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Writers Rules

In a recent Sisters in Crime (SinC) meeting, one of our members conducted a mini-workshop based upon award-winning author Nancy Picard’s CASTS system for writing novels.

Okay, a quick reminder regarding the first likely question in many folks’ minds: Although SinC was originally established to encourage and promote women mystery/crime writers, the St. Louis chapter (and many others) has adapted to also include Misters.

As to the second looming question: CASTS is Nancy Picard’s acronym for Conflict; Action; Surprise; Turn; and Sensory detail. While editing and rewriting her work, Picard created CASTS as a method to ensure her manuscripts will grab and retain readers’ attentions.  She believes every chapter in a novel should contain each of the five aforementioned elements, and she attributes much of her success came from abiding by this method.

In our mini-workshop, SinC members were asked to bring a two to three page sample from one of their projects to analyze utilizing the CASTS system. Following an overview that explained what CASTS involved, members proceeded to scrutinize our work. I was pleased to discover that my scene contained all five elements––as did my fellow members’ examples.

After some discussion, a member asked, “Just how much of each of the five elements is necessary for each chapter? Should the elements be equal or can one element stand out more––or less––from the others?”

Without Nancy Picard present to set our group straight, we debated the inquiry and felt that perfect balance wasn’t the primary issue; that some chapters may emphasize one element more than another. The important point was that all five elements should be found somewhere in every chapter.

Overall, our SinC meeting/workshop proved successful. Each member concurred that Nancy Picard’s CASTS system certainly bears merit for all writers. We each left with heightened awareness toward another tool to support and possibly improve her/his writing.

Learning about another writer’s tool also spawned another point. Doesn’t the CASTS system represent another writers rule to follow? After all, any writer that’s been involved in the craft knows that there are plenty of rules for writers to obey already.

From my perspective, writers rules and methods are best regarded as guidelines. Like road maps that show the ideal routes but also allow for adventuresome deviations, some hardened rules can and should be bypassed once in a while.

Certainly, there are some decrees that writers should more closely adhere to, for example: SHOW don’t TELL. Use Active voice rather than Passive. Monitor and correct improper spelling and grammar. Conflict drives the plot.

The good news: Like most tasks, when the important guidelines are practiced often enough, they will become routine.

On the other hand, if every writer strictly observed and obeyed every available rule and method, three things would likely occur: 1) All writing would read and sound the same––much like reading a shop manual––BORING!  2) Writing a novel would take forever––unless computer generated, then refer back to #1.  3) Imagination within creative writing would fade.

Writers require the freedom to establish their unique voice within their plots and characters, their narrative and dialogue. For that to occur–for their words to flow and their characters to speak naturally––writers need to understand that although some basic rules should be followed,  it is also okay––even necessary––to bend the rules a bit in order to develop and maintain their unique writer’s voice. Once that unique voice is discovered, a voice that flows easily and captures reader loyalty, stick with it.

That said, YES, I definitely bend a few rules. Will I utilize and recommend Nancy Picard’s CASTS system? You bet, because as an editing/rewriting tool, I feel it works very well.

Happy writing, folks.

Thanks for stopping by.


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