Who Needs Them??: The Rules

I’m feeling awfully rebellious toward this industry lately. Terribly, awfully so. I’m just recovering from the dreaded “end-of-novel” blues, and as I awaken from that coma, I see rules all around me. “Don’t write a prologue“. “Don’t introduce characters from our world to another.” “Don’t stick that fork in that light socket.” You know the drill.

What irritates me so much is that when I started this whole thing, the rules became sacrosanct to me. I mean, don’t get me wrong, a lot of those rules have served me well, such as cutting down reliance on adverbs, learning to stop worrying and love the word said, and eliminating almost all exclamation points! Those are good rules. Rules for effective communication. They shall pry my Oxford comma from my cold, dead, festering hands, and yet I also stand by the fragment sentence when used by a character.

Two matters are really grinding my gizzard, though.

One is the proliferation of such rules as those listed above. Since when is writing a prologue illegal, if the prologue fits with the story and conveys useful information that can only be conveyed outside the context of the story (as the prologue in City of the Dead, you shall not have it!)? I’m sure some authors abuse it, but are we really going to throw out the recycling with the trash? There are a dozen other rules like this, as seen in this excellent post on IO9, but these rules just seem absurd to me. Cliches are cliches, but every story under the sun has been written in one form or another. Any author who tries to shape themselves to those “rules” does so at their own peril – true passion arises from writing the story that you want to write, that you feel. Obeying such transient nonsense is a good way to write by-the-numbers pap that might sell, but feel hollow. I don’t know, I just think people should seek to be leaders, not followers.

Two, and tied to point one, is an absolute rejection of stylistic choices that I’m witnessing. This isn’t a reviewer grouse in general, honest. I value reviewers/critics/book bloggers, even if I don’t agree with all their points. My biggest problem, however – and I haven’t seen this in just my work – is that grammar and style have become all mixed up. I’ve seen authors (and myself) dinged for offenses such as characters’ dialogue being grammatically incorrect. Or first-person narration featuring bad grammar. These aren’t errors – they are intentional choices.

I think the best way to explain is by saying that you can look at a character’s diction as the equivalent of a universe. You “world-build” that character’s style via their dialogue and/or narration, and it tells you quite a bit about their background, their internal world, and their influences. If my character is a gutter-punk artist who barely reads, she’s going to use incorrect grammar, it’s just a fact of life. I can use certain literary tricks to ease it and make it less annoying for the reader, but she’s going to screw up. The key here, though, is keeping the character’s speech consistent; like world-building, it becomes more about internal consistency than necessarily the rules of grammar.

This used to be an accepted method, and not that long ago. I read plenty of books from the 80s and 90s that used just such an approach, and they’ve obviously been a huge influence on me. When did readers start expecting dialogue to have perfect grammar? It sounds stilted and awkward to my ear. I just wish folks could open up their eyes/ears a little more. Rules. Bah!

On another note, it’s Audible Credit Day. You know what that means…

Note: This entry may have been written after fasting for a blood test, but any differences in my style are purely coincidental.

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  1. Great post! I’ve written on almost the same topic on my blog–Style to me is individual and paramount and has nothing to do with the so-called rules–Do we want every piece of writing to read the same? How boring is that? The only thing to do is honor your inner guide and continue with what you know to be true…let the readers decide what they like or don’t like, not the critics–

    • Exactly! In some ways what I’m trying to say is I’m declaring independence as an artist. I understand that this is also a business, and that we sometimes have to wear a businessperson’s hat, but from now on I refuse to wear it at any stage of creating a novel. PERIOD.

  2. This is so true! Love what you said about the ‘love said’ rule. lol There are times when an author’s style must leave ‘said’ behind. When reading a story aloud and there are so many “Grace said” (try saying that 10 times) that the words run a muck, it’s time for a change. ;D (or maybe I have a speech impediment…)

    As for perfect grammar for all characters? Blagh! True to life characters do not speak properly. We have slang in our language. It’s always been there and will remain.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Have a magical weekend!

    ~ Aithne

    • Hah, I actually went the other way. I used to try to find ways around said, but I’ve learned to accept it as a word that essentially exists only as a marker. But yeah agree with you on perfect grammar for characters. I’m not sure where that came from.

      Have a great weekend yourself!

  3. I see posts about this all the time on twitter “things you need to do to succeed” “If you do this, nobody will read your crap.” etc etc. I make it a point to avoid almost all of it. I’ll let my readers and reviewers decide if something is good or bad.

    The funny thing is who makes these “rules”?? Is there an underground Illuminati of grammar police just waiting to bash our heads in whenever we use “gonna” in dialogue instead of “going to”?

    Screw that I say. Until there’s a law saying otherwise, then I shall write as I please.

    Ps: I like prologues and epilogues. 🙂

    • Some of those articles I think are amusing, and I’ve definitely engaged in some of it myself. I think it’s fun navel-gazing, but it can bind up our work if we live in fear of the grammar illuminati waiting to strike us down. I mean, I’m a fan of great grammar, but I’m also a fan of English as a living language.

