter and more prescriptive form than prose fiction, the 'rules' can become very strict indeed.

But it's not just that impulse to theorise about technique. Writing is daunting, even frightening, for teachers and students. And I don't just mean some splendid, brow-clutching agony of the soul. The average graduate has a working vocabulary of 60,000 words, with another 75,000 they can draw on.The average first novel is (say) 80,000 words. Which do you chose?  To write the first draft of a novel, then, you have to negotiate nearly eleven million possibilities (I know it's not that simple, but you get the idea). No wonder many writers, panic-stricken, clutch at whatever they're told that seems to reduce the possibilities in a way that makes sense to their nascent storytelling instincts. And no wonder that teachers, having perhaps found these rules helpful themselves, offer them to their students. It's not long before the clever little rules-of-thumb become a checklist of what makes up 'good' writing. Fellow students judge a work by that list of 'good' and 'bad', and so do those teachers who lack the confidence to be flexible in their instinctive judgement of how an individual piece works. The ultimate expression of this conformism is what agents and editors call the 'MA novel' (as opposed to brilliant novels which just happen to have been written on an MA. There are plenty of those, too.)

Don't get me wrong: I'm the product of a Masters degree myself, though that MPhil course at Glamorgan is incapable of the kind of prescriptiveness that turns out run-of-the-mill MA novels. There are few things more wonderful for an aspiring writer than finding teachers and fellow-students who can help you think and write beyond what you ever have before. It's a fast-track to becoming a better writer, too; with the feedback-loop built into such courses you grow immeasurably in technique and confidence, which together are what enable a novel to become as good as it can be. For me, The Mathematics of Love was only the first result of that growth.

So what do you do? 'Write anything' is no more use in helping students than 'Write exactly how I tell you'. The first will produce a mess unless it's by the rare, intuitively gifted writer; the second a clone. There are things to be said about how writing works, and how to tell good writing from bad: most of those 'rules' have a grain of truth in them. 'Show don't tell' is a simple way of describing one important kind of lively, immediate writing. If you drew graphs of the plots of bestselling novels, or maybe great ones, maybe they would look like a W. Or an M. Or whatever it's supposed to be this year. But, equally, tell me any of those rules, and I'll give you an example of when to break it, and that'll be quite often. Some of the rules are more to do with avoiding common pitfalls. The one about 'Stick to a single point-of-view within one scene/chapter/novel' I assume has come about because that 'head-hopping' between characters is not easy for new writers to do well. But I've heard of teachers who maintain it's impossible to keep the reader engaged with a character if you move away from their point-of-view. To which I can only say, I've never heard such nonsense. Most novels from Defoe until very recently have been written thus, much commercial fiction (where engagement with characters, plus plot, is the necessity for big sales) still is. And A S Byatt has said that it's the best way to create fully-rounded characters. Besides, when did anyone ever say that the fact that something's hard to do well in an art is any reason for not doing it? It has endless advantages for the storyteller (other techniques have other advantages, of course) so you just have to learn to do it right. It's not hard. I'll engage to teach any writer one way of doing it successfully in twenty minutes.

You'll have spotted by now, what with the inverted commas and all, that I don't believe there are rules in writing. Well, there's one. If you're writing in the Latin, Cyrillic or Greek alphabet, you start at the top left-hand corner of the page, and write across it, before moving down the page. And even that you can break, as long as you don't mind not selling very many books. But equally I don't believe in telling students that whatever they write is just dandy, and they mustn't allow their creativity to be stifled by thinking about technique. It seems to me that guidelines are no bad thing as one learns one's craft: they lend that confidence and develop that technique, so you can make the most of what you have to say. And some of those 'rules', lightly laid down on the grass, make quite good guidelines. But the key is understanding why they're being suggested. If you understand why tacking an adjective onto every noun and an adverb onto every verb often weakens the writing, then you can learn to spot when you're doing so, and decide for yourself whether in this case it does weaken it, or whether, just here, it's exactly what's wanted. Then you know you're a writer.