The Rules of Creative Writing

In January I asked on Facebook and Twitter if any of my writing friends could supply some examples of the mythical ‘Rules of Creative Writing’ (they’re really like urban myths) for my essay for the Creative Writing MA — which was really an exercise for me to take out one of my hobby horses on an extended canter. I said I’d post the responses up on my blog which I’m doing now I’ve had the essay marked — and discovered, to my relief, that what I thought was something of a rant, had passed rather than failed, as I feared it might have done.

So here are rules identified by friends from the City University Certificate in Novel Writing via Facebook (thanks to Guy Russell, Rick Kellum and Charlotte Haigh):

  • Point of View switches – but they can sometimes be ok – even EM Forster’s ‘Aspects of a Novel’ says so
  • Uninterrupted page of dialogue – John Fowles does this a lot – so does Hemingway.
  • ‘Make your character likeable’ – lots of examples where they aren’t! Eg American Psycho!
  • ‘Remove noise words’ – for some first-person voices they’re an important part of the character
  • Never start a chapter with dialogue.
  • Never begin a sentence with “and”.
  • And of course, write what you know. How many dull novels about young men moving to the city to become writers has that last rule produced?
  • You’ve already got the adverbs one. Ditto adjectives.
  • Also, ‘show, don’t tell.’ Excellent advice in most cases, but there are exceptions.
  • And maybe something about the importance of strong plot, which I think is partly just a taste and fashion thing – I’ve read a lot of early-to-mid 20th century novels this year without strong plots, and they have still been brilliant, gripping reads (Carson McCullers, Patrick Hamilton, Jean Rhys).

And here are the four that I particularly concentrated on in the essay, which I’d identified through reading similarly sceptical blog postings (such as those by Debi Alper, Emma Darwin and Nicola Morgan) and ‘how-to’ books (notably Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’).

  • ‘You must not over-write’ – a rule that aims to curb excessive or indulgent writing but can, if misapplied, limit ambition and innovation.
  • ‘Adverbs suck’ – this is the most extreme form of much advice about diction which discourages writers from using types of word such as adjectives and adverbs but also celebrates a conservative approach to vocabulary.
  • ‘Do not have whole pages of dialogue’
  • ‘Show don’t tell’ – this injunction is widely used for many different purposes and interpretations and has many subordinate rules that seek to influence narrative strategy and form (e.g. description, tense, character interior/exterior,etc.).
The 3,300 words were put together in a frenzied couple of days so the prose and formatting aren’t wonderful but if you’re interested in reading the whole diatribe (which has now passed muster at MA level) then click on the link to read –> Reading Novels 2 Assessment MMU MA in Creative Writing.


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