The No Rules Handbook for Writers

(know the rules so you can break them)
by Lisa Goldman

I have designed this book to appeal to a new and hungry kind of writer – the original storyteller, who writes for more than one medium. (Lisa Goldman)

I write for more than one medium, but am I a storyteller? It depends what we mean by telling stories. I’d quite like to be able to see myself as a storyteller, but I need to re-define the idea first. There’s an assumption that all writers (other than poets?) are at their core – storytellers. I hope this rule is one of the ones that the book explores, overturns, and looks at differently.

The book is also designed for teachers of writing, and I do a lot of that. I’ve read a lot of books on how to write screenplays, novels, plays and poetry. Some of them were excellent, some of them were prescriptive and taught writing by numbers – particularly the ones on writing screenplays. I’ve taken quite a few writing workshops and courses, ones with David Lane in Bristol and the Soho Theatre’s Sarah Dickenson have been great. I’ve spent some years understanding the ‘rules’, finding ways of teaching them clearly, producing my own handouts, explanations, tips, examples…now I’m looking for a book that says the opposite.

Does a rule breaking writer need a guide on breaking rules? No. We do it instinctively. But I’d like to read writers talking about their experiences, their writing processes, approaches, and I would like to expand my vocabulary for talking about work that breaks rules.

The book is written in a refreshing no nonsense style:

‘If you write to pander to existing taste… is likely to be crap and unlikely to sell’ (Goldman)

and is divided into sections which are broken down into ‘rules’.

It is very British playwriting biased, and within that, biased towards playwrights Lisa Goldman (former artistic director of the Soho Theatre) has worked with, so she’s following one rule herself ‘write what you know’. But that’s OK because she has worked with some brilliant writers. The quotes from Philip Ridley and Anthony Neilson are particularly interesting and inspiring. I’d love to read a book by either of them on their writing processes.

‘You don’t discover anything if you have a map. You’ve got to sail into the night and risk shipwrecks to find an island no one’s seen before.’  (Philip Ridley)

It is very ambitious, not only is it covering a huge number of rules, (the paradox is that the ‘no rules’ handbook has more rules in it than any writing book I’ve read!), it also aims to encompass novel writing, screenplays, and TV drama as well as plays. The non play-based references are very light, and personally I think the book might have been stronger if it wasn’t aiming to apply to novels and screenplays too.

The other tricky thing in the format is that not only is the book looking at breaking the rules, but it also first addresses what the rules really mean, busting myths around them, unpacking them, and discussing how to work with them. Some parts of the book are balanced between ‘Rule’ and ‘Rule Breaker’, other parts get buried in an explanation of the rule itself, leaving no room for a discussion on breaking them – sometimes the rule buster is just a postscript.

I’ve read great non-prescriptive guides to writing. Noel Greig’s Playwriting is a classic, Rib Davis’ book on writing dialogue is brilliant. I don’t need to read another one, even if it’s a good one. I’m looking for something different, and in many places, this book delivers.

For instance the sections focused on the industry are very interesting. There is a discussion of pitching to theatres and how pitch driven commissioning can weed out innovation and go against the writer’s instinctive approach. Philip Ridley therefore rarely writes to commission. As he says ‘the journey your imagination chooses is the way’.

I’ve attempted pitching ideas a few times, and always felt the light going out of me as I tried to make sense of an initial ghost of a feeling about a play out loud….so I found this section useful. There are some suggestions on how to deal with the system. Rather than rules, these are pointers on how to approach the problem and are followed by the statement that sometimes you have to have the courage to say ‘I don’t write like that’ and hope you don’t lose the job.

‘No one can play to order’ (Goldman)

One for my notice board.

& this is possibly my favourite statement in the book:

‘Who needs outlines, when the world is working for you?’ (Goldman)

–  In reference to that magical (but apparently it’s neuroscience) experience that once you’re working on a topic, you start to notice things around you that feed into it. I experienced this in the extreme when working on novels, it’s very odd. In a different section is a note ‘Don’t go mad’. Also useful!

