Everything your mother ever told you about writing, but you didn’t want to know…

 So! Last week I ended up through a bizarre set of circumstances attending a talk by Phillipa Boyen, one of the three minds behind the adaptation of Lord of the Rings to film. And, perhaps a little less gloriously, King Kong. Naturally, I can’t really be a fantasy geek without loving Lord of the Rings, although there are quibbles. The books are the granddads of fantasy literature As We Know It, and from them have sprung many generations of magic artefacts, snotty orcs, pointy-eared elves and the kind of statement that goes, ‘Aaaaah, my child, you must open the gates of Mozz’ock-bal to stop the sweeping darkness from consuming the Rage of Z’uxiwok.’ And means it. And that’s kinda a problem I have with the book, really, but that’s just me and as previously established, uber-respect for the granddad of fantasy.

As for the films…

Love them, own them, press ‘next’ on the DVD whenever Frodo starts looking too tormented. And let’s face it… I’m not the only person who does this. Which is a pity, because Frodo and Gollum tend to be in the same scenes for most of the film, and Gollum rocks.

Anyway, this is not really about Lord of the Rings.

What this really is about is writing in general. Because Phillipa Boyen’s talk was largely about writing – not just why she writes what she writes, but how she writes, which is something that I believe there are no real rule on. My entire family are writers, through various bizarre accidents, and none of us could come even close to mimicking the others’ style or techniques. And none of us would ever try. But, listening to this talk, I was reminded of what I suppose we could loosely define as ‘rules’ of writing. And, for fear of undermining my potential as a rambling lecturer in creative writing, I thought I might as well replicate them here for universal delight and delectation, as my Mum passed them onto me and so on and so forth unto the nth generation.

1. Slaughter your darlings.

I had no idea what Mum meant when she first said this, but with the wisdom of retrospect, she had a point. If there is a line, a joke, an idea, an event, something, anything, that you are desperately trying to get into your writing, that you are twisting an entire narrative towards even when the narrative really doesn’t want to bend, that is the definition of a darling. And it should be killed. Because at the end of the day, you don’t want to twist an entire narrative towards introducing a single punch line at the end of the paragraph, largely because of point 2…..

2. Put the story first.

Or in other words, if you’re desperate to write a novel about nose picking in the 17th century and are trying to force every aspect of your work towards discussion of this topic, you probably shouldn’t. Partially because this means your story is going to be horribly messy, but mostly because if you really, really care about nose picking in the 17th century that much, then odds are it’ll come up whether you try or not.

3. Show, don’t tell.

To put it another way…

If terrorists are nuking Los Angeles (as they do every other day, if you believe 24), far, far better to have someone see the blast up close and personal, rather than have someone else run in waving their hands desperately and saying, ‘you know what, guys, someone’s just nuked LA!’

And I guess an unofficial 4th rule would be…

4. Your editor may have a point.

Anyway, that’s the distilled wisdom of my Mum.

Everything else is entirely up to you….

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