Burning the Rulebook

burning bookThere’s something that has always bothered me: “the rulebook” of do’s and don’ts in writing fiction.

Prologues, apparently, are out, as are dream sequences, passive voice, antiheroes, and adverbs. *shameless plug here for my unofficial Save the Adverbs campaign*  Have a plausible plot, yes; I failed in the regard in the first draft of Office Politics, which required revising the last twelve chapters of the book to fix it.

But several of my CPs and beta readers over the years have busted my chops on using “was” and -ly words. In an industry where word count = page count = profitability, using adverbs seems like a wise idea, especially when to say the same damn thing without using one takes two or three extra words. By the end of a manuscript, that’s a lot of added words, not to mention a lot of inflated prose. As an avid reader, I notice when an author has avoided an adverb, and I think “Why didn’t s/he just use ___ly?” My enjoyment of a book is never hindered by an adverb or passive voice, but it is by pretentious overwording. Heh.

Recently, while obsessively searching for a blog post that was the catalyst for the plot change in Office Politics, I came across an older post on Diana Peterfreund’s blog, where she talks about being shocked by all the “rules” cited by contest judges when she was administering a contest – and how she set about writing a book that flouted all of those rules, and sold it a few months later (thereby proving that Captain Barbosa was right, and the rules are more like guidelines than actual rules, subjectively speaking).

I found this fascinating and – I must admit – vindicating. I’m not axing my adverbs anymore, dear beta readers and CPs. I’m not erasing all of my passive-voice passages, either (which I try to use only when conveying emotion and not in action scenes). You can bust my chops on plot plausibility, but I will whip out my SAVE THE ADVERBS badge and flash it in your face if you point any fingers at those -ly words. I may even make a new badge for my own Passive-Aggressive Rule (Don’t Get Aggressive About My Passive Voice) to go with it. If one of my characters is unlikeable, great; that means s/he has reached your emotions. If I want a prologue and it serves the story, deal with it. Likewise with dream sequences. But do, please, tell me if my plot is as implausible as the theory that the moon is a giant Ritz cracker spread with white cheddar Cheez Whiz.

The thing about writing… You throw too many “rules” at us writers, and you end up just sucking all the ink out of our pens. We’re unable to fully realize our creativity – and push it beyond boundaries – in such stifling rule-boxes. There are some rules that should be followed: basic grammar (and I do mean basic, as I’m guilty of not just breaking but trampling some of the more nitpicky grammar rules); the serial comma (such as “I’d like to thank my parents, God and Laura Bush.” Use it, people, because by all that’s holy you do NOT want someone thinking that your parents are God and Laura Bush when, in fact, they are not); split infinitives (“You have to really watch him” does NOT mean the same thing as “You really have to watch him”); and keep your punctuation outside the parentheses when the parenthetical segment is part of the current sentence. And by God, PLEASE learn to use the right word (your and you’re are NOT interchangeable!!!)

But all the rest – prologues, rock stars, wealthy love interests, dream sequences, passive voice, adverbs – those things are subjective. My opinion is they only weaken your story if the reader lets it, and it’s going to be one damn nitpicky reader who lets it. [Insert rude opinion about damn nitpicky readers.] You don’t have to use them if you don’t want to, but keep your Writing Rulebook away from my work, thanks.  😉


17 thoughts on “Burning the Rulebook

  1. CanaryTheFirst says:

    The way I see it is this. There is language used well, and there is language used terribly. And the majority of cases where a writer flops on their face do involve prologues, flashbacks, -ly adverbs, passive voice monstrosities, etc. That doesn’t mean that a writer with a solid grasp of the craft can’t use them to create a masterpiece. It just means that these are the elements that writers tend to use as a crutch when they’re just setting out.

    That said, I am very strong believed that authors need to know and master writing rules. No, knowing the rules won’t suck the creativity from an author, because knowing the rules comes hand in hand with a blank check to break it. It’s only the writers who refuse to learn the rules that flounder when confronted with an editor or writing group that demands, “Why in the world would you do this here?”

    Experienced writer: “Because I was looking to create more tension with fragments. Sam is a scientist, and so I tried using more passive voice to mimic research writing and thought process. Is it working?”

    Suddenly, the dialogue has been shifted to a very different level.

    1. Sharon says:

      Absolutely, there are times when those rules apply, and a lot of writers – especially inexperienced ones – tend to use a lot of crutches (relying on passive voice, adverbs & prologues, as you mentioned).

      What I’m talking about is the arbitrary application of those rules to all writers. I’m not for that. I’m not a fan of that. And I always wonder, “Who made these people the arbiters of ‘correct’ writing?” At some point, someone decides something is unacceptable, and I’ve always been fascinated with not only the thought processes which leads that person to that conclusion, but also the mindset that makes an whole industry embrace that conclusion as canon.

      1. CanaryTheFirst says:

        Well, here’s the question–who’s applying those rules to all writers? In a sense, the idea that someone can force you to rewrite your novel in past tense instead of letting you use present, or can make you take out all your adverbs against your will is absurd.

        I say the campaigns do more good than ill. When an author has written enough to begin questioning the rules, he’s ready to break them. In a sense, it’s like the fashion rule to avoid clashing colors, or how everyone knows that mixing salt and sugar ends in a taste disaster…unless you’re a fashion designer or a chef.

        1. Sharon says:

          Of course no one can FORCE you to rewrite, and that’s not really what I mean. When you’re where I am, with CPs and beta readers nicking you on a sentence in passive voice or your use of adverbs because they’re under the erroneous impression that it’s against “publishing law” (not legal law, but accepted practices), then it’s become an application across the board of basically someone’s subjective opinion, and that really is something I think is a problem. Knowing the rules is a must; thinking you have to adhere to every one of them forever and ever and ever is not.

