Writing rules/no rules

I thought I’d raise the questions I’m asked whenever I address adults or visit schools. I don’t mean, “Are you rich?” or “How old are you?” or even “Where do your ideas come from?” but the questions people ask when they write themselves, or are thoughtful readers curious about the process and the choices authors make. Often on Twitter or Facebook I see writers asking for advice – and receiving more of it than they might have bargained for. Just as online reviews are unlikely to be unanimous in praise or criticism, the answers that pile up never seem to come close to consensus. So I am under no illusions that my own theories and convictions will be received with nods all around. Writing is, after all, a deeply personal kind of creativity, and many of us who work at it day after day are striving to find something individual: a voice that is ours alone.

When I’m asked about the connection between life and fiction – “Is it autobiographical?” or “Is that character based on someone you know?” – I make a distinction. The observable fact that like Daisy in THE WATERHOUSE GIRL, Rowan in CRAZY DAISE and Hobo in AVATARS OF THE INTELLIGENCE, I have alopecia universalis (no hair at all, anywhere), doesn’t make these novels autobiographies. They are, however, informed by my own experience, thoughts and feelings about living with the condition. Few of my characters are knowingly inspired by someone real but they develop, like the stories themselves, as the writing takes shape. The most obvious example is Paul Golding in TRACES, who is in some ways like the father I adored, but lives a different life, and presents to me a different face and voice, yet represents for me my dad’s ideals. Borrowing named characters from life works better – and is less likely to provoke law suits – when a story is set in the past, like In the Blink of an Eye by Ali Bacon. Whether it’s faction or simply a very well-informed and increasingly engrossing historical novel is a moot point. Certainly the author takes none of the liberties I took with a certain English king in HUE AND CRY, even while attempting painstaking accuracy with my context. The distant past is fair game when it comes to resuscitating and recreating the famous on the pages of a novel. I would add, however, that setting fiction in a past we remember makes for a much more challenging intersection with reality. I’ve just read an enormously exciting sci-fi novel that left me questioning the author’s decision to mess with the familiar recent past in the way that Doctor Who forbids. Anything can happen behind closed doors – a shared secret. But make it ‘news’ within the story and readers may be unable to suspend disbelief faced with a character they ‘know’ and an ending that makes them object, “But that didn’t happen!” Well, dear reader, this is fiction. But the power of stories over us depends in part on a different, deeper kind of truth, which is emotional or psychological. We care because we recognise in a construct we know to be imagined something we call humanity. It’s a delicate balance to maintain when we ask readers to connect with our non-truth, invest in it and yes, love it. Undermining their belief in our fiction – breaking the spell we’ve woven to hold them in our power – can not only disconnect but disturb.

What about pov (point of view)? Would I advise first or third person? I know as an ex-teacher that young children find it hard to sustain a narrative voice; the third person often shifts into first. Inexperienced writers often debate the merits of one point of view over another, and reader responses can be emphatic. Some simply don’t like first person fiction, which tends, they say, to tell rather than show, or is by definition narrow, or stylistically banal in an attempt to emulate conversation – and I’ve only used it a few times in my 32 titles, because I acknowledge those risks. Others, however, prefer it for its freshness, focus and drive, and the instant, detailed access it offers to the narrator. I chose it for these strengths in my two alopecia novels, and in JUST FOR ONE DAY – giving my two narrators different but intersecting stories to tell in contrasting voices. In my third short story collection, due out in 2019, my own favourite is told in a voice I revelled in finding, because like her life experience it’s some way from mine, and because the style itself illuminates the character, making the dreaded ‘telling’ unnecessary in a way that felt magical as I wrote.

So do I agree with ‘show don’t tell’? When writing for adults, generally yes. Yet, in first or third, when writing for young children I do sometimes make explicit. It’s not verboten. I’ve also found that in a short story for adults, a little telling at the start can, on rare occasions, cover the ground with necessary efficiency before the narrative opens out into less concrete territory. Personally, I like to mix it, to try different challenges. And a third person narrative can follow one or two characters more closely than the rest, presenting their perspective and feelings on others known less intimately. It can be God-like, all-seeing and all-knowing. Or it can allow the writer to keep a storyteller’s distance in recognition of the storyteller’s art and artifice. It can jump across time and place, but its sphere might be small. So many options! The truth is that my so-called decisions are often instinctive rather than reasoned – guided by a sense of best fit for my character and my story.

