Do You Always Go 55?   18 comments

What generic ‘rules’ did you abide by when you started writing that have gone out the window?

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I’m a Highly Trained Writer, Unlearning the Rules

I’ve been writing almost a half-century now. When I started writing, I was unaware of any rules for writing. It was just something I enjoyed doing. I got good English grades in high school, I earned a BA in journalism, worked as a reporter and later got a Master’s in Journalism. I now know lots of rules for writing.

Do I follow any of them? Sure. But there’s a bunch I no longer find useful, so I don’t. The whole art of writing is to acquire enough skill in the craft to know which rules don’t matter and when to break the rules that do.

Grammar Matters … Mostly

There is a huge difference between writing a news article your editor has allotted 150-350 words to explain a complex issue to the reader and writing a 80,000-word novel. Many of the rules I learned in English classes taught how to use language very precisely, but often at the cost of digestibility. Seriously, never write above your audience’s reading level. Many of the rules I learned in journalism classes were designed to condense what we wrote into easily-digestible, information-dense sentences using words everybody knows. Yeah, college was a fun exercise in shifting my writing style from class to class. I once got a compliment from an English professor that journalism hadn’t ruined by ability to write. Maybe that explains my philosophy of writing novels — there are rules, but nobody should ever be aware of my use of them.

Don’t Sweat Split Infinitives

Most non-writers wouldn’t recognize a split infinitive if it sat down on their lap and screamed “Here I am”?

The rule against splitting infinitives says nothing must come between a to and its verb. Sorry, Gene Roddenberry, but it’s incorrect “to boldly go”. You need to rewrite that iconic line as “to go boldly” or “boldly to go”. Play the substitution game and you quickly realize how silly that rule is. The phrase sounds best the way the Big Bird of the Galaxy used it, In fact, it’s a fairly new rule that never bogged down the classic writers. George Bernard Shaw said, “Every good literary craftsman splits his infinitives when the sense demands it.” So, it’s a rule meant to be broken, because it’s mostly silly and readers won’t notice anyway.

Dangling Prepositions

There’s a rule that says don’t end a sentence with a preposition. What is this rule for? I mean, for what is this rule?

I think I just made my point. The second construction creates a clunky sentence that the reader might need to pause and deconstruct to understand. Pausing readers needing to consult grammar books is bad novelist ju-ju to avoided at all costs.

Ending a sentence with a preposition is completely natural in English and rarely wrong. The rule came about during the 17th century when scholars were deeply immersed in the study of Latin and took to emulating Latin as a model of linguistic purity. Because a preposition can’t be stranded in Latin, some thought that the same should hold for English. Latin differs from English in myriad ways, and to cling to a prohibition that forces you to swap It’s nothing to worry about for It’s nothing about which to worry does nothing for clarity of expression. Even the Oxford Dictionaries agree with me.

But what about sentences like Where’s he at? or Do you want to come with? Should those be considered correct, then? No. Those are examples of non-standard grammar because they’re used in non-standard dialects, not because they end with prepositions. At where is he? does not sound any better, and if the problem with come with is the ending preposition, why doesn’t come along sound just as bad? 

Going Beyond Grammar

Of course, writing novels is about more than grammar. I encountered countless rules for writing novels when I was honing my craft.

Don’t make your opening scene too dark.

You’ll run across this advice in many writers groups and I’ve had beta readers bring it up too. Start the novel with an “establishing shot” — something showing everyday life before the dark events start.

Clearly, I don’t subscribe to that advice as many of my novels start with darkness. I start the entire series of Transformation Project with a scene in which the main character Shane puts a gun in his mouth. In Red Kryptonite Curve, I start in Peter’s dream remembering the sexual abuse he suffered as a child.

Contemporary novels don’t have establishing shots. Readers expect us to start in the middle of things. I establish from that first scene in Transformation Project that death stalks this series and anyone — including the hero — is fair game in the Apocalypse. I’ve had fans say “I really like Shane, I hope you’re not killing him off, but I kind of know you might.” That was after I hung him at the end of A Threatening Fragility. You had to read Day’s End to find out if he lives. In the case of Peter, I want people to know that behind his charming personality and teenage angst lurks secrets that are seeking to kill him. The book and the series it’s spawned are all about how he faces those demons.

