Reflections on writing (No 1 in an occasional series)

Like all writers, I read as much as I can. I do this primarily for enjoyment rather than as an academic exercise, but of course it informs my own writing.

As I embark on a year’s mentoring I’m learning more about so-called ‘rules’ of writing, or at least recommendations. One of these is that dialogue is good. It breaks up the text, makes it easier to read. I’m a (fairly) diligent student and I’m currently sowing dialogue through the short stories I’m writing.

Another recommendation is to use the active voice. Passivity distances the reader. Yes, I’ve bought into that one.

Don’t jump from one point of view to another. Very confusing for the reader. Okay, must bear that in mind.

I am greatly encouraged when I read other people’s work which breaks these ‘rules’. I’ve just devoured Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13 (2017). I have followed Jon McGregor’s work since his first novel, If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things (2002). This book became a success by word of mouth. Since then McGregor has gone on to become ‘a prize-winning author’. I put that phrase in inverted commas because, affirming as that may be, it’s just one thing about him, not for me a defining characteristic.

After I’d finished the book I looked up some one-star reviews, curious to know why anyone would not love this book as much as I did. Criticisms include it being boring, that nothing happens, difficulty of keeping track of multiple characters and, interestingly, lack of dialogue and the use of the passive voice. I think the problem is that people have certain expectations of a book, instead of reading it on its own terms. A cursory glance at the blurb on the back will tell you that this is not a conventional murder mystery story.

The comment that ‘Anyone could write a book like this’ is, frankly, crass. If one day I can write something that is halfway as compelling as Reservoir 13 I will be a very happy person. I’ll never write in the same way as Jon McGregor and neither do I want to do so. I want to use my own voice, and while I will think about writing ‘rules’, I will also feel free to break them.



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