Why I Break a Lot of Rules

>> Friday, July 3, 2015

When it comes to writing, there a lot of rules. When to bring the plot to the forefront. What's important early on. Only use "said" not other identifiers. Avoid adverbs. Show don't tell. Don't write in dialect. Use complete sentences. Yada yada yada.

I'm not saying yada yada yada because the rules aren't important; I'm saying it because I don't think the rules are ALL important. So let me make it clear.

It is important to know the rules. For one thing, many of these are fine practices to follow especially (a) if you're just learning your craft and (b) if you are trying to write professionally - i.e. you'll be writing for markets where the editors are looking to see, first off, if you know your craft.

And, although I'm going to explain why I break many of these rules, there's a huge difference between breaking rules because you don't know any better and making a conscious decision to do something different. If you don't know the basics, don't understand how to communicate well, while you're figuring out how to do that and probably before you find your voice, you want to be very cognizant of things that will make you look like an amateur--and will adversely affect your writing.

Because, and I think this is true for most of us, writing is more than talent. Writing requires skills and you develop those skills over time. The rules provide a way to avoid many pitfalls you might otherwise fall into while you make the mistakes and learn from those aspects of writing the rules don't cover, because, that's the other half. Following the rules alone doesn't make you a good writer. Talent is part of it, too. Saying something compelling, descriptive, wrenching, thought-provoking - you don't get there by using the rules and nothing more. The rules are tools you can use to build your great work, but they aren't enough by themselves. And, if you want to know "The Rules," there are literally thousands of books out there with writing rules in them, some the same, others variations on each other and some unique to each author. I'd look for books that seem in keeping with authors you like so you can find a set of rules that work best for what you want to write. I won't recommend any because I literally haven't read one in decades.

I am, you see, a freak. I am self-taught, teaching myself writing by (a) reading both authors I found compelling (and trying to understand why I loved them) and authors I didn't like or even hated (and trying to understand why I hated them so I could avoid doing the same) as well as (b) writing - lots and lots of writing. Writing let me find out what I liked writing, what I liked reading of my own, what did work for me and what didn't. It let me find out what wasn't working for me and what was. Poetry, short stories, novels - each type taught me different things with some things I learned writing poetry spilling over to make my short stories better, more emotionally gripping, more powerful and from my short stories to my novels to make my characterizations more vivid faster and adding drama when required.

From reading and writing, many of the big rules out there I soaked up by osmosis. Others I had pointed out by readers and fellow writers. There may still be some I don't know, but I think I've got a handle on most of them. And, most of them I follow, though there are a few notable ones I don't. And here's why:

Sentence fragments - when I write dialog, you'll see a great many fragments. That's because normal people (other than myself) tend to speak in fragments rather than complete sentences. If all of your characters speak in complete sentences, they'll all sound like English professors and that's not natural. So I don't, though I usually have one character at least that speaks that way (a) because I do (so it's often a protagonist) and (b) differences in syntax, grammar and sentence structure can help differentiate different characters, can make them seem more individual and vivid.

Now, that would be fine if I only did so in dialog but I don't. However, since I tend toward third person POV, I'm often inside someone's head and the tone and phrasing are in keeping with the head I'm in. Also, fragments can be used very effectively for impact and for humor, both things I strive for in my books. Which is why this is most likely to happen in moments of tension or humor or stress.

So, although I prefer generally to write in complete sentences, there are times when I knowingly and deliberately use fragments.

Head-hopping - this is the pet peeve of many an excellent writer and I don't blame them. Now that I'm cognizant of this issue (and I didn't know much about it for years), I can often find it irritating myself. But, yes, I still do it. Here's why.

First, I didn't know about the whole POV third person because I mostly wrote in what I considered third person omniscient which is, apparently, very passé. I have since made an effort to understand who's head I'm in, to control my transitions and, in some cases, keep them from happening. I have at least one book from all one point of view (which is the preferred method) and another where it's almost all limited to two viewpoints and generally has nice clear transitions.

My other three novels, however, are largely ensemble pieces where two viewpoints aren't enough to get the whole story and, while there tends to be a couple viewpoints that get precedence, more are needed, even in close succession. For a purist, it can be pretty wrenching. I tried to limit the viewpoints consciously, but, when it detracted from the story, and there were places where it made things awkward or confusing, I didn't limit myself.

Identifier - He said, she said. If you've written things well, the dialog itself should describe the specifics, the muttering, the yelling, the whispering, the begging, the insisting - it should be clear. Overuse of identifiers (especially severe overuse) can be very distracting and clumsy. Many a newbie writer uses them like candy so flagrantly, they look desperate, though not as desperate as when someone with less than a stellar grasp of language misuses them where the dialog clearly is saying one thing and the identifier (possibly from a ill-fated thesaurus hunt) says something contradictory. So, yeah, this rule has a reason.

I'm not bragging when I say I write pretty good dialog - but I still sometimes (sometimes frequently) use identifiers.Why? Well, a couple of reasons. (a) First, descriptive identifiers weren't always off limits and I read a lot of (1) old stuff and (2) British stuff. And the truth is, the identifiers were often part of the humor, part of the voice of the author and, when the dialog wasn't strong (and some old stuff is pretty stilted), they were used to good effect. There are passages where the identifiers made it much better for me, added to my delight in a passage. It's a potential tool, particularly when you need exposition (to liven up someone's data download) or when the dialog itself isn't exciting because, hey, sometimes exciting dialog doesn't fit the circumstances. I don't throw a tool away unless I have no choice. My point is I've seen them used effectively and I know it can be done.

(b) It can be useful in conveying emotions and reactions economically. If I said "I'm fine," he groaned, I know he's in pain or otherwise stressed. I don't have to explain his face is creased or sweat is beading on his face, that his hands are shaking with pain. Within the context of what I've written, I've conveyed a great deal with that one word that could take me several other sentences to convey otherwise. Same with if I said, "I'm fine," she hissed or "I'm fine," she chuckled. Same words, but I've conveyed more and I don't have to explain it. I can just move on with my story. 

(c) Identifiers can be hilarious. I've both seen and used them to comic effect and they can totally be icing on the cake. They can also be used to reinforce your particular voice. I especially like to use them on throw-away side characters who we don't get to know but provide humor through their antics.

Last and not least on this particular list...

Adverbs, particularly -ly ones (you see what I did there?) - -Ly adverbs are a problem for the same reason that identifiers can be a problem. They can be used lazily when more effective verbs or adjectives could do the job. I can't tell you the number of times I've closed a book myself as redundancy and overly ornate descriptions and piled on adverbs (often poorly chosen) and other descriptors swamped me.  On page one of one recommended book, our hero was riding over the verdant green grass. Since verdant means green that was pretty redundant. Not to mention that, as a general rule, the green is implied with "grass" anyway. But I digress.

Do I still use more than the recommended dose of -ly and other adverbs? Yep and I'm not apologizing. You know why?

Well, I like them and use them for much the same reasons I use diverse identifiers: I've seen it in authors I admire, it's a tool like any other, they can convey things easily and without awkwardness (and I've seen people do some pretty awkward things to avoid them), and they can be indispensable when it comes to humor. One of my favorite authors, who is also one of the funniest I've ever read, used them comically to great advantage. I STILL can't think of the passages where she used them without breaking up and wiping tears of laughter from my eyes. Not saying I'm as skilled as she, but there are times when my particular wording using an -ly adverb tickles me because it reminds me of her, almost like an homage. And when that happens, or when I feel like the wording reflects my writer's voice, my humor or just sounds better (ah, those years as a poet), I'll leave it if it works for me.



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