Writing Tip: What to do with All Those Rules

You’ve heard the rules before:  Don’t write in first person.  Don’t write in present tense.  Don’t start your book or story with dialogue.  Don’t use adverbs.  Don’t use said-bookisms.  Don’t switch point of view from one character to another in the middle of a scene.  And the list goes on.

Some of those rules I have focused on in past posts.  Some of them I ignore on a regular basis.  All of us can point of examples of successful books or stories that have violated one or more of them.  So what is the aspiring writer to make of these decrees from on high?

The brief and somewhat glib answer is that the aspiring writer should write her book as she wants to and worry about the rules later.  We all have to be true to our creative visions, and worrying too much about arbitrary rules created by people who enjoy the luxury of having already enjoyed some success is bound to constrain our work.

As you might imagine, the longer, more nuanced answer is somewhat less simple than this.  The fact is, some of those rules reflect very strong trends in the contemporary market.  Any author, aspiring or established, who violates them does so at his or her own risk.  “Bad writing” is a highly subjective thing, but on some of these matters the violation of the rules is viewed, fairly or unfairly, as “bad writing.”

So which ones can a writer bend, and which ones should she follow?  Well let’s take them one at a time.

“Don’t write in first person.” This is a pretty antiquated one.  First person narrative has become a staple of urban fantasy, and has long been quite common in noir style mysteries.  First person point of view is less common in mainstream “literary” fiction, which may explain the rule itself:  It is a symptom of a larger bias against genre fiction.  This rule you can pretty much ignore at your leisure.

“Don’t write in present tense.” This is similar to the first person rule, but it is a bit more prevalent.  The fact is, many readers are turned off by present tense, and many editors, genre and otherwise, have a bias against it.  Several years back, writing as David B. Coe, I wrote a short story in first person present tense.  An editor contacted me about it to ask why I had made that choice.  When I explained it, making clear that I had a specific artistic purpose in mind, she bought the story on the spot.  And maybe that’s the point.  If you’re writing in present tense just to be different, it’s going to come off as gimmicky, and it could keep an editor from buying the book or story (or keep an agent from choosing to represent you).  If, on the other hand, that present tense voice is integral to the story, by all means use it.  One more data point:  All three of Suzanne Collins’ HUNGER GAMES books were written in first person present tense.  She seems to have done all right with them.

“Don’t start your book or story with dialogue.” I heard this one years ago, and my response to it today, is exactly the same as my response then:  Why the hell not?  If that’s how the story starts — if the story works that way, by all means do it.  Next.

“Don’t use adverbs.” This rule, I believe, is rooted in sound advice, but has been taken to illogical extremes.  The problem with adverbs is that they tend to weaken our prose and our descriptions; they become crutches that replace “showing” with “telling.”  Take these examples:

Daniel picked up the knife quickly.  “Don’t come near me!” he said menacingly.  “I mean it!  I’ll kill you!”

Daniel snatched the knife from the table.  “Don’t come near me!” he said, in a voice like cold steel.  “I mean it!  I’ll kill you!”

The dialogue is the same, but the description in the second version is far more evocative.  Instead of telling you how Daniel acted and spoke using adverbs, I have shown you how he acted and spoke using stronger prose.  the problem with adverbs is that they seem to do the work for us, but really they cheat our readers and our characters.  Do you have to get rid of every adverb?  Do you need to do a universal search of your manuscript and remove all the words ending in “ly”?  Of course not.  There are great books out there that have adverbs in them.  But they don’t have many.  And that’s the key.  Use adverbs sparingly and you’ll be fine.  (See what I did there…?)

“Don’t use said-bookisms.” Yes, this one is important, and it’s one you should follow as much as possible.  For more on said-bookisms, go back and read this post, titled “Writing Tips:  Said-Bookisms, the Obscrue Sin that Can Doom a Manuscript.” It explains what said-bookisms are and how to eliminate them from your writing.  Once upon a time, said-bookisms were everywhere.  Styles have changed and the market has changed with them.  Using said-bookisms now can keep you from selling your book or story.

“Don’t switch point of view from one character to another in the middle of a scene.” Like the said-bookisms rule, this one represents a change in styles and market preferences from just ten or fifteen years ago.  Once referred to as “omniscient point of view,” this is now called “head-hopping,” and it is another flaw that can keep your work from selling.  Go back and read this post — “Writing Tips: Point of View and Voice, part I — Overview” —  for more information.  The bottom line is this:  If you want to switch point of view from one character to another, you need to start a new chapter, or at least a new chapter section.  Doing so in the middle of a scene, without a visual clue for your reader, is now frowned upon.

There are other “rules” of course, and perhaps I’ll deal with those in future posts.  For now let’s talk about these.

And as always, keep writing!

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6 Responses to Writing Tip: What to do with All Those Rules

  1. Robby Hilliard says:

    Always good to hear a pro’s perspective! Thanks David. I was wondering what the status of first person P.O.V. was since I see it a great deal in urban fantasy. Not my personal preference as a reader or a writer, but it does seem to be more common of late.

    ~Robby

    • dbjackson says:

      It’s becoming more and more popular. I’ve actually found that I really enjoy writing in first person when I have the opportunity. I didn’t used to like it, but I do now.

      Thanks for comment, Robby.

  2. I’m breaking rules 1 and 2 in my revision of Novel #1. It was originally in first person, and the pace feels better to me in present tense. Does that make sense?

    • dbjackson says:

      Absolutely, Gina. “Better pacing” is a perfectly legitimate way to justify that sort of decision. Sometimes a book just feels right a certain way. Editors understand that.

      • Thanks, David! The agent who read the first draft of the manuscript pressed me on pacing, and I toyed around with several ideas until I tried switching up the tense, and it felt right. And I’ll take anything that feels right at the moment, as revising is, well, hard. 🙂

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