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.