If All Else Fails…


We’ve all seen those cutesy aprons, post it notes, banners etc. If All Else Fails – Do what the Captain suggested. Or – Read the Instructions.
How many times have you come home from a trip to an unimaginable meltdown and seethed with impotent fury? Yes, they did know you’d left a note, but how hard could it be?
Clearly, hard enough for the captain’s advice or the instructions to have been needed. And don’t say you’ve never done it. I don’t believe you.
So how do these two versions of an aphorism relate to writing as an art or craft you may be asking? What do I need beyond basic grammar and a better than average vocabulary in my own language?
A lot.
I teach short story writing and act as a reader for short story competitions. I’ve written reams in student critiques about the basic principles of creative writing. Occasionally, a student changes their practice and pretty soon after can report a sale or prize. Most often they carry on regardless and continue to wonder why stuff wings its way back with a form rejection.

What are my top tip instructions? Here are a few:

Short means short. Do not believe the short story reader actually wants a four volume saga. S/he does not. Know your characters inside out and keep that background work off the page and infused into dialogue and actions.

Basic grammar is important. Read everything that comes your way. Stuff that is easy to read is stuff that does not make you stop to re-read in order to understand it. It may be so beautiful, you want to re-read, but that’s different. Do the pronouns refer back to the nearest proper noun? Do the verb tenses match? Are those apostrophes in the correct position? Are those apostrophes needed? Is direct speech started on a fresh line and enclosed in single or double quotes as needed? Have all exclamation marks been removed?

Put the work away for some time. This is one of the single best ‘rules’ for a writer. When you return to a piece, you will read it with the eye of a reader and mistakes and infelicities will jump off the page. Sometimes, lines you thought were peerless when you wrote them, are impossible to understand. Don’t panic. Time will bring back the meaning and you’ll be able to re-jig the words so anyone can understand on first reading.

Never ask a member of the family for an ‘honest’ opinion. I wonder how many marriages falter over that dreaded request? Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and so with writing. If your daughter is devoted to sci-fi, she’s probably not the best person to ask about your sequel to Gone With the Wind. If your husband fancies eating well for the rest of his natural life-span, he’s not going to tell you about the number of times you’ve used ‘just’ on p 136. This rule applies to many writing workshops, too, sadly. Well meaning support is great, but not when it doesn’t help you to see the obvious flaws.

I could go on (students might tell you that’s true) but you’ve probably got the gist. Before you can be a gifted breaker of the rules, you need to know what they are.