Rules Writers Must Not Break and What Do J S Bach, Margaret Mitchell, Zane Grey and Louis L’amour Have in Common?


grey outcastThere’s a few things I’ve been wanting to say as part of some post, but I can’t think of any suitable one, so I’ll just mix them together in a miscellaneous post about market trends and rejections.

The first thing is a story to encourage those who are trying to create something special, and meet with incomprehension/dismissal/harsh criticism.

It’s about the baroque composer, J S Bach himself and ‘The Brandenburg Concertos’ (well, they weren’t known as that at the time). They’re regarded as masterpieces today, of course. They’re among the pieces I play for inspiration –  on the off-chance that anyone’s interested – ( the sixth is particularly good for inspiring a high minded sort of detachment) but I don’t think that latter recommendation would particularly impress Bach.

Anyway, when he  sent them off to the Margrave Christian Ludwig of Brandenburg, along with a fashionable French dedication in 1721, the Margrave neither acknowledged their receipt, nor ever had them played.

It seems that there is some excuse to be made for this lack of appreciation of this presentation with such exceptional pieces of music. Bach had promised to give him a piece of music demonstrating his talent when they met two years previously, and had taken long enough to get round to it. He may even have sent the pieces as a sort of eighteenth century CV, as he was looking for another post at the time.

Another reason for the lack of appreciation may have been that these pieces were designed to suit the versatility of the orchestra which Bach had in Clothen rather than that of the Margrave. It seems the pieces were unusually diverse for the orchestras of those times.

However, for anyone who has had the deflating experience of having that cherished creation dismissed or frankly ignored, that is an encouraging story.

Has anyone heard of J S Bach and his ‘Brandenburg Concertos’?

Has anyone heard of the Margrave of Brandenburg or does anyone now care two hoots about his view of the worth of what are now called as the Brandenburg Concertos? (here’s a picture of him, anyway).

The other story must have been incredibly deflating for the author in the receiving end, but is horribly funny.

A publisher wrote in response to Zane Grey: ‘You have no business in trying to write and should give up’.

Almost as discouraging must have been Margaret Mitchell’s 38 rejection letters for ‘Gone With the Wind’…

But that is not quite as bad for the 200 received by Louis l’Amour (I didn’t know there were that many publishing houses even in the US, and decades ago; but perhaps they were for several different books).

I personally  am not a great admirer of westerns, or for that matter, of ‘Gone With the Wind’, which was one of the many novels I found on that Aladdin’s cave of a maze of bookshelves back in that great isolated house in the Clwyd Valley, into which I used to delve on winter’s evenings. But the point I am making here is that a lot of people do admire the work of these writers; they may not be comparable to the great JS Bach as regards originality or mastery of their craft; but they had a vision and they stuck to it in the face of all discouragement; and that takes commitment.

I have said before that too many author’s websites seem to give facile, bland advice: anodyne advice, in fact. Do your market research, and write for a particular type of ‘average’ reader (ie, six foot, hairs on the back of his hands, reclusive castle dweller in Transylvania; likes stories about his ancestors) and write accordingly.

Above all, do not break the rules.

It’s these supposedly hard and fast rules that I object to (and yes, I did write a post on this very point not so long ago). The supreme irony is, that the successful authors you are advised to imitate on these How To sites, DID break the rules (and I’ve just broken one myself; never write in capital letters to emphasize a point; people will think that you are semi literate).

Nobody wrote about dystopias when George Orwell wrote ‘1984”; nobody wrote about boarding schools when a certain best-selling children’s writer decided to give a new slant on one; vampires were old hat when Anne Rice decided to write a new take on them.

If they had ‘properly researched the market’ they wouldn’t have written what they did (and so set new trends) at all; they would have played safe, and possibly lost their vision and written something derivative.

Someone in the writing business warned me some time ago on the hazards of having multiple points of view (as I tend to in my novels), let alone having more than one ‘main character’ on the grounds that ‘these days, people only want limited points of view and they want to know who the main character is, and who to root for, early on’.

This advice was constructive, and based on her best information; but I disagree with it. I think it is too restrictive. And given those writers who broke certain hard and fast rules and so set new trends, isn’t it quite likely that someone will come along and flout those particular rules and write something original that also sells well, so that suddenly everyone will be breaking them?

Suddenly, having a restricted point of view may be ‘totally outmoded’.

I came across a How To book on writing recently, published in the eighties. It fell open at this page. ‘Please don’t give your characters names that reveal something of their characters; that’s pathetically old-fashioned.’

And so it was, back in 1985. That was another trend overthrown by that nameless writer of children’s fantasy.

In case any regulars get a feeling of déjà vu, yes, some months ago, I did publish two posts that touched on different points covered in this one, but I wanted to approach the topic from a slightly different angle.

Dracula climbing down the wall of his castle, from a 1916 edition of the work.
Dracula climbing down the wall of his castle, from a 1916 edition of the work.

Got to go now. I’ve just got a communication from that lonely soul in Transylvania, saying he offers residential courses for writers. He says that ‘Time wasters need not apply. Must be free of blood disease; testing obligatory’. He offers spectacular views and the course is for health fanatics, and culminates in an exciting climbing excursion, of the sort pioneered, he says, by Jonathan Harker. He promises: ‘This is not just another writing course; this one will transform your whole existence and view of life’.

Hmm. I had glandular fever as a youngster; would that disqualify me? He says I can have a discount. Should I apply?

I have always wanted to go to Transylvania….

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4 thoughts on “Rules Writers Must Not Break and What Do J S Bach, Margaret Mitchell, Zane Grey and Louis L’amour Have in Common?

  1. Lovely post, Lucinda, and I absolutely agree. I’m a little sceptical about writing advice in general, mostly because it tends to be generalised and generic, and thus ignores the individual and the particular. I think the best thing you can do is to write in accordance with your own vision (oh, the irony; I just used a generic piece of advice to counter generic pieces of advice).

    Having said that, the idea of there being a group of readers who are six feet tall, have hairs on the back of their hands and live in castles in Transylvania is enough to make me salivate. If only there were such a group! I have a feeling that they and I would get on like the proverbial house on fire…

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