Where do I stand on the rather contentious matter of flashback? I’m a big fan. Read The English Patient! Although it’s not compulsory in every case, and a character’s memories can be integrated into the present just as for all of us they thread through life, scenes that take the reader back before the action started can enrich and add layers to a story. I like to use it to substantiate character by enhancing knowledge and understanding in the same way that in life someone’s history can explain their present. I relish it, and enjoy its variations of setting and register, but am mindful that it must expand the story, not constitute – as in radio’s Just a Minute – deviation. Some say that readers won’t wear it because it holds up the story, but that’s to assume that all novels are action-driven. While in many of my adventures for children or teens, exciting plots develop and build, my writing is always founded on – and directed by – my characters. So the decisions I make, whether instinctive or conscious, always serve them and their inner (and outer) story.

Sue’s first adult novel in print is about time and ignores the idea that readers don’t like flashback, just as an artist friend was told customers don’t like purple!

What about open endings? Of course, stories always conclude in a way that’s artificial, since we know as readers that these characters’ lives continue without us. The endings we crave may depend on our own personal experience and what we want or need from a story. An author I know was asked by her publisher to change her ending, to make it less happy, romantic or predictable – in fact to thwart readers’ hopes for a character who deserves the best outcome. Hollywood would change it back. Some of us like our fiction to end well in a way that reality often doesn’t; others only engage with novels that feel life-like in their lack of resolution or joy. Some of us require all ends to be tied up and no question left hanging. Other readers – and I’m one of them – hate that kind of wrapping up and prefer ambivalence. But in writing that statement I realise that, as always, it depends. Who was right about my friend’s ending? I suspect that it would have been a very fine novel either way – because while endings count, everything that leads up to them matters more.

Is writing for children different from writing for adults? Yes and no. As a children’s author, I generally right wrongs and leave my young characters stronger and wiser, more at peace with who they are – even if, like Lamb in VOICE OF THE ASPEN, their future is endangered when the story ends because history must not be re-written. When writing for adults I often choose an open ending as the only honest option, and yes, I like to imagine a book group debating what happens beyond the story along with what happened within it, and why. Children like a coherent plot and expect one that moves forward at a pace, but some adults require neither and at times I find experimenting without them rather thrilling. I enjoy the impact of imagery especially when I’m having fun writing for young children (THE LINCOLN IMP, ONGALONGING, HEADCASES) and remembering how similes can make them laugh. In the YA thriller HUE AND CRY the spider metaphor for my psychotic baddie works in a very different way, while in my adult writing the images may be sparser – and hard to justify unless they’re fresh. Whatever the audience, an eccentric character, or outsider, can be realised through an individual way of presenting the world, with surprisingly off-centre imagery that feels like theirs alone – as in THE JUDAS DEER.

So much depends, it seems, that perhaps there can be few rules. Do I, then, have any? Oh yes, I do. Read well. Write as well as you can, in the hope that readers will reread a sentence or paragraph because it feels so elegant, powerful, insightful or original. Honour and listen to your characters, because you understand them even if you don’t always like them; never manipulate them or your readers. Care passionately about them and what happens to them, or your readers may not. But at the same time, stay in control of this fiction you are constructing, mindful of pace, critically eliminating repetition, cliché and redundancies, and don’t assume that the reader will know what lives only in your head. On the other hand, don’t underestimate those powers of inference and deduction in which children are assessed at an early age; there’s something very satisfying about reading between the lines. In my case, I know I mustn’t forget, in my fascination with what my characters think and feel as well as do, where they are. And while little fiction would be written if we only began a story with a ‘unique selling point’ as they say in the book trade – I believe writers should ask themselves why this story should be told. For me, fame and fortune, or the existence of a market for the story, are poor reasons. The story should matter. And we’re back to the truth fiction can illuminate, those insights into the human condition, the development of empathy. Keats said truth is beauty, so tell it. “Beautifully written” is for me without question the most exhilarating phrase a review can deliver. My rule – or goal – is to write as beautifully as possible, with an awareness that beauty can be found not just in lyricism and nineteenth century elegance but in the lean and raw.

Just a few rules then! I’m conscious that nonetheless they add up to an order tall enough to deter the greatest genius from writing a single sentence. But if we don’t take writing seriously, if we let it slide into the morass that is celebrity culture, commerce, fashion and consumerism, then we’re not only betraying every genius whose novels will always matter, but selling stories short when we know they can change us. We’re disrespecting the language that shapes our lives and being. So that’s the big rule, the one that can’t be broken: DON’T.

Delivering a workshop at MKLitFest

Please share…