Rules of Writing that Every Writer SHOULD Break
For instance, never ever EVER–on pain of punishment and the death of your firstborn—never use all caps for emphasis in your book. Well, I don’t have a firstborn, so I did it anyway. See? I’m such a rebel.
Now that the silliness is out of my system, let’s get this blog party started!
Just about every week, I field at least one email or private message from someone saying they love my work, they’ve always wanted to write themselves, would I please take a look at what they’ve got so far, maybe they should self-pub too and could I help them with that. My standard answer to all of that has been (and will continue to be): Thank you. Absolutely, you should write it! No, I’m sorry, I can’t read your work for professional reasons. Absolutely, you should self-pub and when you do, Amazon has pages and pages of instructions to help you get started. If you need more help than that, check out their how-to forums. A writer should first and foremost be a reader. Every possible problem you could ever have will have already been posted and answered multiple times on that forum.
I do this not because I am antisocial or cranky (although, if I am being cranky, it’s probably because the coffee IV has stopped dripping), but because I am technologically… I was going to say challenged, but that’s not quite right. Y’all, I took my phone back to the store after only one week because it had stopped ringing. They had to show me how to work the volume button.
So, I won’t help with the technical side of publishing. Instead, I thought I would help with the writing side of writing. The number one thing I would tell anyone who is either published or unpublished is this: Know the rules of writing. There’s just one problem with that. While the “rules” of writing can be found literally everywhere on the Internet, just about most of them are…(drum roll, please)…WRONG! Or, if not wrong, at least breakable.
“Okay, genius,” you say. “How am I supposed to know the difference?”
You’ll know, dear reader, because I’m about to tell you.
Rule #1.) The Chicago Manual of Style is the Bible for writers everywhere and it must be followed without exception.
FALSE! The Chicago Manual of Style is the Bible for writers of papers, thesis, professional documents, schools and colleges, etc. etc. etc. It is not the bible for novelists. Why? Because novelists write to paint a story within the imagination of the reader. We manipulate words, sentence structures, the ebb and flow of paragraphs that must be either short or long or incomplete depending on what we’re writing, and there’s just no place for that kind of shenanigans within the CMoS. I will say this, however: There is a world of difference between manipulating the rules of punctuation, grammar, and sentence structure, and not knowing them to start with. Eats Shoots and Leaves is both fun and informative. It’s the best book on the subject I’ve ever read. So, if you slept through English like I did, I highly recommend it.
Rule #2.) Every genre has a formula that you, as an author, must follow and never deviate from. (Better known as: I’m the author. I’ll write whatever I want.)
TRUE… but only to a point. Every genre does have a kind of formula, but do you always have to follow the formula… No, you don’t. Only one person is writing your book, and if you want to screw it up, by all means I support your right to do that. I will, however, call into question your decision-making process. You may have the best plot-twist in the history of all authordom, but I would encourage you to keep in mind that the longevity of your writing career is based upon your ability to tell a story that will satisfy your readers. If you write an ending that pisses off one reader, chances are good that person will not buy your next book. Piss off enough readers, and you’ll end up working a counter where your most oft-asked question will be: Would you like fries with that?
Rule #3.) Never use flashbacks or dream sequences.
FALSE! By all means, use flashbacks and dream sequences. Just use them correctly. “But, Maren,” you ask, “what do you mean by ‘correctly’?” That means, before you use either, ask yourself: 1.) Does it move the story along? Or, 2.) Does the dream or flashback impart vital information to the reader about the hero/heroine’s character? If you can’t answer yes to either question, then do not use a dream or flashback in your story. Why? Because you run the risk of confusing your readers or worse, boring them. Again: Would you like fries with that?
Rule #4.) Don’t care about your characters.
FALSE! If you as the author don’t care what happens to your characters, why should your reader? According to several articles and websites I’ve recently wandered through (Cherry Adair mentions it on her website; it can also be found at Live Write Breathe. In fact, every place I’ve been to seems to be quoting the same material, so I’m having a little trouble determining the accuracy of such a broad-sweeping generalization), 97% of all writers never finish that first book. So on the surface, not caring about your characters in order to get that book finished seems like sound advice. But I just don’t believe it. Care about your characters. Care about portraying them to the best of your ability. Care about plotting their downfall and their rise to overcome it, whatever ‘it’ is. Because as I said, if you don’t care what happens to them, why should your readers?
**Note: I do want to take a minute to mention two things: 1.) I had the opportunity to meet Ms. Adair in person. She is a very nice human being who teaches workshops on how to build great characters. And 2.) She is currently hosting the Finish the Damn Book Challenge which is open to “anyone unpublished, not published within the last three years, or those with three books or less, traditionally or indie published as of April 1, 2016. Other rules apply, but check it out. If you qualify, wonderful prizes (including a prepaid registration fee to the RT Convention in Georgia 2017) will be handed out.
Rule #5.) Writing rules are made to be broken.
TRUE! But not if you don’t know what those rules are. Part of being an author is knowing how to write. Not the how of putting one word in front of another to create a sentence, only to put those one in front of another until you reach whatever magical word quota allows you to slap a climactic ‘The End’ onto that last pageand get on with your life. I don’t mean just knowing which words are nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs. I mean, you need to be able to diagram a sentence. You need to know how to alter the way you write to allow for rapid action, emotional suspense, or sex. Whether you write by plotting or pants-ing (a term used to describe authors who write whatever simply comes to them, which is also known as ‘writing by the seat of their pants’), you need to know how to outline your story. You need to know that your story will require one main plot, a number of subplots that make the instant achievement of that main plot’s goals difficult to impossible, a dire consequence that makes the reader believe all is lost, and then a resolution capable of saving the day. A word of advice: Never, ever pull a hitherto unknown villain out at the very last minute (Mountain Man) because you will never live it down. Trust me.
So take your time. Learn your craft. Get involved with author authors in real life or online, in forums, on Facebook. Ask questions. Hone your skills and never stop learning. With every new book you write, you’ll get better.