How many times have you been told that there are rules to writing and that your story should adhere to those rules? In today's guest post, Ed Kociela suggests that rules are all very well (I'm an apostrophe obsessive, myself!), but only if they don't interfere with your story telling.
Tell Your Story Your Own Way
by Ed Kociela
The Internet is filled with tips on how to write the Great American Novel.
The problem? For every tip, there is a contradictory bit of advice about how to string words together in a coherent manner.
It reminds me of a creative writing class I once took in college. The professor was a stereotypical, Irish writer, down to the red-bulbed nose acquired from many years of imbibing copious amounts of Jameson Irish Whiskey to the tweed jacket with patches on the elbows and ever-present pipe clenched between his teeth.
Every sentence, he told us, must have a certain number of words. Every paragraph must have so many sentences. Almost every noun requires three adjectives.
Yeah, that kind of thing.
I was sailing through the class, adhering to his rules until one day when I raised my hand.
“Isn’t the point of writing supposed to be one person communicating their idea to another?” I asked.
“Well, of course,” he said.
“When we speak to each other, don’t we construct our thoughts in different ways, sometimes using many words, other times using very few?” I asked.
“Well…uh…yes,” he said.
“Then shouldn’t we, as writers, find the most appropriate way to communicate rather than over-burden our reader with all this flowery bullshit?” I said.
And, the fight was on. Hemingway, Steinbeck, Dylan Thomas, Robert Burns, and many others were brought into the fray until, finally, the exasperated professor unclenched the pipe from between his teeth, pointed the stem at me, and said: “Aye…do the next assignment your way. Let’s see whatcha got.”
I did, and when he returned the assignment, my grade was an “A,” with a lengthy scrawled note about his desire to teach us the rules so we could then know how and when to break those rules.
So, when I see these online tips about how to go about writing, I think of Professor Casey and the brash kid who, unbeknown to him, had been earning money through writing for four years before taking his class, working in a drab and smoky newsroom of a small, southern California daily newspaper.
I would like to think that by the time somebody decides they want to write a book they would have studied grammar, know how to punctuate, and have assembled a vocabulary that allows them ample words to precisely describe the scene and characters growing in their mind.
As writers, we are under-valued. We have all listened as that relative, friend, acquaintance tells us, “You know, I been a lot of places, did good in English, and people like my stories…I oughta write a book. At least that’s what people tell me.”
After the initial urge to strangle them, we are calmed when we remember that if you placed a monkey at a keyboard, sooner or later it would peck out a complete sentence. I know that for a fact because as a newspaper editor for more years than I care to count, I worked with my share of monkeys.
Just because you can turn on a laptop doesn’t mean you have the ability and discipline to put together about 100,000 coherent words. If you think so, I’ll be happy to buy you a bunch of bananas to sustain you while you pound away on the keys.
Because I have a couple books under my belt at this point – “plygs,” a journalistic novel about a fundamentalist Mormon cult that lives along the Utah-Arizona state line, and “It Rocked! (Recollections of a reclusive rock critic),” which is a memoir from my days as the rock critic for the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner – I have had several writers contact me with questions about writing, from technique to fighting writer’s block.
I always explain that technique is a personal thing and that writer’s block is something I know very little about because I have rarely experienced it.
I have read sample chapters, outlines, bits and pieces of thoughts and half-thoughts submitted to me by writers. I always encourage them to keep at it, to see where it leads, to hang on to some of the passion that inspired them to want to tell the story in the first place. As writers, we all share a certain amount of insecurity and, at times, need a little pat on the butt to keep going.
Other than that, I offer little else because I would hate to change the writer’s voice, inhibit their thought process, or interrupt the rhythm of their words. The best you can do is simply encourage them to keep moving forward. They will strengthen their words in the second or third rewrite.
A lot of writers make the mistake of emulating their heroes. The inherent danger, of course, is that there was only one Steinbeck, one Hemingway, one Mark Twain, one Hunter S. Thompson. I’ve seen writers who try to adopt the style of another. No good ever comes of it.
So, if there is one solid piece of advice I can offer, it would be, to borrow a line from Shakespeare, “To thine own self be true.”
Know yourself, know your purpose, know your limitations as well as your abilities, and tell your story as you see it, and not in the manner of somebody else or to please somebody else because, as Benjamin Franklin once said, “Write to please yourself. When you write to please others, you end up pleasing no one.”
It’s your story.
Tell it your way.
I am occasionally guilty of emulating my favourite writers - do you have to watch yourself and your writing the same way? Share your thoughts in the comments below - and with your friends, using the handy buttons!