Sunday, 15 May 2011

Pinch of salt, meet writing rules

There is only one writing rule you should never, ever, break: Don't Bore The Reader.

Everything else is negotiable.

I was going to make that two unbreakable rules, the other being Get Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar Right, but then it occurred to me that the most successful indie writer ever, Amanda Hocking, admits her books are far from flawless in that regard.

So, on to rules you can break as necessary:
  • Show, Don't Tell. This is usually a good rule, but not invariably. Some less riveting bits of a novel are best summed up in a brief paragraph rather than shown happening. And I'm not a fan of describing the minutiae of facial expressions in order to avoid 'telling' when we are all so good at reading people's faces. I favour, 'The Professor came in, looking furtive and agitated' over, 'The Professor came in, his brow furrowed, his colour high, glancing over his shoulder as if checking he could not be overheard.'

  • Avoid Adverbs. Well, okay, it's certainly possible to overdo them, but I've been on writing sites where you got criticized if you used any at all. I don't see why they should be pariahs - adverbs are just one tool in the writer's toolbox.

  • Stick To Single POV. There are occasions when this is a good idea. Mary Renault in Fire From Heaven has an excellent scene entirely in Demosthenes' POV, where he mistakes a young Alexander the Great for a slave boy. The reader enjoys seeing through his eyes while knowing his mistake. In other parts of the book she uses multiple POVs, and why not? It works.

  • Don't Start A Book With Dialogue. Why ever not? Two out of my four books start with dialogue; my favourite being the line suggested as a good opener for Trav Zander by Alan Hutcheson, "I wish to acquire a dragon."

  • Kill Your Darlings. Weird, this one; we are advised to delete any passages of our writing we think particularly good. Um...why? If I truly trusted my own judgment so little, then how would I know I'd got anything right at all?
Have I missed any others?


  1. Erm - I do have a haiku rule that haiku-ers may or may not use? The 5-7-5 syllable count is not written in stone - they just become other types of haiku!

    Ahem. :-)

    As for writing rules - I know my limitations and am not talented enough to break these!! LOL!

    Take care

  2. Haiku and I avert gazes when our paths cross and pretend the other isn't there.

    You don't need talent to break these rules, Kitty (and anyway I'm sure you are being too modest) - you just need a certain level of stroppiness :o)

  3. Hi Lexi.

    I'm so relieved to read this post!

    I agree completely, the only rule I follow is - ignore all rules.

    I try to make my writing flow as smoothly as possible, don't overwrite and write in my own voice - I don't speak using correct grammar so why should I write that way?

    Regards, Barry Dashwood.

    P.S. My wife just bought me a Kindle and the only two books I've bought so far are yours. I enjoyed them both and I'm wondering if you need any more glowing reviews?

  4. Hi Barry, thanks for dropping by. And for buying my books :o)

    People teaching creative writing classes make up most of these rules, I think, so as to have something to teach.

    (Replica wouldn't say no to a glowing review - it's just had a one star review from someone who read the sample and didn't like it.)

  5. Hi Lexi, great reminders!

    Critiquers keep hauling me over the coals any time I tell them how a character looked instead of showing their every facial tic. But sometimes you just need to get the info out and get on with the story.

    I don't think I ever thought "kill your darlings" as meaning delete everything I think particularly good. That sounds counter-productive, seeing as the aim is to make every paragraph something I'm proud of. I always thought this was an reminder to be ruthless if it turns out that a passage is not advancing the story and the only reason it's hanging in there is because you are fond of it.

    As for starting a book with dialogue..."Call me Ishmael" anyone?

  6. Botanist, what I forgot to say is that readers, as distinct from writers, don't care at all about these things. What they care most about is the story.

    I'm sure you're right in your interpretation of 'kill your darlings'. I'm so little given to purple prose I missed that.

  7. I totally agree! And it's refreshing to see this coming from an author whose works I love!

    I especially hate the "furrowed brow..." compared to "furtive and agitated". We all know what that looks like!

  8. Hang on, this isn't right - everyone's agreeing with me! I can usually count on the supporters of single POV at least to weigh in on the other side...

  9. I sometimes get confused reading multiple POV novels, and have to check back to see whose POV I'm in. It works if the writer can give each character a distinctive voice - G R R Martin is a master of this - but otherwise I feel it's best avoided if possible.

    Surely there are times when we need to use bad grammar, sentence fragments, contractions, etc. People don't speak in grammatical sentences, and if we're too correct, dialogue sounds unnatural. A lot of writers, for instance, could do with more contractions in speech. We don't say 'do not', 'have not', etc, and fictional characters who speak like that never sound right to me.

  10. Aha, a dissenting voice! Thank you, Robert.

    I use contractions not only in dialogue but in the narrative sometimes because it feels natural. Writers didn't do this fifty years ago, on the whole, but we live in less formal times.

  11. Great post, Lexi. I have a small collection of instructional books and sometimes it seems that they're as much bad advice as good. I have one book that insists a good thriller should always open with the protagonist and NEVER with a victim. The reasons are valid, but you'd have to overlook the fact that 90% of the thrillers out there (and almost everything in movies or television) break this rule. So the rule actually goes against convention for the sake of being correct... I guess?

  12. If everyone followed the golden rules we would all be writing the same books... How boring that would be!

    I think you should learn what the rules are then go off and write your own thing. If you happen to have kept to some of the rules then all well and good if not... Oh well never mind, what is important is what your readers think of your book. They don't shake their heads and say oh dear this writer has broken the rules of writing...
    A great story will speak for itself and bad one is never heard of again.

