Rules For Writing From Celia Rees

Today, I’m very pleased to welcome Celia Rees to the blog. Celia is a renowned writer of Young Adult fiction, and I’m grateful to her for taking the time to stop by and share some of her incites into the craft of writing. So without further ado I’ll hand over and let you read what she has to say.

Rules for Writing…

There are as many ‘Rules for Writing’ as there are writers, editors, critics, creative writing tutors and authors of ‘How To Write’ books. Sometimes these lists are useful, sometimes not, and they frequently cut across each other, but the best are relevant and should not be ignored. Quite often, however, what no-one explains is exactly why a rule is important.

I’m borrowing the following Shalts and Shalt Nots from the current edition of Mslexia to demonstrate what I mean. This list was distilled from a total of 74 possible rules culled from a long list of writers. These were then whittled down to ten by a group of literary agents and creative writing tutors. So they were arrived at by a consensus of those who know and seem to me to be both sensible and practical.

Thou Shalt

1. Vary sentence length and structure.

Why?  Because if your story varies in pace, tension, action and your characters are all different, then your sentence length and structure should show that. Your style should reflect and augment what is happening on the page.

2. Be specific and concrete in your descriptions – ‘red and blue’ rather than ‘brightly coloured’

Why?  Exact, detailed, accurate description does all kinds of things for you. It makes scenes immediate, helps the reader visualise, builds in associations so that he or she will recognise the place, the time, the type of person. Carefully chosen descriptive detail tells us what a character is like. That’s how we judge people in real life. Above all, specific concrete description makes things REAL and as we are asking people to believe something we’ve made up – that is a help.

3. Ensure every scene and sentence in your novel advances your plot or characterisation in some way.

Why?  Because if it doesn’t, those words are wasted and will just hold things up, distract from the main thrust of the story, confuse and annoy the reader. And you don’t want to do that, do you? So be ruthless. Ask yourself: What’s this doing here? Every word has to earn its place on the page.

4. Cut out all inessential words.

Why?  Because doing this will make your prose cleaner, make it read better, make you sound like a real writer.

5. Make sure each character speaks and acts consistently.

Why?  Because if they don’t, the reader won’t believe in them and it’s all about making it real.

Thou Shalt Not

1. Shift point of view in the middle of a scene.

Why not?  Because you are in danger of confusing and muddling the reader and also in danger of looking as though you are not in control of your own story and don’t know what you are doing.

2. Use passive constructions.

Why not?  Because you lose immediacy, risk sounding vague, woolly and distant – as if you are merely reporting a thing rather than taking your reader to the heart of the action.

3. Use clichés.

Why not?  Because they are careless and lazy. If you use them habitually, you risk your work being dismissed as derivative, unimaginative and lacking in originality. We wouldn’t want that, would we? So you just have to think harder and come up with something different.

The above also applies to ideas.

4. Use meaningless word clusters (such as ‘but for the fact that’).

Why not?  Because they are just that: meaningless. See 4 in Shalts above. They hold things up, contain no meaning therefore have no reason to be there, are frequently ugly, not to mentioned clichéd.

5. Give characters names that all start with the same letter.

Why not?  Because the reader will get them mixed up. Avoid anything that stops a character from being memorable, or means that he or she could get mixed up with someone else. Editors are very keen on this, so be warned.

And if you are/are not doing any/all of the above? Go through and change it. That’s what editing is all about.

About the Author

Celia Rees Photo

Celia Rees has written over twenty books for teenagers, and has become a leading writer for Young Adults with an international reputation. Her books have been translated into 28 languages and she has been short listed for the Guardian, Whitbread and W.H. Smith Children’s Book Awards. Her books Witch Child, Sorceress and Pirates! have won awards in the UK, USA, France and Italy. Her latest book, This is Not Forgiveness, a dark, contemporary thriller, has been nominated for several UK national awards and was one of Kirkus Reviews Best Teen Books of 2012 in the U.S

Celia lives in Leamington Spa, Warwickshire and divides her time between writing, talking to readers in schools and libraries, reviewing and teaching creative writing.

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5 thoughts on “Rules For Writing From Celia Rees

  1. catherinelumb says:

    What a useful post to read just before I’m about to edit a story for submission. 🙂
    Thanks!

  2. Jenny Alexander says:

    Exactly the kind of economy and clarity I would expect from you, Celia – I really enjoyed reading this!

  3. Nikki Bielinski says:

    … there is one unwritten rule I’m struggling with – “if you never finish it, it’ll never be published.”

  4. THANKS! I’ve got this bookmarked.

  5. Thanks for all your comments. Celia’s list is just the sort of thing us writers need to keep us going.

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