It’s an inspiring, thought provoking and open first section, with nice chunky quotes from writers and really lacking in rules – a few self help style statements: ‘Trust your inner truth and be brave enough to stand up to it’  but hey, sometimes we need clichés: ‘ Taking risks in life can boost your confidence and creativity in writing too.’  (Goldman)

So, am I a storyteller? I’m excited to get to the next section: Principles or Prescriptions? Structure, Character, Dialogue.

But it seems story-narrative-character-structure are just too solidified, too heavy to overturn within the structure of this book. Instead of subverting it, looking at writers who go against these principles the topic is unpacked, explained, bullet-pointed again.

This section mostly deals with how to follow the rules and not how to overturn them, or what they really mean, or how to articulate them when looking at non-story based work. There is only brief comment on how fixed structures can be damaging for a writer. ‘Use the sequences of change that best expresses your story’. Leaving the word ‘story’  to be used in the rest of the book without having been interrogated.

I wish there had been an assumption here that we already knew the traditional definition of ‘story’ – there are plenty of good books on it already. But I suppose defining, ‘knowing’ the rules is part of what the book promises to deliver. The statement on the front ‘know the rules so you can break them’ does point to this. Perhaps I was looking for sometimes more along the lines of: ‘you know the rules, now let’s break them’.

This section also suffers from having fewer quotes from writers in it. I missed discussion here of the big rule breakers of story, narrative and structure – of Padgett Powell’s and the Oulipo’s novels, Kathy Acker’s cut up method, Martin Crimp, Mac Wellman, Sarah Kane – writers throwing traditional concept of story – hero journey – out the window.

I’d have loved an exploration of plays without characters in them, is such a thing possible? What is character? Can you write a novel without one? Where is the character in Padgett Powell’s The Interrogative Mood? How can the protagonist of Crimp’s Attempts on her life have a journey through the play when her very existence is questionable? Can you have a play in which the role of character is fulfilled by the audience’s existence? I didn’t need another list of questions to use when creating character – not that I don’t find this method useful sometimes, particularly when teaching, it’s just Noel Greig and others have already presented this method very effectively.

When it comes to work that breaks these story principles we don’t lack the examples, but we still lack the vocabulary. I was really hoping this book would help me to articulate my experience…

It would have been useful to have a distinction made between story and narrative, and perhaps a discussion of form rather than structure, as I found parts of the definition of structure confusing:

‘I read the way I dream. A sense of time and place is crucial to this’ (Goldman)

My current play is dream-like, so I’d love someone to read it in the way they dream…but there isn’t a fixed sense of time or place…in my dreams the sense of time and place is displaced, unfixed and strange…I’m also unconvinced by the idea that the reader can change the structure of a novel by reading a chapter twice.

The ideas on structure became clearer to me when approached through the idea of metaphor and Ridley’s experience of ‘image architecture’. The discussion of the ways structure in writing is changing with new technologies is also interesting.

The book is clearly written and laid out and has many inspiring moments. As my recent rant on ‘rules’  and script submission processes suggests, it is also much needed. But in spite of the many great statements throughout on rule breaking, those central discussions of story and character left me disappointed – not in a sceptical observer-reviewer sense but as a sincere writer-reader. I was looking for a new approach to the language of writing. There’s a great quote by Hattie Naylor on the use of cliché, I would have loved more of this, more on writers’ playfulness and exploration of language, and a sense of the joy of writing against conventions. I loved the quotes from writers, and the discussions around the industry in the first and final sections of the book are fascinating. But overall this is more a book I will dip into when exploring the ‘rules’ in my teaching– rather than one I will look to for inspiration during darker moments of my own writing.

The No Rules Handbook for Writers felt a little suffocated by its own fixed structure, its own narrative. A book about breaking the rules should break some itself, and in the end I felt that the format of the book was trapping some of the thoughts within it.

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