          I think you’ve misunderstood the gist of my post: I’m not advising EVERYONE to toss the rulebook. I used to write by the rulebook, and am now tossing it aside because I’ve reached that level in my writing where it’s OK for me to break a few rules and write my way. This post is about me, not about all writers. I’m not trying to redesign the wheel, just trying to tweak my own spoke. That’s all. 🙂

          1. CanaryTheFirst says:

            When you’re where I am, with CPs and beta readers nicking you on a sentence in passive voice or your use of adverbs because they’re under the erroneous impression that it’s against “publishing law”

            Cough, well, I will say–perhaps then it’s time to get a new set of CP’s and Beta’s? 🙂

            1. Sharon says:

              LMAO! Nah, they’re very helpful, actually. I just need to retrain them to let me free myself from a few rules. Know of any Beta Reader Crit Partner ReEducation camps? lol

              1. CanaryTheFirst says:

                Nope, you’ll have to design the boot camp yourself. You’re trapped between the rock and a hard place. Get yourself a writing-minded English Major, and you get hit with a triple-whammy of those same lit-studies. Go for a plain-ol’ reader, and you’re facing, “I’m not sure about this, but I’m not sure why I’m not sure.”

                Luck! 😀

  2. NL Gervasio says:

    As your editor, I’ve learned to leave your damn adverbs alone because I know about your little campaign. Besides, I kind of agree with you on that one. Certain passive voice passages, however, I *will* still nitpick. =p On the whole, I do agree with you about the “rulebook,” but if dream sequences are completely out, I guess I’m screwed. LOL

    I really can’t complain too much considering your MSs are so damn clean I have to wonder why in the hell I’m editing them. =)

    1. Sharon says:

      I always wondered, if dream sequences are out, what happens if you’re writing a book involving someone with prophetic dreams (like Kim in The Wyckham House & Gothic), or, say, someone who is able to enter dreams, or perhaps a Freddie Krueger-like person who is waiting in your dreams?? How are you supposed to write THAT w/o dream sequences? LOL Though I admit, I’ve seen some books that rely on them when it’s unnecessary.

      1. NL Gervasio says:

        I think they’re mainly talking about the tell-tale signs of amateur writers who start off books with a dream sequence or waking up from a dream or coming out of the shower or …. Start in the MIDDLE, people!


  3. Lauralynn Elliott says:

    Finally, someone is standing up for the adverbs. My question is, who suddenly decided we shouldn’t use adverbs? Adverbs give information. I can understand not OVER using them, but using them sparingly and in the right way, it lets the reader know HOW something is being said. I like to see some adverbs when I’m reading.

    Another rule that bothers me is that you should always just use the word “said” and maybe “asked”. The rule makers don’t want you to say “she yelled”, “he commented”, “she sobbed”, “he admitted”…you get the picture. Again, these things can be overused, but I don’t think they SHOULDN’T be used. It gives some variety.

    I am very guilty of misusing commas…on purpose. I know many writers that do this. I use a comma when the sentence needs it to sound the way it should. And I definitely use serial commas. But I know why many people don’t. When I was in school, the serial comma was used. When I got out of school and entered the workforce, suddenly serial commas were OUT. We were told we weren’t supposed to use them. My boss doesn’t use them, and I get onto him about it all the time. But that’s what he was taught. I’m glad to see writers using them again.

    You’re and your, their and there, and so many others. This misuse drives me crazy. Sometimes, I’ve caught myself using the wrong one in a rough draft, but it’s not because I don’t know how to use them, it’s just my fingers want to type the wrong one sometimes. I caught myself doing something REALLY stupid on someone’s blog the other day. I usually proofread my comments, but I didn’t this time. I used the word “two” instead of “too”! Stupid typing fingers!

    Sorry for such a long comment, but I’m a little of a rebel when it comes to the rulebook. LOL. Actually, this comment was longer…I deleted part of it. :0)

    1. Sharon says:

      LMAO – I don’t care how long your comments are. I enjoy the discussion.

      I, too, get annoyed with the “just use ‘said’ and ‘asked’ mentality. There are some dialogue tags that a few writers use that drive me batty, and they might want to rethink them because they sound stupid. But to mark down my skill because I used “remarked” four times in a 70,000 page book? (none of my CP’s or beta readers have done this, BTW). It’s silly. It’s all subjective.

      I shall turn a blind eye to your comma usage, because it’s one grammar rule I follow obsessively. LOL

      I think the adverb issue came up when people read Stephen King’s On Writing. But he didn’t said don’t use them; he just said he wouldn’t use so many of them in his writing now. The opinion is it weakens the writing. Umm, I don’t share that opinion. I don’t think it’s lazy writing. Adverbs are a part of speech, they serve a purpose, and I am going to use them. Sometimes liberally. hehe

      Thanks for reading & commenting, Lauralynn!

  4. christel42 says:

    SAVE THE ADVERBS! LOL. Loved this post. And damnit, I also enjoy my passive voice. Sometimes. I figure, I write just like I speak, for the most part, and tough shit if my auto-correct is constantly berating me for it. I say, deal with it. WTF with fream sequences being “out”?!? Um…yeah. That would totally screw with Kim’s prophetic dreams, and those are crucial to the plot. Anywho…I figure that’s what self-publishing is for: so we can “bend” the rules a bit. Besides, they’re more like guidelines anyway. 😉

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