Six impossible things

Rules? What Rules?

Recently, a fan came up to me, enthusiastically waving Thirteenth Child. “This book blew me away!” he said. “It breaks all the rules! How did you do that?”

Naturally, I looked him straight in the eye and said, “What rules?”

What most would-be-writers mean when they’re talking about “breaking the rules” are the absolute pronouncements about style, structure, and content that purport to be guidelines for “good writing.”  There are tons of how-to-write books and web sites and articles with names like “Ten Rules of Writing” (or five, or eight, or twenty – ten is popular, but there’s plenty of variation). Most of them have some kind of authority behind them – a famous or bestselling author, a professor of English Lit or Creative Writing, the leader of a workshop, an editor or agent. They range from pointed restatements of basic English grammar (“Don’t use no double negatives”) to “rules” that are actually just good basic writing advice (“Make the reader care about the main character.”)

A lot are things that people overdo or underdo or get sidetracked by; things that can be misused; things that are really a lot more difficult to do well than they look (and thus things that a lot of beginners can’t manage to pull off); things that have been done so often (and often so badly) that a lot of people (readers and editors both) find them cringe-worthy.

But they aren’t things that you can’t do. “Hard to make work” does not equal “completely impossible, so don’t even try.” They aren’t even things that you shouldn’t ever do; “Often done wrong” does not equal “Your story will automatically be rejected if you even think about trying this.”

Let’s look at a couple. First up: Never write in the first person.

This one cropped up on at least half a dozen web sites, and…excuse me, what? Last I heard, there are still a lot of first-person novels getting published. Possibly it started off as some kind of warning against writing that gets too autobiographical? I don’t know; I don’t understand the point of this one at all. The only real trick to first person is making sure the narrative voice is that of the character’s, not yours; it’s kind of like method acting. Yes, some people have a horribly hard time with it; if you’re one, then by all means stick to third person. But as a general rule, this one makes no sense to me at all.

Next comes Never open a book with weather/dialog/description/the character waking up in the morning/a prologue.

This is actually five different so-called rules that crop up constantly; when you put them all together like this, I have to wonder if there’s any way left to begin a book at all. OK, “It was a dark and stormy night” is supposedly one of the most famous bad opening lines in literature…but a) it’s memorable, and b) it’s considered bad mostly because the sentence goes on for nearly another half-page of heavy-handed description without actually getting anywhere.  Still, I don’t see anything wrong with starting a book in any of those ways if it is the right spot for that particular book. Starting with weather is a bad idea if that particular story really needs to start with dialog or a description of the manor house; opening with a character waking up worked fine for Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” (of course, the character woke up to discover he’d become a cockroach…).

Recently, the rules lists have added Never use a verb other than “said” to label dialog.

Really. So I’m supposed to throw out dozens of perfectly good English words just because somebody doesn’t like characters who shout, whisper, growl, mumble, etc.? I’ll admit that writers who never use “said” can be tiresome to read, but the same can be said for those who never use anything else. The problem is with the word never, not with said or its near-synonyms.

And then there’s the ever-popular Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said.”

Once again, this is overkill. Yes, a lot of beginners overuse adverbs; all their characters seem always to say things gracefully or sternly or moderately or admiringly or whatever-ly. And yes, usually if the dialog is done right, an adverb isn’t necessary. Usually. A blanket prohibition like this, however, denies the usefulness of lines like: “Why, you rotten, sneaking, low-down bastard,” she said appreciatively. And there are always cases where the dialog is too simple or plain to convey the tone the writer wants (though in a lot of those, I’d usually use one of the near-synonyms for “said” that the last “rule” forbade me to use: “Yes,” he snapped, rather than “Yes,” he said angrily.)

And the equally popular Never use the passive voice, often extended to Never use any of the forms of the verb “to be,” just in case.

I’ve done the rant on passive voice before; basically, it boils down to “sometimes nothing else will do.” “He’s been poisoned!” is passive voice, and it’s more elegant than “Somebody has poisoned him!” Similarly, “The ambassador, having been insulted, left in a huff” is shorter and more elegant than “After somebody insulted him, the ambassador left in a huff” or “The ambassador, whom somebody had insulted, left in a huff.” And the verb “to be” is not only arguably the single most useful verb in the English language, it is an indispensable part of several tenses (the perfect and progressive ones); throwing it out completely and indiscriminately is very much a baby-with-the-bathwater thing.

And then I ran across these two: Never use second person and Never write in omniscient.

Combine those with the “rule” I started with, and once again there’s hardly anything left. OK, second person seems kind of gimmicky to me, but I’ve read one or two things where it worked just fine, so I can’t see forbidding it entirely. I’d class it as “extra-hard to pull off,” rather than “impossible, don’t even try.” Omniscient is what Patrick O’Brian’s popular sea-stories are written in, among other things; again, it strikes me as silly bordering on stupid to forbid an entire technique or viewpoint that actual published writers are clearly using quite successfully.

Finally, there’s the perennial favorite Show, don’t tell, which I’ve seen modified as Never describe or summarize anything; always dramatize it instead.

Which pretty much means that the entire Frontier Magic trilogy is obviously unpublishable and will never sell, along with most memoirs and fiction intended to be similar to them. Oh, wait; memoirs have been hot sellers for several years now, and the second book of the trilogy is just out, in spite of the tremendous amount of “telling” or summarizing I had to do in order to cram several years’ worth of events into each volume.

