Saturday, 2 February 2013

Watch out - the writing police are in town

I went to see Neil Gaiman last week.

It was a really fun night. He's a great speaker and raconteur, a real writing rock star. And with the amazing body of work that he's produced, he has an awful lot to talk about. Novels. Comics. Films and television shows. He's pretty much done it all (did I mention that I was more than a little envious).

He read from his latest work (there were even some chapters distributed for free, but by the time we got to the theatre, someone had nicked our copies - bummer). He also read this brilliant Australia Day poem. But the thing that interested me was discussion of a commencement address he gave in the US last year, which apparently had been something of an online sensation.

Of course, I had to check this address out, and I liked what I heard. I liked that the focus was very much on writing what you wanted to write and thumbing your nose at any supposed rules. Because those rules are something I've been hearing an awful lot of lately.

It seems like wherever you go, there are people saying what you can and can't write. They're listing 10 rules for this or 5 rules for that or the 20 rules that every writer must follow. They're saying how books should open and books should close. My head is overflowing with these rules.

I know that most of us won't end up with the kind of success Neil Gaiman has achieved. But to me, the reason why he's an inspiration is because he can have that success on his own terms. He can write the books he wants to write the way he wants to write them, without caring that he might be breaking any supposed rules. If he doesn't want to write a sequel to a book that was a great success, then he doesn't have to. Maybe he's the exception that proves the rule, but at least he shows that it can be possible.

So next time I hear that the writing police are in town, laying down the law and telling me what I can and can't write, I'll remember the evening I spent listening to one of my favourite writers. And then I'll just keep on doing what I'm doing and writing what I'm writing. I dare them to come and arrest me.


  1. Good points to ponder, Jonathan. Perhaps the key is to write for yourself? That's what I am taking home from this!

    1. Thanks for your comment Connie,

      I couldn't write for anybody else. I don't know what works for them. I only know what works for me.

      Hopefully, I'm not so strange that I'm the only person they work for.

  2. We’re on the same page here. Been a big fan of Gaimen ever since I read Sandman #1 and I used to have the whole set. The bloke raised comics to an art form for God’s sake. Not read a lot of his prose—just a book of short stories my daughter bought me one year—but what I have I’ve enjoyed. As far as rules go, yes, there’s usually a good reason behind most rules and if you write by the rules you won’t go wrong but then again you won’t write anything very exciting. Look up the names of composers for say the 18th of the 19th centuries and you’ll be gobsmacked by the number you’ll never have heard of. Gobsmacked! And pick any one of them a random—Jan Zelenka, for example. I’ve heard some of his stuff and there’s nothing wrong with it at all but he’s no Joseph Haydn. People who write (be it music or prose) by the rules play it safe. They don’t get remembered. Neil Gaimen’s work on Sandman was ground-breaking. Pick up and issue of Batman or X-Men from that time and it was perfectly readable but not memorable. (Actually to be honest Chris Claremont was still writing The Uncanny X-Men back then so they were quite memorable but you get the idea.)

    1. Hi Jim,

      I'm not much into comics but I've read and enjoyed a number of his novels and short stories. I particularly enjoyed Stardust, especially in the way he subverted a bunch of rules/conventions when he resolved the conflict with the main villain.