There are hundreds of self-help writing manuals on the book market, prescribing how writers should write. I’ve read my share of them, I’ve even published my own top ten tips for writers on my website. I wrote the tips because I wanted to save those writers further behind me on their writing journey some time and anguish.
But earlier this month, my short story A Dragon’s Back was published in Parenting Express. A very personal story, it was difficult to write, even more difficult to put ‘out there’. Thankfully, it immediately received much praise and support for – fans said – the honesty and bravery it recounts. More pertinent to this discussion, however, the story also speaks about the importance of trusting your gut and the dangers of ignoring your instincts. In one particular aspect of my personal life, I listened for far too long to what I was prescribed.
So what of my writing life – what of prescribing writing advice to others and being prescribed it? Is that dangerous also and, if so, what dangers lurk within the practice?
In my writers’ group, the Northern Beaches Writers’ Group, I have writer-members who study the art of writing at University, professional writers with years of publishing experience, and those who write without any prior training or study – they write from their gut. When I read through their various manuscripts, can I tell which manuscripts belong to which writer? No way! So who is to say that it is better to stick with any prescribed rules of writing, rather than to write instinctively?
Last year, I attended a series of talks at Shearer’s Bookshop in Leichhardt, Sydney, where various amazing Australian authors discussed genre labelling – genre labelling itself being an exercise in fitting different types of writing within prescribed sets of rules (read about the talks here and here). Now, while most writers know which genre they write in, some aren’t so certain. Given the multitude of fiction sub-genres around today (there’s a useful list on “The Other Side of the Story”), who can blame them?
So I asked literary agent Sophie Hamley during one of these genre talks last year: how should writers who are unsure of their genre present their work to publishers? She said that writers should focus on writing the story they want to tell, and leave the genre-labelling to agents and publishers. Freelance editors such as Bothersome Words agree:
I do read a lot of unpublished manuscripts where I’ve been told up-front the author has deliberately written to genre because they read somewhere that their original cross-genre idea mightn’t sell. They rework the story to fit perceived requirements and usually the result is a story that feels a bit hollow; writing that feels a little off.
So editors can tell if a writer has written to prescribed genre rules because it feels forced, and agents and publishers don’t necessarily want something that sticks to prescribed rules – they just want a good story.
And yet the book market continues to be flooded with self-help writing books, and authors (including me) continue to recommend those books, as well as their own tips (by the way, mine are totally awesome, of course!). So which is it? Trust our instincts and be unique, or stick to the rules? Am I a hypocrite for encouraging people to trust their instincts and at the same time recommend writers abide by my top ten writing tips?
I’ve heard it said that it’s okay to break writing rules, so long as you know them first. But then what of the excellent instinctive writing by those untrained talents in my writers’ group?
Tell me – which writing self-help books have you read, if any, and did you then abide by the rules they prescribed?
Should we all simply be encouraging each other to write instinctively, or is there at least some basic level of writing skill with which rules and tips can assist?