Thursday, 25 October 2012

The Rules


As I mentioned recently, I’m smack in the middle of revising my current WIP. I’ve been hacking my word count, tossing out adverbs, picking apart grammar, rewriting and rearranging until I can barely see straight. (Shoot. One of those stinking “ly” adverbs weaseled its way in there.)

In the process I’ve been using a certain editing book. I’ve found it very helpful, but also a little bewildering at times. The authors lay out their rules clearly and for the most part I understand their point of view on various writing taboos and see how eliminating some of these practices will lead to a smoother more professional sounding manuscript.  I’ve never had a finished first draft before now, so I dove into mine prepared to take their advice on every last detail.

Very quickly I felt the urge to buck against those rules. When abiding by all of them, weeding out started to feel more like watering down. I’d read a segment of my story that I particularly like and balk at the idea of chopping out or rewording.  I did it anyway, but after sifting through a few chapters I started to worry that it didn’t sound like my writing anymore. By that point I was frustrated and wondering if I was going overboard.

Then I sat down and read another nice chunk of The Raven Boys and realized that Maggie Stiefvater breaks a whole lot of the rules outlined in my editing book:

Don’t use verbs other than “said” in dialogue tags. Check.
Don’t start a paragraph with a dialogue tag. Check.
Don’t state how characters feel rather than showing it. Check.
Don’t use italics for emphasis. Check.
Don’t incorporate a lot of poetic wording or figures of speech. Check…

But Maggie Stiefvater is a talented writer, well known for her distinct style. When she breaks the rules it works. Her story is engrossing because she does use poetic language and because she does occasionally start paragraphs with dialogue tags, and refuses to beat the word “said” senseless. And while she has an incredible knack for showing us her characters’ emotions, she sometimes just comes right out and tells us how they feel.  Okay, I need to shut up about Maggie Stiefvater now or I won’t have anything left to say in my review on The Raven Boys. Of course she's only one author of many that bend the rules and take risks.

My somewhat longwinded point is that while the rules are there for a reason, it seems a balanced approach to following them is necessary, otherwise you could strip your story down to the bare bones and be left with something that lacks emotion or style. In all fairness, the authors of the editing book I mentioned do warn against taking certain rules to extremes for these very reasons. If every writer stuck religiously to the rules we’d have an entire market full of cookie cutter books. I guess the trick is figuring out when you need to obey the rules and when it might be better to break them.

10 comments:

  1. This is why part of my NaNo prep, and my planned November regime, is to read for at least an hour a day. It goes on my to-do list, I set a timer, it's mandatory. It's not that I have to force myself to read, but it can get lost in the shhuffle if I don't have it planned into my day. Anyway, I am planning to dive into a bunch of craft books--I'm actually looking forward to it--but I also know that reading reading reading can teach me just as much if not more about what a good book is like. Just remember: when was the last time you tossed aside a book in disgust because a character "mumbled" something instead of just plain saying it? How many reviews on Goodreads complain bitterly about the dialogue tags at the beginning of paragraphs? You want a polished final product, sure. But you also want your own self to be present in that final product.

    Now if we could all just pull it off as well as Maggie does...

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    1. Reading can definitely get lost in the shuffle. I tend to write at night, and lately reading gets shoved off until I'm just about falling asleep. Not the greatest time for absorbing the finer points of an author's technique. This is something I need to prioritize better.

      You're so right about people not tossing aside books because of things like dialogue tags. I think the problem lies in letting the whole prospect of querying get to you. While an agent may pass over your book because of technical issues, a book with no heart or style has even less chance of earning representation. Editing issues can be dealt with but a story that's flat and heartless won't interest anyone. Like you say, your story should ultimately communicate something important about you, not just your stellar editing skills.

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  2. ugh rules are so hard to abide by. Especially when everyone seems to have different rules and you're not sure who's to listen to. What's important though is that your story is still your story. Not the shell of your story filled with another's rules.

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    1. Yes, there certainly seems to be a lot of conflicting information out there. I guess in the end you need to go with your gut. And really you should be writing for yourself first and foremost--not an agent, or a publisher, or even an audience. That's probably the best way to ensure that your story doesn't become a shell, as you so aptly put it.

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  3. I agree that sticking to the rules 100% would make for a whole slew of seriously bland books. I think these types of craft books should be viewed more as guidelines or even just for awareness. It's good that they point out certain things that sound amateur, or things that are frequently overused, but I wouldn't say that these are things to avoid all the time, you know? Guess what? People use '-ly' words, people use other words than 'said', and that's just the way it is. I would just take this stuff as a reminder that it's easy to go overboard with some of those things and then you end up distracting the reader.

    I'm sure that we can all think of plenty of books that break these so-called 'rules'. :)

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    1. Yeah, real life isn't usually flawless and formal, so why should writing be? Obviously you want your characters to sound human, and that means breaking grammar rules in dialogue, but I think the same can be said for other aspects of the story to a certain extent. More than anything it seems to be about balance. And if a particular rule is cramping your style then maybe it's better to break it. (Be rebellious and nerdy at the same time!)

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  4. Oh my gosh... I'm going through this myself right now...

    Seems like authors trying to break into the industry need to follow every rule to get in... and then once you're in, it's okay to break rules... not sure, but it's what it seems like! It's an interesting topic! Some of my favorite authors break all the rules!!!

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    1. That's exactly what it seems like. It's almost as though you have to pay your dues or something. Maybe it's a test to see if you're willing to put in the work to polish things up lol. My husband said I should have like a director's cut of my story where I leave in all the stuff that breaks the rules just so I can enjoy it :)

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  5. Agh, the dreaded rules. My two cents? Rules can be broken, but you've gotta know the rules before you can break them. And for writers trying to break in, that could mean paying dues and sticking with the man*. Then, for your second or third book, you can stick it TO the man*.

    *the rules man, that is, whoever he is. But you know it's gotta be a man, right? Probably first cousins with the man who invented stilettos. Just saying.

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    1. I think that tip might be worth more than two cents :) I guess following the rules proves to agents and publishers that you've done your homework and maybe if you do get published it'll make the whole editing process a bit smoother so it's worth it anyway.

      As for this mysterious rules man, I'd like to kick him with some of those stilettos about now ;)

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