I’ve been trying to arrange some babysitting because of a  rash of parties that’s broken out all over my formerly pristine diary.

I rang my friend Bannister, who has some prime teenagers, and got her answering machine. It spoke very slowly like a BBC newsreader from 1932: ‘This. Is. En. Enswering-Mechin…’ which made me laugh and leave them a message about techmolology for the hard of thinking.

I left that message a couple of hours ago. But, because it is Sunday, and, according to the rules in Switzerland-on-Thames where they live, Sunday is special, marked ‘family-only’. They probably won’t come back to me until everyone’s recovered from their hangover.

Week days are too busy, you see. They work hard. They’re tired. The children have homework and then there’s  supper. You might catch Bannister at 7.53pm but she will sound harassed.

Bannister’s not as bad as Rabbit and her husband. If I ring them at 9.30pm, they will be in bed and they will be frankly incredulous that I have had the insufferable gall to ring them at such an unGodly hour.

I just don’t understand this at all. I only bothered becoming a grown-up for the staying-up-late-and-eating-sweets-whenever-I-want-thing.

I don’t really get rules about writing either. I went through a phase of trying to write by numbers using Syd Field, the screenwriting guru, and his fellow traveler Robert McKee. I have nothing against either of these two gentlemen. I even think they are broadly a good thing as they present their craft as open to all, accessible and unmysterious. I don’t question their credentials, not that either, to my knowledge, particularly has a blockbuster to his name.

Their rules didn’t really work for me. The energy of my words leached away, almost palpably, in plot points, reversals and myriad technical devices they prescribe. I felt bored writing like that and the results were definitely underpowered and underwhelming.

Now that I’m trying to write a novel, I’m having to think about structure and pace and all that storytelling stuff. It’s very intimidating. I long for rules that I could apply mechanically in the sure and certain knowledge that a beautifully realised work of fiction would spring to life at the end.

And it’s true that I do have a sort of storyline in mind. I know roughly what’s going to happen in a loose kind of way.

I need that looseness though, and I guard it. That looseness has the space for ideas and new directions. Sudden inspiration might overtake my keyboard and then who knows what might occur? It could happen.

I think almost all my ‘good’ ideas (ones that tutors have praised or that I even like) have been accidents, last-minute additions or even predictive text/formatting errors that I only realised later were the best bit.

I wish I could be a bit more rigorous or in control, but I seem to be left with intuition and ‘feel’ neither of which are very reliable or stable.

I sit and stare at my screen, fiddle with twitter, do laundry and mutter setting, character, plot, change, scenes a lot, which is what Marti Leimbach drilled into me in her magnificent series of workshops.  Or think about what Stephen King says in his brilliant book On Writing which is, and I’m paraphrasing, that he just gives his characters a problem and sees how they try to solve it.

I make a lot of tea.

I like my friend the novelist Amanda Jennings‘ system for making changes. She puts a bloody great white hole in her script and writes the new idea in capitals back in the place where it should occur and then carries on from where she is actually writing at that moment as if the change has already been fully integrated. That’s my kind of ‘technique’.

I do think about more formal technical stuff too, like point-of-view and narrative distance (I know!) but I don’t think about these things in any systematic way. It’s all very muddly.

And you can phone me on Sundays and quite late at night. Standpipe might give you what-for down the line. But I’m on for a chat. Usually.

I don’t babysit though.

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Posted in Writing
15 comments on “Rules
  1. zencherry says:

    Screw rules!!! Call me late at night anytime too lol. Loved the bit where you said you grew up only for the stay-up-late and eat sweets bit. (ROFL) Same with your writing hon. What you’re doing is fantastic.

  2. Cathy Dreyer says:

    You are so funny Maureen! Cathy x

  3. tmycann says:

    The only reason I’m *trying* be grown-up/reasonable about bedtimes lately… my day job will kick my butt sooner than later if I continue to try to sleepwalk through work. 😛

    • Cathy Dreyer says:

      Yeah, I know how that goes. In truth, I go to bed early too most nights as we’re up so early for school. But I’m not very consistent about that or anything else and I am in awe of people who manage to impose any rules on their lives, and quite jealous. I think I’m just born unruly … Thanks Tonya.

