It is a well-worn truism that all novel-writing advice boils down to a handful of simple tenets. Show, don’t tell. Cut adjectives. Kill your darlings. Get in late, and out early. Read your work aloud. Don’t give up your day job, you masochistic fantasist; don’t you know that publishing is dead?
Okay, so that last one was mine. But from Aristotle’s fifth-century Poetics to this year’s On Writing by A L Kennedy, the elements of how to spin a satisfying tale have remained remarkably consistent. That’s the thing about good writing; the rules don’t really evolve. Our ability to tell awesome stories is part of what makes us human – self-consciousness is, after all, the greatest story of all – and it seems that the sweet-spots of pace, character development, suspense and so forth are ingrained inside our neurons. Of course, every so often the rules get broken by a genius, who redefines the possibilities of form, subject or style; that’s the best writing of all. But we need an instinctive consensus about the golden mean for those subversions and revolutions to work.
Yet writing about writing has become nothing less than a fetish over the past few years. The culprit is, yet again, that tireless, whip-wielding mistress we call Social Media, who offers everything from hourly tweets served up by self-promoting editors to twee typographic Pinterest posters exhorting adverb genocide. That isn’t to say the advice is always bad. There are some genuinely helpful new articulators out there, such as Chuck Wendig, a prolific blogger/novelist whose writing-advice ebooks say the same things over and over again, but with such brilliant self-deprecation, humour and filth that I never get bored. And the online vogue for circulating vintage essays from canonical writers such as George Orwell and Ernest Hemingway has resurrected some beautifully examples of the genre. I can lose hours at a time browsing sites such as Brain Pickings, Maria Popova’s inspiring online grab-bag of creative inspiration, or the Paris Review’s Art of Fiction archive, featuring interviews in which authors from William Faulkner to William Gibson discuss their craft.
That timewasting is, of course, one reason why we are so obsessed with re-describing (and often unnecessarily complicating) the writing rules. Yes, the rise in digital self-publishing, which does not offer that crucial editor-author relationship, has fuelled demand for DIY novel how-tos; but frankly, we could just stick ten sentences up on the wall above our laptops and be done with it. The fact is, it’s easier to read about writing than to do it. Poring over fellow wordsmiths’ wisdom makes us feel like we’re putting time in on the novel - regardless of the fact that it has no more tangible impact than bunking off to watch Game of Thrones.
A second reason is that the best writing advice is so profound in its simplicity, and therefore so difficult to apply, that writers must repeatedly grapple with it, like (if I may) Peleus wrestling the shape-changing nymph Thetis, to pin it down and into their work. Those pithy injunctions aren’t so much rules as descriptions, principles of literary taste. They tell us what great writers do instinctively, and although taste can be honed and matured, the dash of beautiful tastelessness that elevates a technical success to an emotional tour de force is even harder to acquire.
Frankly, I think rookie writers (and by rookie writers I mean me) would be better off spending less time pondering how to write, and more on clarifying whatever it is that they passionately, immoderately want to say. The best way to develop a craft – once you’ve had some basic training - is by doing. By experiencing different contexts, trying your own ideas, and, most importantly, by not just striving for the ‘good’, but being brave enough to make your own mistakes; by being rubbish and then persisting in your rubbishness until you become slightly less so. Surely the best way to progress a novel is to think more about the world of your book, write more, and read the works, not the discursions, of authors you admire. There’s a fine line between pruning your voice into a leaner, more sophisticated and more generous version of its natural self, and chopping at it from so many different angles that it becomes a timid mess.
Personally, I’m going to try and go cold turkey for a while. If any developer out there fancies coding a web tool that, whenever a user attempts to click on a link to the latest nugget of literary wisdom, blocks the page and flashes up a GIF of Hilary Mantel with a shotgun exhorting them to THINK AND WRITE instead, I’ll stump up the fee.
Yes: real, shiny money. I didn’t give up the day job, you see.
This article originally appeared in Bookhugger.