Claire King’s Rules For Writing Novels

I was tweeting in pique at the weekend while watching Sue Perkins’s documentary on genre fiction — a programme that I’ll probably get around to blogging about more at length but I put a comment on The Art’s Desk’s review — click here to read it.  A couple of my tweets were picked up and replied to or retweeted by literary people, including one of the Independent’s Offical Top 100 Tweeters, Carole Blake and I picked up a few extra Twitter followers to add to my modest total as a result.

One of these is the writer Claire King and I followed a few links to her very interesting blog, which has a very sensible comment on the holy wars between literary and genre fiction that Sue Perkins’s documentary appeared to have stirred up.

However, I was most intrigued by the fifteen rules of writing that featured in another post:

I’m sure that almost anyone who has been in a creative writing class will twitch in recognition at most them. It’s interesting to read the list of comments as it seems not every contributor seems to have inferred the same intention from the rules as I did. I particularly like number 7.

A few commenters have added rules from famous writers like Kurt Vonnegut and Jonathan Franzen. Franzen’s don’t seem to particularly helpful, more a manifesto for his own approach (particularly his phobia about the Internet) but I particularly liked his first: ‘ The reader is a friend, not an adversary, not a spectator’.

This tends to contradict most of his other rules imho but I believe it should be borne in mind far more in creative writing workshops than it is. A normal reader wants to like a book. After all they’ve paid for it (or gone to the trouble of borrowing it) and are prepared to invest a considerable amount of time with it. They’re not taking 3,000 words and examining every single one as writers and critical readers who review each others’ work for the best of motives. They’re not going to throw the book in the bin because a writer has used a lazy ‘then’ in a sentence (his rule three) but they might feel resentful if something on the macro level leaves them short-changed, like an unresolved and poorly developed conclusion to the plot.

6 Replies to “Claire King’s Rules For Writing Novels”

  1. Hello James,
    Thank you for your kind comments on my blog. The post you’re referring to is a spoof, written in a fit of pique after having too many people tell me that debut novelists should never use first person or present tense (my debut is written with both of those, and a child’s POV to boot, and doing very nicely thank you)! I think, from reading your post, that you realised this, but noted that many commenters didn’t. I have to blame my subtle sarcasm I’m afraid! Vanessa Gebbie posted another spoof in response to this on her blog. Also worth a look.
    Best wishes,
    Claire King

  2. Claire,

    Yes. I think I interpreted your tone in the way you meant it as perhaps we’ve both pulled our hair out in frustration at the way that comments like ‘don’t use adverbs’ have been mutated out of context from original and sensible advice and are now bandied around at creative writing workshops as if they were the ten commandments (see my post ‘On Misinterpretation’ as to where I think the blame lies for the adverbs lore).

    I did like the fact that you mixed up unarguable advice — like read widely — with the ludicrously over-prescriptive (‘don’t use first person’) and I wonder if the subtleties of ‘you should never use the second person’ were lost on some of the commenters. Seems you have a sense of humour similar to mine so perhaps I should look out for your novel?

    It’s quite worrying that some people think that the stricter the rules and the more you are told what to do then the more successful the writing will be — when it really should be the opposite (within reason). I think part of the issue is that everyone is encouraged in a creative writing workshop to give feedback on fairly short pieces of work and so it’s much easier to be hawkish about POV or use of adjectives/adverbs as these are more easily identifiable in the text. It’s much harder to articulate issues like plot, narrative, dynamics between the characters and so on.

    I’ll have a look at Vanessa Gebbie’s too. Perhaps I’ll try and think of some ‘rules’ of my own but it will be hard to beat yours for satirical effect.

    btw. I’m Mike — James is main male character in my novel-in-progress and he certainly would have taken the rules literally.


  3. Claire,

    PS. I forgot to say thanks for reading the post and taking the time to comment on it.


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