    Good luck with your books, Lexi

  13. I recently heard of a situation where restoring a small 'shed' attached to a listed church building cost £60K. All because the relevant committees applied the rules in a rigorous manner.

    In all walks of life, rules should be applied with flexibility and common sense, and are best regarded as guide lines, except where they become laws and abeyance is mandatory.

    Lexi: People teaching creative writing classes make up most of these rules, I think, so as to have something to teach.

    LOL A lot of truth in that! They are also supposed to be the distilled wisdom of many distinguished authors, crystallized into a few sentences for general guidance.

    Lexi, I think Stephen King might agree with your views. To quote from the introduction to his craft book:

    This is a short book because most books about writing are
    filled with bullshit. Fiction writers, present company included,
    don't understand very much about what they do, not why it
    works when it's good, not why it doesn't when it's bad. I figured the shorter the book, the less the bullshit.

    Says it all!

  14. Jamie, WHAT? I'd have imagined the thriller rule was start the book with the victim, it's so prevalent.

    Jamara, true, it's always about the readers. I have two or three books on writing etc.; they were helpful, but I got to a stage where I felt more advice would be counter-productive and simply make me self-conscious.

    Q, common sense is undervalued and frequently lacking. I dislike the way we are encouraged to obey rules rather than exercise our judgment - but here I'm straying on to the nanny state in all its ghastliness, a subject I avoid as it makes me cross.

  15. The version of Kill your darlings that I heard, was Don't be afraid to kill your darlings. I think it is just a general suggestion that we should avoid over written purple prose.
    As far as I can see there are no rules, the fundamental fact is that there are lot more writers than the book market can make money from, so there is a whole industry dedicated to persuading writers that their stuff is not ready yet. Of course it is true that a lot of books are not ready, but I suspect that applying all the so called rules, apart from your first one, won't help those books.

  16. I'm not sure, Rod; the publishing industry needs writers, the Kindle needs content, the buyer will sort out what he wants from what's on offer.

    I think the discouragement comes largely from writers who got their contracts in easier times, and now boost their incomes by teaching classes and workshops.

  17. Lexi, the logic behind this rule was that readers might develop an affinity for the victim right before he or she dies. Then, they might have trouble bonding with the protagonist for fear that he or she might die as well.

    The rule seemed so counter to everything I had witnessed that I took it to a writer's forum to get opinions. Probably 9 out of 10 agreed with the rule and insisted that I should introduce the protagonist first, then kill someone. Strange, huh? I mean, I understand the rationale behind the rule, but I've seen it done hundreds of times and never observed it being a problem.

  18. That actually seems rather sensible to me. But you generally know from the blurb that the poor soul in the first chapter is going to be horribly murdered. Serial killers are surprisingly numerous in fiction these days.

    I find books that start with a murder depressing, and never read them.

  19. The adverbs "rule" is one of my pet peeves. AFAIK, it was only ever meant to encourage the use of more descriptive verbs. I.e. "He jogged" instead of "he ran slowly."

    There *are* times when a verb alone doesn't do the job (hence the reason adverbs were invented). :P

    I see some folks making unwieldy sentences where things are rewritten to use an adjective instead of an evil adverb (and, shoot, I find myself doing it too). You just end up using six words when three would have sufficed.

    Anyway, I do believe I wandered off on a rant there. What was the original question? ;)

  20. Lindsay, you feel free to come here and rant any time you like :o)

  21. Unbreakable Rule The Third: Read. I would venture that in order to know what Not Boring the Reader looks like, the aspiring writer requires an extended and constant exposure to Splendid Examples. A writer who does not read is at a tremendous disadvantage.

  22. Yes - and I think it was Nick Poole who said he reckoned you had to have read a great deal as a child in order to write well as an adult. That sounded plausible to me.

  23. "I wish to acquire a dragon."

    It hooked me instantly so, if that is breaking a rule, keep going, Lexi.

  24. Hi Anna, your visits are few but welcome.

    I will endeavour to keep going... How far is it?

  25. It is best not to spend too much time seeking the answer that question.

  26. Hi Lexi. This is a fabulous post. I especially like breaking the rule about not starting a book with dialogue. This is hard for me because in most cases I hear conversations between my characters FIRST, then I set the story around that.

    Thanks so much for letting me know that I'm not crazy.:)

  27. Hi Cheryl!

    Of course, this is just my opinion - but then, all writing rules are just someone's opinion. They are not carved in stone and handed down from on high :o)

  28. I reckon rules are made to be broken and the plethora of really splendid e-books are evidence. There is a sparkling life to a number i've read lately where all those 'rules' you mention seem to have been ignored. more power to the writers, I say.
    Love that Steven King quote. I suspect Neil Gaiman may have the same attitude.

  29. I think the rules that really cause a problem for writers (and readers) are publishers' unwritten rules. They seem to have proliferated lately, and are all about restricting what fiction is on offer to the public in order to make their own lives easier.

  30. I've been blog hopping and landed here. Wonderfully informative site you have.

    Hope you don't mind if I stick around. I'm quiet unless I have a question, or feel I have something to add but my mind is a sponge.

  31. Welcome, Mustang Sally!

    If you get tired of being quiet, rowdy is acceptable too :o)