The “establishing shots” theory of novel-writing probably comes from a misunderstanding of the “hero’s journey.” The “hero’s journey”, based on the teachings of Joseph Campbell, says a story must begin with the hero in his normal life at home, before the “call to adventure,” like Dorothy in Kansas before the tornado hits. Remember the old bat on the bicycle and the storm brewing on the horizon? The Wizard of Oz‘s opening scenes were bucolic, but the snake was visible on the tree.

Home for Shane, a mercenary, wasn’t sunny and pastoral. Yeah, way back in his history there was Kansas and his family, but in his contemporary life, he’s got demons crawling through his brain. And, poor Peter, his mother was always a part of his life.

Readers typically want action and emotion right away and if you don’t provide it to them, they’ll put your book back on the shelf and go to another one that fulfills their desires.

Nix the Contemporary References to Avoid Dating

Yes, you might risk dating your novel with a contemporary reference — or you might create a classic. Will anyone still be reading your novel in 10 years? Life As We Knew It will be five years old this fall and 2020 has been it’s best years in sales. Of course, I’m writing an apocalyptic series and each new book that comes out acts to draw people to read the whole series, but truthfully, most books read today won’t still be actively read 10 years from now, so if you put a pop-culture reference in it, it won’t matter.

I’m a fan of Alex Finn and especially like her Breathing Underwater. She wrote that in the 1990s, back when cell phones were brand-new, Facebook wasn’t a thing yet, and smart phones had yet to be invented. I have an early printing and, while I recognize some of the references as dated, I don’t care. I made both my kids read the book (which is about dating violence) when they were teenagers and neither said “But, Mom, this is so old-fashioned.” A great book can overcome being dated.

I recently bought a copy through Kindle and noticed when I reread it that some attempt was made to update some of the technology in the book. Some of the updates were fine and then there was one where the whole impact of the scene was destroyed by Nick calling Caitlyn on his cell rather than a payphone. Of course, good luck finding a payphone in Miami these days, but the smell of the hairspray and his fear of the germs of others was completely lost and the scene fell flat because of it.

Brand names, celebrities, and current events add a sense of authenticity that readers can relate to. Cultural references also pinpoint your story in time. Go ahead and let your protagonist’s grandma go catatonic for three weeks after the 2016 US Presidential election. That will give historical perspective and tell readers a lot about your MC’s grandmother without actually needing an info-dump.

Speaking of which, for my European readers, the title of this article references a now-mostly defunct federal traffic rule — the arbitrary setting of a national speed limit at 55 miles per hour. I bet my middle-aged American readers got the reference immediately and it probably made them smile and told them something of what I was going to say in this article. Contemporary references can be spice in an otherwise bland meal.

Said” is a Perfectly Useful Verb. Don’t Get Creative.

This is a bit of conventional contemporary “rule-making” that I have ignored my entire writing career. In journalism, you’re taught to make every word count and so strong verbs are your friend. In contemporary novelist circles, we’re told we’ve read too many Hardy Boy’s books if we use any verb meaning “to speak” other than “said.”

These “experts” insist “said” is invisible to the reader. Any other dialogue tag draws attention to itself. So, use other tags judiciously, the way you do with exclamation marks, but if you use them, only use “said.”.

Point of fact, you want to use dialogue tags sparingly, and only when needed for clarity. You can tell the reader who is speaking by connecting action to the dialogue. But occasionally, the sound of a character’s voice matters, so don’t just waste the opportunity with a generic “said”. On the other hand, don’t just use “growled” or “exclaimed” because you can. I stop and think about the impact of a verb before I use it.

Never Use Sentence Fragments – Even in Dialogue

A beta reader who claimed to be a school teacher lectured me on this once. His whole critique of my novel — which was the 4th in the series, mind you — had to do with sentence fragments, run-on sentences, and colloquialisms … in dialogue The people in Transformation Project sound a lot like the people from my mother’s hometown in North Dakota and the Midwesterners who immigrated to Alaska. In other words, they sound authentic. Characters speaking in complete sentences would sound fake. Even people in New England don’t sound like that.

