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Robert’s Rules of Writing: 111 Unconventional Lessons That Every Writer Needs to Know – Robert Masello

by Venky

Every time I finish reading a book ‘on writing’, I scamper back to my well worn-out copy of “Why I Write” by George Orwell. The man is as sparse with his reasons as he is fastidious about the economy that one needs to follow while indulging in the art of writing. His “six rules of writing” have stood the test of time and in all probability, will continue besting sterner tests. Any writer, from and of whom is demanded an almost improbable task of adhering to 111 ‘unconventional’ lessons, would in all probability end up a fatigued professional. Her condition would be akin to that of an aspiring ‘black cab’ driver in London who before obtaining her driving license is expected to memorise every conceivable nook, cranny and labyrinth of the city. But in an era of technology where GPS is as ubiquitous as the air we breathe, such an arduous – and Byzantine even – exercise in rote learning assumes an unfortunate redundancy.

This is by no means belittling Robert Masello’ s book. A reading of it makes it very obvious to even the most insensitive of readers that the author’s motive is undoubtedly noble. Hacks, methods, processes and techniques jump at the reader from every page with unbridled enthusiasm. However it is this very enthusiasm that also doubles up as an unintended kill-joy. An overdose of optimistic guidance is undoubtedly a recipe for confusion. Many of the lessons could either have been shortened or complemented with one another. For instance, the importance of churning out a first draft, however messy it may be, finds avoidable repetition in more rules than one. While there is no doubting the importance of this rule – Anne Lamott opines that ‘shitty’ first drafts are not just inevitable but indispensable – same could have been set out in just one place.

There are a few rules that appeal to me personally. For example, Rule No.102 instructs you to “Keep Your Prose Clean.” There seems to be a dangerous and repulsive misperception that more libidinous the prose, wider its acceptance. We unfortunately do no inhibit an era where “Portnoy’s Complaint” not just liberated Philip Roth from his self-imposed shackles of modesty in writing, but catapulted him to fame as well. The days of sexual liberation are way behind us since we are more or less a totally and wholesomely liberated lot where carnal urges are concerned.

Rule No.49 is titled “Fly Solo”. This is also a concept that is appealing and introspective. While it causes no harm to inculcate and practice a collaborative bent of mind while writing, care needs to be ensured that one’s own style, tone and cadence is not sacrificed at the altar of group think. This notion is explained by a very telling example in Masello’ s book, ‘,I had written a sentence that read, in its entirety, “he stopped.” My collaborator had neatly, added in the margin, “like a deer caught in the headlights.” That’s when I knew for certain that this collaboration was not going to work.’

Rule 90 “Add a Dash of Metaphor” is also an exposition on how a particular tool may turn out to be a double edged sword. While the use of metaphors can make a story or an article alluring, littering one’s work with metaphors that have been used and abused to such an extent that they have more or less transformed them into cliches, would dilute the very essence of the writing and would detract from the import and purpose that the work intends. To paraphrase Orwell, “Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.”

On Rule in appreciation of which I will raise my glass, is the one on adopting and abhorring humour. Rule 85 is the “Make ‘Em Laugh!” Rule. While Masello elevated the role of humour to its rightful pedestal, he also warns of the danger that would accrue as a result of an impudent and imbecile use of humour. In other words unless and until you or your character possesses a genuinely funny bone, never attempt to evoke indiscreet and indiscriminate bouts of laughter. You will not end up having the last laugh!

There are Rules that seek to instill confidence in the reader, while at the same time warning her about the innumerable perils and pitfalls that she would need to necessarily navigate. The joys of publication are negated by the devastation of rejection slips. A self-conviction and unshakeable belief that a work is a magnum opus when it is a never ending sleep inducing tome of avoidably lengthy proportions, are some of the conflicting and contrasting emotions which every reader would have experienced. But the secret is to be practical and yet not lose the faith.

In my personal view, “10 Unconventional Lessons That Every Writer Needs to Know”, might have accorded more benefits and wisdom to an aspiring writer. Thus when Masello is planning on bringing out the Third Edition of this work, he may perhaps mull on some cull. The following Rules alone would be my ideal candidates for preservation:

  1. Rule 62: Keep Your Day Job;
  2. Rule 3: Throw Out Your Thesaurus (my favourite Rule in the entire book. I am deliberately refraining from not commenting on the same since I do not want to reveal much to the reader. Better she gleans this element of wisdom from Masello himself);
  3. Rule 9: Lose The Muse;
  4. Rule 85: Make ‘Em Laugh!
  5. Rule 102: Keep Your Prose Clean;
  6. Rule 49: Fly Solo;
  7. Rule 42: Go Subliminal;
  8. Rule 93: Punctuate That Thought;
  9. Rule 86: Befriend Your Editor; and
  10. Rule 111: Break All Rules

Masello’ s ‘111 Unconventional Lessons That Every Writer Needs to Know’ is a well explicated work that may be referred to by a budding writer. While the book has the potential to handhold, it may also end up disseminating a fair degree of ambivalence due to the sheer number of lessons that it purports to impart. A more concise and condensed version would have amplified the benevolence intended by the author in a more targeted and focused manner.

(‘111 Unconventional Lessons That Every Writer Needs to Know’ is published by Skyhorse Publishing/Allworth Press and would be released on the 21st of September 2021. Thank you Net Galley for the ARC)

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