The Neurotic Author by Linda MacDonald

Have you ever read a Column for Writers only to find your newly released novel commits a literary crime?

Chronic anxiety is a type of neurosis and it creates a stress response in the body. We all know too much stress is A Bad Thing and that it is to be avoided, reduced and beaten into submission if at all possible.

Writers’ Blogs are full of Good Advice about how to hone the craft and become a better author. All designed to make life easier; to reduce stress. One would think. But over the past few years, it has come to my notice that with so many ‘How to’ articles about writing – a surprising number of which contradict each other – some authors, particularly those of sensitive disposition, may be driven towards despair.

In The Man in the Needlecord Jacket, I mention a psychology experiment where dogs were conditioned to respond to a circle, but not to an ellipse. Then, gradually the ellipses became more circular, and the circles more elliptical, until the dogs couldn’t distinguish between the two. The dogs went crackers, exhibiting various types of neuroses and other psychological symptoms. Inconsistent messages can drive people crazy too.

For the writer in the garret, distanced from social media and perhaps with a single editor picking through their prose, there is little to cause alarm. But do such writers still exist? More prevalent are those eager to tap into advice via the editors on social media or from sages teaching creative writing.

Don’t get me wrong, these articles are valuable, writing courses are useful to many, but it’s when the ‘Thou Shalt Nots’ start, and when there are mixed messages, that we have a problem. Of course, there are some rules that probably should never be broken – and I say ‘probably’ because in today’s world, writers break all kinds of rules and sometimes it works and the author wins a prize, gets on the Bestseller list or is featured in a worthy publication. Who would have thought of publishing dialogue with no quotation marks throughout? Or even a book with no capital letters? After all, when all the stories have been written on a subject, the only way to offer something new is to break with conventions of style.

The use of commas, the overuse of the exclamation mark, the redundancy of ‘that’ and ‘just’ … fair enough. But it was when I read a short while ago that we should be looking for alternatives to ‘said’ as a dialogue tag that my own bowl of writing neuroses began to overflow. Ever since I started reading articles on social media, the advice has been to avoid most dialogue tags except ‘said’; that it is irritating to overuse actions as tags or to use other words when ‘said’ will suffice. And there are many established and successful writers who practise this mantra.

There are Five Steps to this and Ten Steps to that. There are dozens of experts insisting we ‘show not tell’ because today’s readers have the attention span of a gnat. This is sound advice, but there is still a place for telling. Books began with ‘Let me tell you a story.’ Exclusively showing is the stuff of TV and films. There’s good telling and bad telling, that’s the issue, and the best articles cover this too.

And when we’ve embraced all the advice on writing, there’s another batch of ‘How tos’ regarding interaction on social media. Mostly it’s, ‘Never try to hard-sell your book’; ‘Don’t start a conversation and then introduce your novel after three tweets’; etc. … etc. … And this is good counsel: I baulk if anyone does it to me. But there’s a fine line between mentioning too much and mentioning too little. Some of my most loyal Lydia fans have come to be because I dared to suggest my novel as something they might like. And when your followers follow more than a few hundred tweeps, unless you flag up your novel fairly often, they are not going to see it. What is too much to some may be invisible to others.

Twitter also offers bite sized guidance to writers, often via hashtag so one can collect a set on a particular topic. In the early hours one night, I found a US writer and blogger on the subject of book marketing, saying people know how to buy books they want and we do not need to provide links. Arghh! Slapped wrists again. I thought people liked links. This is why I am a neurotic author.

As I mentioned at the start, this is not a criticism of those that provide the advice. I’ve learned loads from the ‘How tos’. Knowledge allows me to make informed decisions rather than muddling along and hoping I don’t upset the Literary Police. It’s more a warning to authors to try not to stress over the less rigid ‘rules’, and to remember reading is a matter of taste and we don’t all want to become stylistic clones. Meanwhile, I shall keep to the ‘saids’, pepper with occasional ‘justs’ and ‘thats’, and I won’t shy away from an occasional rhetorical question or exclamation mark.