When you write a novel, your aim should be to present realistic characters, not to impress your junior-high Language Arts teacher. Nobody uses perfect grammar when they speak. Not even Ph.Ds. (A third of my church’s membership holds a Master’s or better, and I have now edited about 20 thesis and dissertations – they don’t even use perfect grammar in writing these documents — until I’m done with them.)

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, comical mess nobody will want to read.

Never use the word “was.”

This grows from the very good advice of “don’t use passive voice”, but “was” is not always “passive.” The past tense of the verb “to be” is also used in creating the past progressive tense in English.

Passive: “The book was read by me…” Passive voice tends to sound pretentious and annoying, although sometimes the passive voice is necessary, so don’t try to eliminate it entirely.

Past Progressive: “I was reading the book when some idiot came in and told me the word ‘was’ is taboo for writers.”

If you change the construction to “I read the book” instead of “I was reading the book” you have no sense of the timeline, which would require adding more sentences to fix that problem. That would be dumb.

Yes, doing a search for “was” is a handy tip for self-editing. It helps to weed out passive construction. A “was” search can also pinpoint lazy writing habits like starting descriptive passages with “there was.”

Don’t go overboard though. Some passive construction reduces tension occasionally and prevents the choppy rhythm that sometimes comes with Hemingway-esque all active-voice writing. Used sparingly, it can actually improve the flow of a novel.

All Viewpoint Characters Need Equal Time

When I started writing Red Kryptonite Curve, I tried to follow this rule. I knew there were three perspectives I wanted to tell the sotry from. The problem was, Cheyenne turned out to be shallow. I didn’t enjoy writing her. And as I wrote, I found she mainly thought the same things over and over again – because that’s what shallow people do. When I stood back from the book and looked at it, I didn’t think Cheyenne had anything more to say. Someone suggested I eliminate her point of view, but that didn’t feel right either. Peter and Ben are male friends. They’re not gay lovers. It made no sense for them to take turns telling a story about Peter’s romance with Cheyenne. The story was originally written strictly from Peter’s point of view and I discovered he’s so in denial about his problems that I needed another POV to be the aware one. I needed Ben, but when I wrote his POV, the advice I got was they needed to be lovers. Yeah, no, they don’t. That’s so overdone these days. So I wrote Cheyenne as the third-wheel, but she’s like a small caster compared to their big wheels and I think it works. I plan to do the same thing with 2nd book “Dancing the Centerline”.

Rules are Structure, but Don’t Be Afraid to Play

I kind of view writing rules like I do traffic laws. They help keep the car out of the ditches, but sometimes they can be bent or even broken without consequences and the outcome will be so much better than if I’d stuck to the rules. Sometimes, driving in Alaska, you have to break the traffic laws just to get down the road. Because of permafrost, which renders our roads into asphalt rollercoasters, you probably want to stay below 55 mph, but you might not always want to drive on the right. Sometimes you have to veer to avoid “dips” (a euphemism for a moon crater that has absorbed the lane and will break your axle should you follow the rules). Sometimes in writing, you’re going to end up with a better novel if you aren’t too wedded to “But everybody says.” Everybody can be wrong and you should do you.

18 responses to “Do You Always Go 55?

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  1. A very interesting article this week, Lela. I was taught to write very formally at school and it is quite an effort to “undo” some of the thinks I was taught for years and years. For example, it doesn’t come naturally to me to write using contractions, we were not allowed to use these at school. The concept didn’t even exist although people spoke that way.

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    • Yeah, every once in a while, I’ll find myself editing out contractions. It’s probably because I’ve just edited someone’s thesis. But sometimes it’s a useful rule. My character Amisi in Transformation Project is from Egypt. I often have her not using contractions as a subtle reminder to readers that English is not her first language.

