As production on my book draws to a close, (yes, I finally worked out how to load the cover I made into a CreateSpace template, only to discover it didn’t actually fit, and had to go back to the drawing board – literally – to resize bits of it …) I have recently found myself reflecting on the rules for writing a good book.
I say ‘rules’ because that is the way that some people sell this glorious enterprise to me. There are accepted ways of doing things, apparently. Like how to design a good plot (this one before you ever start writing), how to structure your story into chapters (also before you start writing), how to ‘design’ believable characters (before they visit your page) and create enticing dialogue (before … you guessed it).
What is your main conflict? they ask. Who are your protagonists and what are their flaws? Have you decided on a setting and collected suitable descriptions to portray it? Does your story have pace, intrigue and consumer-interest? What will be your ending? Who is your target market? Do I care anymore?!!!
It’s hardly any wonder that many people who’d like to try writing a novel, never get started. By the time you’ve waded through all that pre-planning, it takes a very determined and strongly aligned personality to remember what it was you wanted to create in the first place.
And of the people who do get going – even finishing a piece of work – I know of a good many who believe that what they’ve written is not really any good because it doesn’t ‘fit’ the rules, and their confidence is completely undermined.
Someone gave me a book to read recently – one that’s out there, in the market – and I dutifully started to read it. Perhaps they’d enjoyed it, perhaps they were trying to encourage me – I don’t know. But it was dry. Stiff and stilted. At least to my reading mind.
Sure, the author had followed the rules – set up the conflicts (there were several), introduced their characters ‘properly’, structured their dialogue according to etiquette. Yes, they’d definitely followed the rules. The story passed through all the appropriate and recommended phases – the invitation to engage, the resulting challenge, the struggle to succeed, the apparent failure leading to eventual success. But, boy, could you spot the manual! It was like writing by numbers …
In contrast, I watched something this weekend, the like of which I would not normally countenance. It was a detective story but one that had gory violence, overt sex scenes, disturbing images, unlikeable characters and a lot of ‘darkness’. Not really my cup of tea at all, on the face of it. But it had two superb actors heading up the cast: Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson. And I was intrigued.
An eight-episode series, available as a box-set, which I came across by accident while trawling the internet. (This was one of my more fortunate internet accidents.) Called True Detective. I sat and watched three straight episodes on Saturday afternoon. Something else I never do; I’m not a TV glutton. But I was completely blown away by the standard of the writing, of the acting, the pacing, the characters, the structure and story-telling … not to mention the philosophising, which McConaughey’s character engages in. It was utterly compelling. I can honestly say it is years since I have seen something of that calibre on TV.
So what is it that made the box set so awesome and the book so tedious? What is that magical ingredient? They both used the rules but one came out merely as a ‘kit’ – a set of instructions, pieced together technically and scientifically. The other began in the middle, with heart, and slowly expanded outwards, feeling its way with authenticity – like a mandala. Using the rules, but never once letting them make the decisions.
When it comes to rules, I’m with the Pirates: “The Code is more what you’d call ‘guidelines’ than actual rules”.