Ten Writing Rules to Break

I hate rules. This gets me into trouble sometimes. When I was 16 it got me arrested. (I stole a Crunchie bar and some wet-look hair gel from Boots the chemist. Because my plan was to give the Crunchie bar to my best friend Jonathan I thought this made me a kind of latter-day Robin Hood rather than the spotty small-town tosser in a Cure T-shirt I actually was.)

Anyway, I try not to be illegal these days, but I still have a natural aversion to being told what to do. And when you are a writer – a writer who wants to say stuff – there are all sorts of quietly agreed rules floating around.

Here are 10 rules I am starting to ignore:

1. DON’T USE CLICHES. An admirable rule, surely? Well yes, perhaps, but a cliche is sometimes a cliche for good reason. A cliche is often a universal truth. That is why people like it. And people often speak in cliches, so what then? Surely to write honest dialogue you are going to have to use cliches? The aim, I suppose, is to come up with new cliches.

2.DON’T WRITE UNDER THE INFLUENCE. Michael Chabon: ‘All novels are sequels; ignorance is bliss’.

3. LINEAR IS UNCOOL. Maybe in the twentieth century it was saying something when you smashed a narrative into pieces and quoted Godard’s line about how it was good to have a beginning, middle and end but not necessarily in that order. But the thing is, I think there is nothing cooler and more wonderful than a story, and a story that feels like a story. So here’s to beginnings, middles and endings in the right places.

4. IT MUST BE DIFFICULT. No-one admits this rule. Maybe I have imagined it. But I think there is a distrust of books that are easy-to-read. A belief that they should shut people out, because most people don’t know what is good for them. This is snobbery. I ignore this, and try and write with open arms. The aim for me is never to take a short cut.

5. TO BE SERIOUS YOU MUST NOT TELL JOKES. I like jokes. Shakespeare told jokes. Joseph Heller told jokes. I am going to tell jokes. Comedy is just tragedy that hasn’t come to fruition.

6. LITERARY FICTION IS SERIOUS, GENRE FICTION IS NOT. Lock lit fic and genre in the same hotel room with only one bed and keep them there and see what happens. Fun things, normally, though some people don’t like fun things. I do though.

7. ADVERBS ARE EVIL. They can be, but some adverbs sound wonderful. Sporadically. Unquestionably. Woefully. No words should be put in a ghetto. Language is a smorgasbord.

8. WRITERS SHOULDN’T SELF-PROMOTE. I have a novel out this week. It is called THE HUMANS. The Independent says it is ‘outstanding’. The Times says it is ‘funny, gripping and inventive’. You can see other quotes and buy it here. I live to write. It is the only thing I can do. If I was in any other job I would be expected to help sell something, so why not this one, the one that I am best at…? So I am not ashamed of the first half of this paragraph.

9. SENTIMENTALITY IS BAD. Why? Who says? Humans are sentimental. ‘Sentimentality’ as Graham Greene said, ‘is just the name for sentiment we don’t share.’ Why not be rose-tinted from time-to-time, if we are aware of it? I am someone who cried at ET and Casablanca. Sentimental things speak to a deeper part of us than brain-only stuff. Speak to the heart via the head. The things that are sentimental tap into strong emotions, and emotions are what it is all about. Emotions are the last things the androids will be able to replicate.

10. HAPPY ENDINGS ARE FAKE. Yes, we all die, and yes, life is messy, but who says art can’t be different? Not Aristotle. Not Shakespeare. A book can have a neat ending where everything is tied up. It can even end in a way that allows us to be happy and hopeful. Why not? It is a book. And the very power of a book, the reason we escape into them, is that they aren’t weighed down by the same rules that weigh down reality. Books don’t suit fences.


(Shoplifting is still bad though.)