The No Rules Handbook for Writers is a bit of a misnomer: author Lisa Goldman doesn’t seek to throw out the accepted rules of writing, rather to examine them through a critical and, importantly, practical, filter and adapt them accordingly. So, for instance, “Write what the market wants” becomes “Create the market for your work”, “Write an outline before you write” becomes “The journey your imagination chooses becomes the way” – and the book ends up with 11 rules for rule breakers (unfortunately, Rule 11 is “Practice the rules before you break them” – an unfortunate typo in a book about writing). Given this remit, it’s easy to question why we should accept Goldman’s new rules any more readily – but one of the book’s strong points is that it actively encourages such scepticism. This isn’t a manual to be slavishly adhered to, rather a discussion point, a springboard, to be dipped in and out of for reassurance and inspiration.
Much of what makes the book so useful is that it draws on the experience of actual working writers. Goldman herself is a well-established figure in theatre, having been Artistic Director of Soho Theatre and of the Red Room, so she is used to working with, and commissioning writers, and knows both how writers function and what audiences respond to. She calls upon the experience of a diverse set of practitioners, who talk about what works for them, even when that doesn’t follow the received wisdom of what they should be doing. Such advice can seem to be less than practical at times – often it seems very specific to one person, or project – but it is undeniably useful to hear how such recognised names as Philip Ridley, Edmund White and Lucy Prebble manage their creative process, and what tips they can offer – often garnered from bitter experience – to those starting out.
Understandably, given Goldman’s own background, this is a book heavily slanted towards writing for the theatre – many of the examples are from plays, and there is occasionally a sense of ‘theatre versus TV’, which comes firmly down (at least in terms of creative freedom) on the side of the former. Although some of the chapters – especially later in the book, when they cover such ideas as finding time and space to write – are obviously relevant to all writing, if you’re looking for a book on how to get that novel started, or write a screenplay, I would argue there are better and more practical guides out there. But if you’re after a book to dip into for inspiration, and some guidance from those who have already trekked the rocky path to making their living from their writing, this is an interesting and enjoyable read.