Guest post: Lisa Goldman on Why the No Rules Handbook for Writers

So why The No Rules Handbook for Writers and how did the book come about?

Well I had a relationship with Oberon Books going back many years during which time they had published many of the plays I produced. We had in the past spoken about me writing a book for them about my own work with the Red Room (the new writing theatre company I founded and ran from 1995-2006) and radical theatre generally. That moment had passed but because of my area of new writing expertise, they were, in 2011, very keen on the idea of commissioning a book for playwrights based on my own experience. ‘No Rules’ also chimed with my own identity as a rule-breaker in theatre.

There were many personal reasons for writing the book. I had been Artistic Director of two new writing theatre companies for 15 years and after leaving Soho Theatre I returned to full time writing, my first love, and found myself revisiting aspects of the writing process in quite an intense way. I was also taking stock of all those years of developing and directing other playwrights’ work. I was lucky to have been involved in new UK playwriting at a time when it had become an exciting, expansive landscape and I knew that many writers I had worked with (such as Philip Ridley, Anthony Neilson, Roy Williams, Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti) had profoundly influenced the next generation and had real insight to pass on. That rule-breaking spirit was there in all our work in many different ways.

Those writers also worked across media and needed to feel as much at home writing for TV, film, theatre and/or prose fiction. I had just started writing a first novel and had previously written for theatre and screen. So I wanted to write a book which assumed that writers might choose to work in any form. It was to be an antidote to prescriptive writing guides but at the same time would be accessible and helpful for writers just starting out on their journey. In this sense the book would be in argument with itself, offering explanations as well as prompting the reader’s own explorations. The paradox is that as writers we unconsciously follow all sorts of received wisdoms or principles but there are no rules to writing except those we make and break as we write. So master the ‘rules’ in order to bend and break them. The 40 rules dissected and broken range from the obvious ‘show don’t tell’ or ‘write what you know’ to the provocative ‘be balanced’, the professional ‘writing is rewriting’ and the personal ‘learn how to be alone.’

At 260 pages the book is fairly substantial, but feels easy to read, partly because I asked for the print to be large, the titling bold and the publisher let me commission a few cartoons. The ‘format’ is a parody of one of those ‘The Rules’ books, with a Rule-Breaker at the end of each rule but this also enables it to work as a dip in book, the way I assume it will generally be used.

The team at Oberon Books were wonderfully flexible as the idea took shape. They left me alone and allowed me to write a book that was twice the length originally agreed, that was aimed at screenwriters and novelists as well as playwrights and that had no less than 40 contributing writers, most of whom wrote for more than one medium. Oberon had commissioned me to write about my own experiences, so I retained this personal flavour. Most importantly however, I wanted the book to feel writer centred, so I constructed the narrative in many respects to support the 40 writers’ contributions, showing how working writers negotiate some of the most powerful rules or redefine or reject them. Trying to create a coherent narrative around these contributions meant that the book was more ambitious and time-consuming to both curate and write. The book I had naively thought I would dash off in a few weeks ended up taking me six months, and then another three months of proofing, layout etc until it went to print. It was published on April 12th 2012, is so far selling well and getting a wonderful response from writers. Several have said they found it liberating and ‘it made me want to write.’ That is all I hope for.

This is the link to the book on the Oberon site http://oberonbooks.com/no-rules-handbook
If you buy the book from them and use the code OneNoRules you get 30% discount off the RRP 14.99.

“Lisa Goldman’s book is like the best of British new writing: it is personal, well-written, clearly thought out and resonant. Its advice is passionately felt but perfectly controlled. And its ideas sing and inspire” Aleks Sierz (critic and author of In-Yer-Face-Theatre)

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