  4. Jane Isaac says:

    Rules are made to be broken – I know it’s a cliche, but it’s true. Do you read a great story and think – I wouldn’t have done that, I’m sure there’s a better word for that description?….. I know I don’t. I think: Wow!

    Sometimes we are swamped by rules so much that it crushes our creativity. I feel you have a lovely way with words. Your blog posts are beautiful and I love the natural humour you inject into your writing. I say write from the heart and let the words flow. When you have a ms, you can always go back and look at pace etc. when you edit.

  5. When I was doing a creative writing course, I wrote a poem…..every line started with a lower case letter, but the last line started with a capital. I liked the way it looked, but my tutor said I couldn’t do that, and that it’s not good form 😦 It really put me off and I quit the course as soon as I was able to.

    I KNOW there are rules, but, sometimes it gets a bit ridiculous lol


    • Cathy Dreyer says:

      It’s a difficult one this, I think. I went on a course which was such a shattering experience I didn’t write for 10 years (I was having a lot of children as well, though).

      Now on the course I’m currently doing I really relish the criticism. In the past I’ve had two tutors tell me my poetry was like Sylvia Plath’s! I was beyond delighted as I love her work until I learnt that her name has become, in some circles, sort of shorthand for a certain discredited style of confessional poetry that is associated with women. Ouch.

      What’s really annoying is that one of these tutors then set us an exercise which led to me writing a poem of which I am truly proud and for which I have been praised. Dammit.

      In the end I can only think it’s like my friend who went into the Botox shop hoping to be told that she was so beautiful she didn’t need Botox. I’m on the course to learn and I am learning, have learnt, to be grateful for the things I don’t want to hear.

      Having said all that, you totally have the right – and I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you this – to format your poetry as it pleases you to format it. It’s your poem.

      But perhaps learning requires a certain surrender of control, jumping through hoops so that if you decide not to jump, at least you’re aware of the hoops and consequences of not jumping? It really does help, as you say, to know the rules.

      One of my tutors questioned some vocabulary I used in a poem. I took the offending words out (they were quite slangy) but then I realised that without those words the poem was incoherent. I thought about it for quite a long time as I really respect this particular tutor. But I put them back in the end. I think I’d rather be unpublished and coherent than the other way around. It’s so hard. I’d love to read your poem, Vikki. Thanks for your comment.


  6. P. C. Zick says:

    Do whatever it takes for you to write the story and forget what everyone else does. My writing life is similar to yours. I gave up long ago trying to follow others rules for writing. It happened one day while engrossed in two different bestselling authors books advising how to best write. One said “write in a room with a view” and the other said “write in a room with the curtains closed.” And there you have it.

  7. Cathy Dreyer says:

    Posted at Amanda’s request. She’s having some techmolological issues …

    Hey you, another cracking post! My name came as a surprise – thank you. I also rate ‘On Writing’ as one of the best books on the craft. King’s self-belief, tenacity and drive are incredible, and to hear him talk about the dogged determination he harnessed in those early years, before his success, in order to keep doing what he loved is a total inspiration.

    Your point: ‘I think almost all my ‘good’ ideas (ones that tutors have praised or that I even like) have been accidents, last-minute additions or even predictive text/formatting errors that I only realised later were the best bit.’ is fantastic and I totally agree. I’ve given this concept a lot of thought. I think these moments you describe are when instinct kicks in, when one’s natural intuition and uniqueness come into play. These ‘happy accidents’ don’t just break the rules, but push through them, staking new territory for the writer, marking them out as an individual. I – for one – cannot wait to read your finished product, no doubt jammed packed with your flare and originality.

    And yes, for me, it’s important not to let new ideas/themes/narrative changes interrupt the flow of the first draft. I love editing – taking a lump of clay and molding, shaping and smoothing it to create something coherent and, perhaps, beautiful. I would worry – and this is a personal opinion – that if I kept returning to the beginning to absorb new ideas I would not only lose the narrative drive, but would never make it to the end! And THE and END are bang-tidy words.

    Oh, and I bloody love staying up late and eating sweets. Early nights and celery? Meh.

    Amanda xxxxx
    Twitter: mandajjennings

  8. Pseu says:

    I make a lot of tea too.

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