Stupid Writing Rules   1 comment

In seeking content for this blog, I started looking at what others have suggested for writers … and this weird mocking voice started in my head. Some of these “rules” are … uh, comical because they’re the exact opposite of what professionals consider to be good writing. Just because a writer has a particular bad habit that they don’t want to give up doesn’t mean they should advise others to copy them.

One blog suggested not to start a story with a dark or scary beginning. “You should begin with the hero at home in a lovely bucolic setting before you douse them in tension or tragedy.”

Think Dorothy in Kansas before the tornado changes her reality or Bilbo at Bags End before the dwarfs show up. Both of those books were written more than 50 years ago, before the advent of Amazon’s preview feature.

You might have noticed, if you read my books, that my main character’s home is sometimes a dark and scary place. Shane stuck a gun in his mouth in the opening scene of Life As We Knew It, book 1 of Transformation Project. Prince Maryn died in the opening scene of The Willow Branch, book 1 of Daermad Cycle. Peter is in a very dark place at the start of What If … Wasn’t. A YA I’m working on begins with a vicious beating.

Clearly  I don’t follow this advice. Why not?

Readers want action or emotion right away, otherwise they move onto the next book and never pop for yours. As much as I love writing just pure beauty on the page, I want someone to read my book and that requires writing some visceral for them to hang their interest on.

“Always start with a prologue.”

Sometimes a prologue is a good thing, but most of them are just extra frippery. They play better in some genres rather than others — epic fantasy, historical saga, space opera — I have one at the start of Book 2 of the Transformation Project, Objects in View, because it serves to remind readers of what has happened so far. A lot of experts consider prologues to be old-fashioned and unnecessary, and they may well be right. I wasn’t altogether convinced the Objects needed a prologue, but I wanted to play with one, so I did.

“Don’t put contemporary references in fiction because it will date the book.”

While we all hope someone will still be reading our novels 10 years after their publication, that’s not really likely. Brand names, celebrities and current events add a sense of authenticity to contemporary literature that readers can relate to. Cultural references anchor your story in time. If your main character’s dad has a hissy fit over the outcome of the 2016 Presidential election, it provides historical context and also tells the reader a lot about your character’s father without having to labor the details.

“Novels should not contain contractions.”

Huh?

Yeah, that one dumbfounded me. Supposedly the writer heard it from an “editor”. (Note to self, vet freelance editors very carefully). If you follow this editor’s advice, every character in your novel will sound like Henry Standingbear in Longmire. While that’s an endearing quirkiness for one character, it will irritate readers who speak English as a first language. Everybody uses contractions, unless there is a compelling reason they don’t.

“‘Said’ is boring. Use more energetic tags like ‘exclaimed’, ‘growled’ or ‘screamed'”

I was taught this also, both as a creative writer and as a journalist, but that was more than 30 years ago. There’s a movement today not to use dialogue tags at all and, if you’re not using them much, “said” becomes invisible to the reader. Any other dialogue tag draws attention to itself and away from the dialogue.

Mostly you can eliminate tags altogether except for where they’re needed for clarity. If you need something to show the character was upset, cold, fatigued, angry … whatever … try showing it in action rather than with a dialogue tag.

“You have to head-hop if you have more than one character in a scene.”

I don’t know where this advice came from because good writers don’t tell us what everybody in a scene is thinking. That’s confusing to the reader and negates the fact that the POV character cannot read minds. Most of us are reliant on our ability to read the reactions of other characters. We see life through our own eyes and none other. We figure out what’s going on by reading body language, facial expressions, and then hearing dialogue to let us know how key characters are relating to the action.

The exception is a story told from an omniscient point of view, which is not the same as head-hopping. Omniscient POV uses a god-like voice that knows everything. You’ll often see it in high fantasy using a “bard’s” storytelling voice. It can work, but it’s really hard to pull off.

“All internal monologue must be put in italics.”

 

A variant on this is “all memory must be in italics“.

I do it, so I subscribe to this rule, but it’s not traditional. It came about in mid-20th century pulp fiction. Because I think the inner thoughts of a POV character are important, I use italics to highlight them without confusing the readers.

Some experts say italics are on the way out. There are agents who say in their guidelines that they won’t read anything that is italicized. Writers are encouraged to use “deep third person” point of view that allows for inner monologues without dialogue tags. I’m going to write something about that soon.

 

So, while this is sort of rule and there are benefits, it’s not a hard and fast rule.

“Never use sentence fragments and characters should speak and think in proper English.”

I combined that from two bits of critique I picked up on the Authonomy website when it was still running.

Wow! I hold a Master’s in journalism and don’t speak in complete sentences all of the time. I don’t use perfect grammer either. Classic writers like Jane Austen and Shakespeare allowed their characters to speak in fragments.

When you write a novel, your aim is to to present realistic characters, not impress your third grade teacher. Do you think a fictional 5-year-old should sound like a university professor? Does that smack as authenic to you?

Nobody uses perfect grammar when they speak. Not even Ph.Ds. I’ve worked with a fair number of Ph.D.’s in my working life. Trust me on this.

The rules for writing fiction are very different from the rules for writing a scholarly essay. If you confuse them, you’re going to end up with a pompous, boring mess.

“Never use the word ‘was’ because it’s passive voice.”

Actually, it isn’t always.

Passive Voice: “The book was read by me”. That sounds pretentious in most circumstances, but sometimes it has a reason, so don’t eliminate it entirely.

 

Past Progressive Voice: “I was reading the book when it said the word ‘was’ is taboo.”

You mess with the timeline if you change the construction to “I read the book” instead of “I was reading the book”.  There’s really no way of rewording this sentence so that it doesn’t sound clunky. This is the best construction for what you’re trying to say.

Yes, doing a search for “was” is a handy tip for self-editing. It helps to weed out passive construction (when it needs weeding.) A “was” search can also pinpoint lazy writing habits like starting descriptive passages with “there was.” Ofthen there is a stronger verb you could use to make a more interesting and tighter sentence. But there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with the word ‘was’. People go way over the top with their hatred of the past tense of the verb “to be.” If every sentence in your book is an active voice sentence, the book will read stilted. A little bit of passive voice here and there provides variety.

“Never read other writers while you’re working on a novel because you will copy those writers.”

Really? So, if I read Tolkien while I am writing my epic fantasy, I’ll ooze Tolkien-quality words onto the page? Cool! This will save so much time I would have spent practicing good writing skills.

My art teacher back in college set us to copying the masters as a means to learning from them. Picasso learned to paint by copying the masters. Check out his Blue Period paintings sometime.

No, we shouldn’t strive to rip off the masters of literature, but a new writer could learn a lot by writing to story in the style of Faulkner or Jane Austen … or Stephen King, who says that we should spend half our “writing time” reading.

 

There’s nothing wrong with writing rules, but they should make sense and we shouldn’t follow them so slavishly that we don’t know when to break them
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One response to “Stupid Writing Rules

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  1. Reblogged this on When Angels Fly and commented:
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