WORDS FROM THE WISE/PART 7 – Graham Masterton



(Establish rules of writing)
Graham Masterton

Rule are important. They protect us, enforce rights and solve conflicts. In a way, writing needs to follow a similar set of guidelines. We need structure and stability.
Graham Masterton has pretty much done it all. He has 10 rules of writing for you. Maybe he’s worth listening to…

The question posed to each author is – “A young author comes to you seeking advice. They’re riddled with insecurities and completely overwhelmed by the publishing industry. What are your Words from the Wise?”

GM – My answer to your specific question, Chris, is that new writers don’t have to be afraid of the publishing industry. They are always on the lookout for fresh talent. But do remember that they are running a business and so they are looking for work that will appeal to a specific market.. By all means be highly original, but don’t forget that publishers have to sell books to real people in order to make a living, and so they are not going to be interested in stories that are very difficult to understand or (on the other hand) that have been written about a million times before. My first horror novel THE MANITOU wasn’t about vampires or zombies or werewolves…it was about a Native American demon which had never been written about before and it sold half a million copies in six months. I am attaching some “Rules of Writing” which you may find helpful. They are not really hard-and-fast rules…more like suggestions..but I think new writers would do well to bear them in mind.

Rules of Writing
by Graham Masterton

10473200_905377139479276_2533824218907295254_nLESSON ONE: Don’t write, talk, and use your natural voice, as if you were telling the story out loud to a group of friends. If there is a knack to writing it is to tell a story without consciously ‘writing’ about it. So many amateur writers have a good tale to tell, but are too concerned about making an impression on the page. Forget the fancy similes and the impressive metaphors, just tell it like it is. But do learn your grammar, syntax, spelling, etc, otherwise your amateur status will really show. Just like a motor mechanic’s amateur status would show if he or she didn’t know how to fix an alternator.

LESSON TWO: Don’t describe, be there. Create a virtual world inside your head with weather, wind, noises, background music, smells and tastes. Forget about your PC … let it melt and walk through it.

LESSON THREE: Never use cliches (except in dialogue where a character might reasonably be expected to talk in cliches). I recently read a new horror novel by quite a respected writer (well, bits of it, anyway) and he described total darkness by saying ‘not even my hand in front of my face … only darkness in its inky totality.’ I mean, please. That’s like saying night ‘was like a coal-cellar … only night in its nighty nightness.’ Later he says ‘a mental alarm bell jangled faintly deep inside my head.’ Where else does a mental alarm bell ring except inside your head?

LESSON FOUR: Be surprising. Use metaphors and similes that nobody has ever thought of before. This requires thought, observation, and a sense of poetic rhythm and above all simpicity. Don’t make the metaphor or simile so complicated that the reader is brought to a halt trying to work out what you’re saying. I described a pretty but dumb girl as ‘a small-town beauty queen who looked as if she had been hit in the head by half a brick.’

LESSON FIVE: Be rhythmic, and sensitive to the balance of your sentences. That’s why the study of good poetry is so important. It teaches you how to rearrange a sentence so that it reads more easily and yet emphasizes the words that you want the reader to pick up on. Read some Rupert Brooke:

‘In your arms was still delight, Quiet as a street at night; And thoughts of you, I do remember, Were green leaves in a darkened chamber, Were dark clouds in a moonless sky…’

Hear that brilliant repetition of ‘Were’? And at the end of the poem:
‘O infinite deep I never knew, I would come back, come back to you, Find you, as a pool unstirred, Kneel down by you and never a word, Lay down my head, and nothing said, In your hands, ungarlanded; And a long watch you would keep; And I should sleep, and I should sleep!’

Do you see how much emotion is conveyed by those repetitions and re-statements?

LESSON SIX: Do your research and then throw it away. Unless your readership is of the Tom Clancy/Clive Cussler type, who relish reading about 3455 XY-cluster missiles, tell your story secure in the knowledge that you know where it’s set and what your characters are like … give them expertise in what they do … but then tell the story.

LESSON SEVEN: Give your characters complete consistency. Don’t twist their motivations to suit your plot. Even if it gives you a headache, try to think what they would actually do. Writing fiction is acting out a play on your own. As Ivor Cutler said in Turkish Bath Play … ‘You’re going to do a play with just yourself?’ ‘Yes, there are 345 parts and I take all of them.’

GMI write with only the loosest of outlines since characters take on their own personalities and carry the story into all kinds of unexpected directions. With thrillers like Condor and Ikon I deliberately started writing several disparate plot-lines in order to set myself the challenge of tying them all up at the end. With Outrage, which I finished earlier this year (2003), I had absolutely no idea how it was going to end until the last 25 pages.

Nothing beats character and character-driven events. Real people behave in unexpected ways. That’s how life works. And that’s why so many thrillers are so wooden.
LESSON EIGHT: Avoid purple prose … something grisly can be much more convincing and disturbing if it’s described very simply. You don’t have to tell your readers what to think. If you’ve described it vividly enough they will have their own reactions. ‘If a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, where is the man who has so much that he is out of danger?’

LESSON NINE: Write with your eyes. Don’t see words, see people. Look out of the window and see the thunderclouds gathering on the other side of the river. Be conscious while you’re doing it of the woman standing close behind you. You keep lookng out of the window but she lays her hand on your shoulder. You can smell her perfume. She says, ‘You’re frightened, aren’t you?’ And you say, ‘No. Maybe. I don’t know. It was the way he looked at me when he left.’ ‘I don’t understand,’ she says, and you turn around to face her. ‘Nobody ever looked at me like that before. He looked as if he wanted to cut my guts out and hang me up on a hook.’

LESSON TEN: When you have finished writing a story, go through it and delete as many adverbs as you can, he said strictly. You’d be surprised how often they’re not necessary, and you can convey your effect without them. They tend to slow down the narrative and distract the reader by interjecting an authorial voice in the middle of the action. ‘I like you in that sweater,’ he said, pointedly. My writing advice is always the same … the message that William Burroughs gave me … disappear, vanish, don’t be there … pick up your keyboard and walk.

RESEARCH: Buying a few local papers is always a great way to get detailed background on a community’s character, the people who live there, and general social conditions. Another method I use a lot is to talk on the telephone to the information officers of the local chamber of commerce, usually with a specific query about ‘what’s the best hotel in town?’ or ‘where do young people hang out at night?’ which will yield more interesting results than ‘I’m writing a novel … tell me about your town.’ I also like to talk to police and fire chiefs about their day-to-day problems.gmn

I also try to get hold of as many photographs of the town or city as I can, such as postcards and guidebooks. You can learn more from what a town is trying to say about itself to the world at large than you can by living there. Guidebooks subtly expose weaknesses and senses of inferiority as well as ‘the unparalleled views from Snake Mountain’ or ‘the sumptuous colours of New England in fall.’

I prefer to research a book as I’m going along, since you can come across all kinds of interesting facts and odd perspectives when your mind is attuned to the subject that you’re working on, which might not normally strike you as relevant. Occasionally I have started a book and stopped dead, completely at a loss to know where it’s going to go next. The first chapter of Tengu remained an orphan for almost a year, as did the first two chapters of Spirit … and Trauma was only completed when Richard Chizmar asked me if I had any old novellas knocking around that he could publish for Cemetery Dance, and it ended up being shortlisted for an Edgar Allan Poe award.

Finally … remember that ultimately you are writing fiction and you are allowed to make things up. Research is simply to give your story ‘feel’ and ‘solidity’ rather than to impress your readers that you happen to know the name of the girl behind the florist’s counter at the corner of Woodward and Main.