Time To Break The Rules?
Updated: Jan 18
As writers, we often hear about rules and tips for creating fiction. These are
usually from well-established or famous authors. It’s great being able to draw knowledge from their experience and, hopefully, avoid some of the pitfalls that they encountered. After all, they’ve been there, done that, and most likely printed the t-shirt themselves.
We can all do with some inspiration and nuggets of wisdom from those who have gone before us — or indeed are walking beside us, casting larger impressions on the world than we have yet to achieve. We might get there in the future, or we may not, but the magnitude of our imprints isn’t necessarily a measure of the impact our creative spells have on our readers.
Let’s face it, it is what we do. We create magic. The process of putting words together to form a story that others can immerse themselves in is a special kind of magic.
How many times have you read a book and become so drawn into the story that you forget everything around you? How often have you fallen in love with a character and rejoiced over their successes, or cried over their misfortunes? I do it all the time, and I will curse the author for torturing my friends, and praise them for the happy-ever-after ending that I had hoped for. Of course, every story will take you on a different journey and not all will span from one end of the emotional spectrum to the other. Some books are entertaining and light, others sombre and thoughtful, and others still will have an ending to keep you crying into your pillow for hours afterwards or cackle madly days later.
They are full of book boy/girlfriends, best friends, mentors, enemies, allies, fairy godmothers and monsters-under-the-bed, for us all to allow into our hearts and minds and spend a few hours with. Some of them never leave us and others are soon forgotten. By the creative magic inside us writers, the characters come alive and become part of the reader’s consciousness to leave behind an impression. These impressions can be minute, or they can affect how the reader acts or feels in a similar situation to that of the character, and maybe help them deal with whatever is happening in their lives. Don’t discount what impact your words can have on the person reading them. It is magic — from your keyboard to their minds. This is why you want to follow most of the rules of writing and ignore some so that your voice can be heard and you can create a story that comes from both your heart and your mind.
I have picked out a few grammatical rules that I have ignored many times and some writing advice that I don’t agree with. I have also included some advice that I think is important to bear in mind as you write your first, or next, work of literary art.
When it comes to grammar, it would be easy to think that we should follow each and every one of them, right? In most cases, yes, we should follow them. Always start a new sentence with a capital letter, use correct spelling and tense, know the difference between similar words and use them in their proper setting etc etc. There are some rules that can be broken though, and we need to know that it’s okay to do so even if critics may frown and grumble about it.
These are in my ‘IGNORE’ pile:
Elmore Leonard (author of Rum Punch (adapted as the film Jackie Brown).
“Never use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But ‘said’ is far less intrusive than ‘grumbled’, ‘gasped', ‘cautioned', ‘lied’."
Hmmm, nope, I like alternatives to ‘said’ as I find it boring with just that one word, and I believe it paints a more colorful accent to the dialogue.
Richard Ford (author of Independence Day — Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 1996)
"Don't write reviews. (Your judgment's always tainted.)"
Of course, our judgment is always tainted. Reviews are based on what you thought, felt, liked or disliked about a book. It’s a personal opinion and as such will always be tainted by our feelings.
Where would we indie writers be without the reviews from our readers? They often drive us forward, sometimes make us pause, and enough of them on some bookselling sites will drive our sales higher as we get more exposure. They are vital to indie authors.
Will Self (author of Umbrella — Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2012
"Stop reading fiction – it's all lies anyway, and it doesn't have anything to tell you that you don't know already (assuming, that is, you've read a great deal of fiction in the past; if you haven't you have no business whatsoever being a writer of fiction)."
Well, I’m just not going to comment on this one, except for saying that I’m taking it as said in jest.
Zadie Smith (author of the Bestselling novel White Teeth)
"Avoid cliques, gangs, groups. The presence of a crowd won't make your writing any better than it is."
Our writing may not be any better for being part of a group, especially if you don’t ask for critique, advice and support, but it most certainly won’t do it any harm. World Indie Warriors, anyone?
August Birch (author of the Jack Pruitt Series)
"Limit the world-building to almost nil.
Like exposition, world-building is for the weakest and the unskilled-est of writers. They make up for lack of story with padded page-counts filled with maps, towns, spaceships, and islands."
Seriously? Where would ‘Lord of the Rings’ be without the highly imaginative world-building that positively leaps off its pages? Or Game of Thrones? Ridiculous comment, in my opinion.
Beth Hill (author of The Magic of Fiction - Crafting words into story
"Don’t write in sentence fragments
If you were taught that a sentence fragment is a grammatical error, you’re not alone. But the truth is, sentence fragments are an important technique for creating voice and tone in your writing."
Beth Hill says it herself; sentence fragments can be an important part of your writing voice. So, use them if you feel the need. I do.
Enough of the stuff to ignore and onto some of the advice I find useful and supportive.
Anne Enright (Author of The Gathering — Booker Prize 2007)
"The way to write a book is to actually write a book. A pen is useful, typing is also good. Keep putting words on the page."
Neil Gaiman (author of Coraline and Good Omens)
"The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you're allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it's definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it honestly, and tell it as best you can. I'm not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter."
PD James (author of the Adam Dalgliesh Mysteries)
"Don't just plan to write – write. It is only by writing, not dreaming about it, that we develop our own style.”
"Read. As much as you can. As deeply and widely and nourishingly and irritatingly as you can. And the good things will make you remember them, so you won't need to take notes."
Esther Freud (author of Hideous Kinky)
"Finish the day's writing when you still want to continue."
This last one is also from Esther Freud and epitomises my feelings on writing rules:
"Never forget, even your own rules are there to be broken."