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  2. I envy your your degrees in journalism! I only started writing in 2013 and had to learn as I’ve gone along. So many rules and so little time…

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    • I don’t know that journalism taught me how to write novels. I’ve got about three, maybe four, styles of writing stuffed into my head. Fiction writing is something I’ve just always done, even while I was learning how to write tight prose for journalism. While I still can do it, I hate writing university-level technical writing. They pay way too much attention to rules. I pick up a couple of jobs every year editing someone’s dissertation or thesis, but I wouldn’t pursue a doctorate in journalism because I’d have to write in that style.

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  3. Fascinating, who knew that there were so many? And I break them all. Especially between quotation marks! On a serious note, I am in awe of those who can understand language and grammar. I was too busy looking out of the window and being told I was useless to absorb them.

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    • Well, here’s the thing — I was a HORRIBLE student until I started high school. I was always daydreaming, I would rather write than memorize grammar rules, and that was just the beginning. But between 8th and 9th grade (I was 14), I decided to reform me. I don’t know why. I just decided I wanted to do better. So I went to the library and I checked out a grammar book and I taught myself how to recognize the parts of speech and use them properly. The funny thing was, it turned out I was already mostly doing that already. I was an incredible reader from about age 8, so I guess I’d absorbed a bunch of rules while I was “wasting time”.

      So, I went back to school and suddenly, I was getting compliments from my English teachers and what a great writer I was. I never had to parse a sentence in school again until I was subbing at a private school that thought grammar was a very important subject. I let my students know that while grammar was very important to getting good grades in that school, it wasn’t all that important as a writer. I could have been a reporter for the years that I was without knowing how to recognize a preposition, so long as I knew how to use it property — which a voracious reader picks up naturally.

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  4. I make a point of avoiding current culture references. With one exception. I pay homage to my favorite dead musician in my mysteries. And then it’s usually a one-off reference most readers won’t even notice.

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  5. I hear Sammy Hagar screaming “I…CAN’T…DRIVE….FIFTY-FIVE.” If you ever took the Five run from the Bay to LA and back, way back when, you know exactly what he was saying. Eliminate contractions and get all stick in your butt about grammar in dialogue and it’s over. People used to bust on Barabra Park for her Junie B dialogue and she finally said that fiction is not the landscape for a discussion of grammar and it’s a waste of air talking to people who don’t get that. Besides, ever listened to a five or six-year-old? Hardly the Queen’s English. Nor is the guy in Shawnee Oklahoma who just lost a single wide to a tornado. Write the story. My PhD in Rhetoric wife would disagree. So be it.

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    • My husband occasionally tries to correct my grammar and I remind him that he’s an electrician. He is really good at spotting typos, though.

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      • I used to find grad students who needed some grocery money and have them look for clams, typos, but as good as some of the software is these days I use one to run line by line. It accomplishes several things. I am forced to read every sentence, look at everything and fix the fit and finish things like typos, possessives, hyphens and I am free to accept or ignore the other suggestions. I’m also forced to read every sentence and watch paragraph construction and logic, something a LOT of indie authors miss.

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      • Yeah, I use some of the great software too and I listen to my book book using the robotic reader software, which for some reason really highlights my errors for me. But I also usually have at least one beta reader — sometimes my husband, occasionally my son, sometimes someone I pick up on Facebook — to read it. My editor is a friend who charges by the red ink, so I try to give her a very clean manuscript.

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      • Can we have a brief discussion of this email wise?

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  6. I love the point about needing some structure, but knowing when to adjust. It all depends on the author, and the book. I feel like a lot of times writers start out copying the structure of books they enjoy and eventually learning their own.

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    • I might well have done that. I don’t know. I was 12, so who knows what I thought I was doing. But over the years, I’ve learned several styles of writing. I love Hemingway’s books, but I definitely don’t write like Hemingway. I love Dickens’ books too, but I don’t write like him. I’m entirely unaware of copying anyone. But I can turn on a dime and go from writing my books my way to editing a doctoral dissertation. I suppose I could (and probably should) try writing a journalistic article sometimes, just to see if I’ve still got “it”.

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