Speaking for myself, I’d sum it all up as If somebody’s writing “rule” has the word “never” in it, or can be easily rephrased so as to have the word “never” in it, it’s probably safe to ignore, though you might want to think about it in passing just to make sure that whatever you’re doing instead is working.

I think that’s too long to be a writing rule, though. Which suits me just fine.

  1. I don’t know what rules you “broke” – your examples don’t make sense – how could “Never write in the first person” be a rule if good writers use it so often? Admittedly, you need to know what you’re doing (Picasso was excellent at realistic painting).

    I will say something though. Lots of authors have boring glossaries or maps that aren’t helpful in their fantasies. You don’t do that with the Thirteenth Child series. But those books are where I’d really like to look up the words, places, & names. Is there anyplace on the Internet that references them?

  2. Never do the same thing always…

  3. As a college writing teacher, I encounter so-called rules all the time. Students apparently get them from earlier teachers. Never start a sentence with “because.” Never start a sentence with “and” or “but.” And yes, never use first person. Of course, in all the professions there are conventions and genres, and people have to learn them as they mature in their fields. For me, helping maturing writers to recognize that writing and its “rules” change depending on context and audience, and helping them to recognize the specific features a situation calls for is the only hope. As an extreme example of what you’re describing, I was told once that Cormac McCarthy’s The Road should never have been published because he doesn’t use quotation marks.

  4. “Preach on, sister.”

    I’ve been saying something akin to the above for what seems like forever; or is that never? I keep getting them mixed up.

    Great post. 🙂

    • Howard Brazee – The two main rules I broke in Thirteenth Child were the one about first person and one that I didn’t have room for on this list, the one about not using infodumps/expository lumps/narrative summary. But really, when you’re covering thirteen years or thereabouts in one book, you HAVE to do a lot of summarizing.

      Gray – Exactly. 🙂

      Virginia Anderson – Early on, people get taught standard formal English, suitable for writing papers and essays. Those who are really good at that kind of rules-based organizing often get a bit bent out of shape when they discover that the rules are…more like guidelines, so to speak. Arr. Really, the only real rule is “If it works in this piece, you can do it; if it doesn’t work in this piece, you can’t.”

      M.R.Sellars – Oh, I’ve been saying it forever, too. The people who listen, listen; the ones who don’t… aren’t really my problem.

  5. Thank you for this post.

    “And the verb “to be” is not only arguably the single most useful verb in the English language, it is an indispensable part of several tenses (the perfect and progressive ones); throwing it out completely and indiscriminately is very much a baby-with-the-bathwater thing.”

    I’ve dropped out of a critique group because one participant demanded I remove all “to be” verb forms and omit past progressive tense use. She insisted they were passive voice. She didn’t care for “said” and wanted that changed also.

    Heaven defend us from the Grammar Police, particularly when they’re wrong!

  6. Thank you! I find the obsession with anything that might remotely be considered passive voice particularly bothersome.

    If I write that a character “was sitting” that’s a different statement than “he sat”. One’s ongoing description; one could be a single action.

    Can’t convince some of my critique group of that, though.

  7. I think some of these “rules” are from an interview with Elmore Leonard and he ended with “and if it doesn’t work throw out these rules”.

  8. Over at Magical Words, they had an essay called “They’re not rules, they’re price tags”. I love that idea.

    • Mary Holland – What you said.

      Jane – And furthermore “was sitting” IS NEITHER PASSIVE NOR PASSIVE VOICE. It’s past progressive. Maybe The Deluxe Transitive Vampire would convince them? The section on progressive tenses is as hilarious as everything else; the author uses “to mope” as the verb in that section, so the example sentences are “I am moping” “I was moping,” “I had been moping” and “I will have been moping.” Plus the very fine extra example “I was just minding my own business when the samovar suddenly blew up.”

      Elaine – That may have been where they started, but I didn’t see even one web site that quoted the last bit, and about 80% didn’t attribute them at all. Also, quite a lot of them have been around since before Leonard started writing; I inherited my mother’s collection of how-to-write books, and some of those so-called rules appear in books from the 1930s and 40s.

      Suzi McGowen – That is a really good way of looking at it, especially if one acknowledges that sometimes things go on sale! 😉

  9. I recently traumatized my Grammar Checker, in Word. Including something it dinged for “passive voice” — the suggested rewrite was painful.

    I got bored with torturing it, though, and turned it off again. Spellcheck, I’ll keep! I keep forgetting which vowel to use in some words, till I give up ynd jyst ysy “y” fyr yvyrythyng.

  10. Those who object to first person need to read Wodehouse’s Jeeves stories. But only PGW could write in a way that convinced you the story was being told by a twit who was probably too stupid to write it.

  11. This post lifted a huge load off me 😀 I get mad when I have to use passive voice, but it’s true – nothing else will work there!

    And I try not to overuse adverbs, but I do use them…

    And using show-not-tell for everything tends to slow my story down.

    So THANKS!

  12. I never quite got the reasoning behind the “always show, don’t tell” concept. Admittedly, some school writing excercises on showing (including “showing” how messy an imaginary locker was and how terrified a teacher was of a mouse) were fun. In some cases where we had two examples of “showing” vs. “telling” and the “showing” was supposed to be better, I actually thought that the telling was the better way to write the example. My teacher, however, taught us that that somewhere in the middle between the two extremes was best. I think that this “rule” gets taught a lot in schools because so many kids over-simplify things and tell the story, without ANY showing at all. I know a good number of my classmates do this much of the time. But still, writing “rules” are often guidelines. . . a fact which I think gets neclected.

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