Friday, March 25

Rage Against the Rules

I'm not a seasoned writer. Compared to some of my blog mates and people I share several loops with, I'm a newbie. Like a lot of newbies out there I get confused by "The Rules." One minute I hear, "You can't do that, it's against the rules." Next, it's "There are no rules, just guidelines." Then there's "Sometimes you can break the rules." So... who's right? Sometimes I feel like a kid whose parents are giving opposite instructions, leaving me totally confused.

Now, I'm not talking about the no-brainer rules. It is not okay to use bad grammar (unless your character speaks with bad grammar). It is not okay to throw punctuation in inappropriate places all over your story. It is not okay to use the word "just" fifty times in one paragraph.

But what about some of the other rules? I've read numerous horror stories about writers who've entered contests and the judge circled every time they used the word "was." Really? Was isn't always passive. I've read stories where it is painfully obvious the writer was trying not to break a rule and the chapter read just plain weird.

And, oh my God, you wrote a prologue! Haven't you heard? You can't do that. Editors don't like them. Don't start a sentence using the same word more than twice. Don't have more than one pov in a scene. I'm sorry, but I have never been thrown out of a story because of that. Those big blank white spaces will throw me out of a story faster than a change of pov will. I'm not talking about head-hopping (which doesn't bother me either) I'm talking about a change of pov that's done smoothly and well.

So all you seasoned writers out there. Give us newbies the skinny. Do you or don't you break the rules (or guidelines, or whatever you want to call them)? How many have you broken lately?

16 comments:

  1. I agree with the thought that 'rules' are guidelines. The important thing is not to confuse your reader. If you can switch POV and not confuse your reader (and you want to switch POV), do it.

    Also, know your writing. If I have a paragraph with a bunch of "was" in it...I'm usually telling and the pacing has slammed to a halt. So, I revise. Not because the rules tell me to, but because my story will be better off if I do.

    BTW - I really enjoyed this blog post! Before selling, I was nailed in contests for 'breaking the rules' - so I know how you feel. :)

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  2. I'm not fond of rules myself, but I stick with some. Sometimes I do wonder who establishes and enforces seemingly arbitrary rules. It can be frustrating, I know...

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  3. Hey there Rebecca, thanks for stopping by. I agree that if chages make your story better, make them. But don't strangle the life out of your story because of a rule. Unfortunately, I found myself doing that on more than one occasion.

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  4. Hi there Julia. I'm with you. Who comes up with this stuff?

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  5. BTW, I just remembered a story where the use of bad punctuation had a point. The story was "Flowers for Algernon". It was about a retarted man who was part of an experiment to increase his intelligence. His teacher taught him about punctuation one day, and he put it all over his journal entry. I loved that story.

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  6. Shawn, I've broken many rules in writing. Currently am getting pulled back by my editors...in some places, I totally agree, in others not so much but...that's okay. I'm learning.

    Great post!

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  7. Thanks for stopping by, Christine! I guess we never stop learning.

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  8. Good post and I agree with everything you said, especially about POV switches. It's so limiting to both the reader AND the writer to follow the "rules."

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  9. I'm a "Was Witch," but I've never had a judge's scoresheet come back with a bunch of circles pointing it out. I'd like to think they were so dazzled with the story they missed them. I'd also like to think I can wear a size "0" too! Newbie here as well, Shawn. I think we write the best dang story we can, and when someone waving money under our nose says we're doing it wrong, we pay attention. Otherwise we watch and learn. Great post!

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  10. In a workshop I took of Eric Witchey's, he said you have to know the rules and then you're allowed to break them. If I remember right, he suggested twisting and turning the rules as well. I think your example of Flowers for Algernon is a prime example of that.

    I love your comment about strangling the life out of your story by obeying the "rules".

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  11. Knowing the rules to break the rules is the key...and it's apparent when the author knows the difference.

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  12. I'm an unpub so I'm easily intimidated by "you can't do that". My worst experience: I completed a novel in POV 3rd person omni. I was very careful to be clear whose head we were in and my beta readers all agreed it was clear and it worked well. Then I was informed by people "in the know" that my choice of POV was known as headhopping and a major no-no unless you're Nora Roberts (I love her use of omni POV in the JD Robb In Death series). So I tore the whole thing apart and re-wrote it. Imagine my surprise just this weekend when I was reading a new release from a mid-list author (her second) and realized it was written in full blown headhopping.

    I should have gone with my gut.

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  13. Linda, it's kind of a catch 22. I can't think of one book I've read that didn't have head-hopping. I don't know where the idea comes from that it confuses the reader. I haven't been confused yet.

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  15. I think you need to know the rules so you know when to break them. Over time, your gut will tell you when the rules don't make sense for your story.

    And, yes, it is frustrating!

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  16. I think you really need to follow the rules when you are starting out - it grounds you and cements proper writing in your head. After several manuscripts, you learn when you can bend them a bit.

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