Sunday, 22 March 2015

The Rules of Creative Writing by author Kurt Chambers

The indie publishing scene has grown so massive over the last few years that writing and publishing your own book has become possible for anyone who wishes to do so. This has caused a lot of mixed feelings. The main criticism is the quality of writing. In order to become published mainstream, you usually need a fundamental understanding of the 'creative writing rules' in order to be taken seriously. Unless you're a celebrity, of course. Self-published authors can publish anything they want without having to know anything.

When I first set out as an author, I didn't care much for these rules. I believed you should write however you want. What's wrong with some originality? I spent many years in a novel workshop, writing and reviewing, learning and slowly honing the skills that were taught to me. Now I can see why learning these rules was so important. It does make you a much stronger writer. When I questioned these rules, the advice I was given was, ‘You have to first learn these rules in order to know when it is okay to break them.’

In this post today, I want to share with you just a few basic things that will help make your writing stronger. You can use this as a guide when it comes to editing your first draft. Try it for yourself. Edit one chapter of your manuscript applying these few rules, and see what you think of the difference. Read it aloud in order to hear how your story sounds to the ear as well as in your mind.

Some Basic Creative Writing Rules

Show, don't tell:

I was taught never to 'tell' the reader anything. This is a great rule that will add so much more depth to your writing if done well. To try and 'show' everything isn't always practical. For example, you don't need to go into pages of description about a particular uniform with a brass helmet and matching buttons just to inform the reader that this character is a fireman. But as a general rule, especially when it comes to emotions, it is better to 'show' as much as you can.


Johnny entered the dark room and came to a standstill. Something was wrong. The door slammed closed, making him jump. He was terrified.

Johnny entered the dark room and came to a standstill. His heart beat faster. The slamming door sent a jolt through his body. He gripped his chest, fighting for gasps of breath.

Both these sentences are describing the same scene. In the second sentence, I replaced the 'telling' statements with character action. It's clear to see the difference between the two. Read through your manuscript one paragraph at a time and see how many 'telling' statements you could replace in a similar way.

I had a terrible 'telling' habit when I first started out, so I made a list of character actions to help me 'show' emotions. Telling is fine in a first draft, but when it comes to editing, you may find this list useful.

POV (point of view):

This is a very important aspect that all authors need to get to grips with. I never had an understanding of this when I wrote some of my first novels and had to spend many hours editing at least two complete novels to correct all the POV mistakes. Instead of explaining POV in great detail to you, I am going to take the easy way out and share an article by Pam McCutcheon, who explains it so wonderfully. It was this article that taught me what POV actually was, and I am only too happy to share it with you.

POV is something of a personal preference. The growing trend these days is to write in first person perspective, especially in young adult genres. It is said you can get a deep POV that really gets into the head of the character. I only write in third person limited myself and like to think I can get a deep POV using this method. I think it is the most popular POV for middle grade readers. We are all different. I guess it comes down to whatever you are used to reading.

Adverb abuse:

Adverbs (words ending in 'ly') are wonderful things but do fall into the 'telling' category. Using too many is viewed as lazy writing. It is quite easy to rely on them as a shortcut to describing a character's feelings, actions and facial expression in just one word.

"I think she passed away," he said sadly.

What you should be doing is describing the actions of the character in more detail to paint a better image for the reader.

"I think she passed away." He held a palm to his forehead, releasing a long sigh.

It is a worthwhile exercise to skim through your manuscript looking for adverbs you could eliminate to make your writing much stronger. You will be surprised at how many authors use them wastefully, pardon the pun. Here is an example of how they can sometimes be placed in a sentence for no reason.

He crept into the darkened room quietly.

The verb 'crept' is strong enough to give the reader enough information on the actions of the character without having to use the adverb 'quietly'.

We used to use a ball-park figure of no more than three adverbs per chapter. How many have you used?

Passive voice:

This is not the easiest thing to explain. There are certain trigger words that cause passive voice. Words like 'was' and 'were', for example. I am no expert in this field, so I will post a link that will explain it in all its glorious technical details, using examples to show the difference between active and passive sentences.

Although passive voice is difficult to explain, it is something that will become more and more obvious to you once you have a general idea of what to look for.

Repeated and unneeded words:

This may seem like something trivial to worry about, but by simply finding and changing words that are repeated often, you can improve the 'flow' of writing by quite a bit. Also, when you read your manuscript out loud to yourself, you may find there are some unneeded words that just choke up the writing. Use as few words as needed, well-chosen words.

These are some of the basic rules that I was taught in my novel workshop that I sometimes see lacking in the growing trend of indie authors. For those authors out there who are still submitting manuscripts to publishers and editors, these are some of the things that could lead to your MS being rejected. For those authors who are publishing themselves, I hope you find this helpful in bringing your books to a higher literary standard that will make them shine above the rest. Good luck to you all and happy writing (and editing).

Some other useful writing posts: 

Shameless plug:

If you are interested in seeing the results of a finished novel putting into practice the above set of rules then you can download a free copy of my award winning fantasy novel, Truth Teller. It is a heart-warming tale of true friendship in an action packed adventure. It is free to all readers in any format.

Truth Teller

How could ten-year-old Charlotte ever envisage that magic really existed. For her, the world of other realms belonged in children's fairy tales—or so she thought—until she discovers a strange shopkeeper, which begins an adventure that will change her life forever.
When she finds herself lost and alone in a far away forest, she must embark on a journey where heart-stopping danger and real life monsters are real. However, a far greater threat shadows her every move. Even with the strengths and skills of her new companions, they cannot protect her against a ruthless druid assassin.
But in this realm, Charlotte is not the vulnerable little girl she thought she was.



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  1. For me, repeated words stop the flow of a story. It's like they set off alarms in my brain. On the other head, POV issues like head hopping does not bother me at all.

    1. It's good to see you here, Onisha :) Yes! It is all down to personal preference at the end of the day. POV is always a hot subject lol The article above is a great article on POV I found.

      Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment!