Thursday, February 11, 2010

There Are No Rules

Okay, maybe there are rules of writing.  But not as many as you think, and very few without exceptions.  Everything else could be labeled suggestions, guidelines, or generally good ideas.

If you write a novel completely in Yoda-speak, that probably won't fly.  Can I unilaterally declare a rule against that?

So, let's look at the so-called rules.

  1. Prologues are prohibited.  I've seen many bad prologues - unnecessary, gimmicky, long-winded ... it goes on.  Some prologues, however, are dynamite and serve a particular function.  For a much more qualified opinion on the subject, check out this blog post.
  2. Avoid adverbs/adjectives.  In my cyber-travels, here's what I've learned: It depends.  Awkward and pervasive modifiers are a problem.  Piling as many as four adjectives in front of a single object bugs me.  Audience matters, too.  Middle Grade and Young Adult are likely to have more of these words, and particular genres favor them more than others.  And let's face it - sometimes they're the best way to get the message across.
  3. "Pass" on passive voice.  Constant use of passive voice would annoy me.  Even more annoying, though, is when people misidentify something as passive.  The presence of a "to be" verb form doesn't automatically mean it's passive.  Besides, I've found sometimes I want the passive form to change where the emphasis is placed.
  4. Say only said.  Dialogue tags are a big issue.  Too many kill the flow.  Too few can cause confusion.  Then there's the question of what the tag should be.  Again, I contend audience and genre are something to consider.  I stick to "said" unless I have a reason not to (so I follow the "rule" except when I don't).  I've also found when there are more than two speakers, more tags are naturally needed.  In that situation, "said" starts to feel really repetitive.
 I'm sure there are others, and further comments to make on the ones I've already listed.

Does it have to be this complicated, though?  Rather than obsessing over "rules" and how to follow them/when to break them, I ask myself the following questions:

  • Will the reader spend more time unraveling the sentence than it takes to read it?
  • Is anything distracting or jarring?
  • Is anything ambiguous or confusing?
  • Will the reader look at this section and say, "So what?"
Any questions to add to this list?  What are your self-critiquing tips and tricks?