      I think my biggest fear since releasing this book is a bad review, and I’m just ready to cast that off and write what feels right – and good – to me.

      Another vote for epilogues! Woohoo!

  4. The whole point of being an artist is remaining true to your artistic vision. Rules are tied in to SELLING, not to art, which shouldn’t have anything to do with money. I realize even artists have to eat, but the minute they start to create with money in mind, they are a candidate for mediocrity.

    And anyway, I like prologues and characters popping up in other worlds.

    Fuck ’em if they can’t take a joke!

    • Yes. I became so worried about trying to be perfect for the market (you’ve seen my review meltdowns) that I lost sight of what I was actually trying to achieve: something different. If someone doesn’t understand that when they read it, despite me feeling like I made my best effort and got feedback from trusted peers, then it’s not my issue.

  5. Hmm. I hadn’t heard that prologues are not supposed to be used anymore. Yeah, I say screw that, too. I don’t think readers mind. It’s probably just some writer thing.

    And funny you should mention the grammar. I am just going through proper nominative pronoun usage with my students (who get a kick out me telling them that “me and so-and-so are doing something” is always wrong because if you say it by itself, you sound like a caveperson… “Me going to movie”). I had one student say to me, “Yeah, but rules are made to be broken,” to which I replied, “You’re absolutely right. But you have to know the rule first.”

    And I used the example of characters who don’t speak in proper English, telling them that was the writer’s character choice.

    So write on, brother!

    Paul D. Dail
    http://www.pauldail.com- A horror writer’s not necessarily horrific blog

    • I had heard the prologue thing before but didn’t realize it had risen to the actual point of books being rejected if they have prologues. Utterly ridiculous. That’s an editor or agent using a shortcut for thinking.

      Yeah, you hit the nail on the head: you do have to understand the rules before you can go and break them. By that token, I think it’s important to have some examples of great grammar sprinkled in with your rule-breaking to show the reader that you’re not some troglodyte slapping words on the page, but are trying to capture the essence of that character. In my case, that essence just dominates the narrative as well.

      Me write pretty one day!

  6. Great post, Jonathan. Couldn’t agree more (especially about them having to pry the Oxford comma from your cold dead fingers). I have to say that I have rarely had anyone question my use of sentence fragmentation, grammar in dialogue, or even the dreaded Oxford comma! What I would say is this: if we write something that is of our own “style” but that style rubs too many readers the wrong way, we as businesspeople (if that’s part of the reason we’re writing, to sell our work), may need to at least reexamination the particular style of usage. An example (not cited here, I realize) could be dialects in dialogue. That’s a tricky tightrope to walk—using enough of the vernacular to show your character’s place on the map, etc. without drowning the reader in unreadable chicken-scratch. The same thing can be true for other bending of the grammar rules…yes, it’s absolutely necessary in many situations and for some writer’s brilliant styles; however, even in these situations it *can* be overused.

    Again, great post (as always, actually). Bravo!

    • I think we’re in synch on this. I don’t want people to get the impression that I’m advocating some of the painful phonetic dialects that people adopt (I liked the Trainspotting book, but that thing is straight up painful to read), but I do think that one can write something that captures the essence of that dialect without having to resort to the phonetic approach. For example, one of my characters in Corridors is a valley girl. The essential valley girl word today is “totes” (totally), but every single beta reader went nuts when they saw that word more than once. It’s funny, I actually only used it like 7 times in the book, but some readers swore it showed up more than 30 times. The word is just that grating. So I dialed it WAY back in the final draft, using it maybe twice (I think?) as a way to establish her character without driving the reader crazy.

      I think it all boils down to what Paul said: knowing the rules in order to break them. And sometimes we need our fellow writers to tell us that something isn’t working. But once I’m locked in and feel it works, I’m not going to change my approach radically.

      PS did all the blood work today. Feeling woozy!

  7. The problem with listening to reviewers at distributors like Amazon is that you don’t know the person’s agenda. Maybe the person is a newbie writer, all full of rules thrust upon them by well-meaning professors and writers who think they’re qualified to teach because they sold a couple of short stories. Such people are hyper-aware of these so-called rules. They are not wearing their reader hat when they review.

    Even disregarding the above, how many negative comments does it take before you decide to change your style? If you have 20 reviews and 3 people mention “errors,” does that mean you should change what you’re doing? Maybe, if you’ve only made 20 sales. But if you’ve made 1000 sales and only 3 felt strongly enough to comment, what do you do?

    You can drive yourself crazy with this stuff. Personally, I would listen to my beta readers before I listen to such reviews. You know the beta reader’s agenda.

    • Yep. See what I said to RS above about “totes”. I knew that my beta readers only wanted to help me with the book, but I also knew there was an age gap between them and the character, so I had to balance their desire to totally strike the word and my desire to convey a character trait. In the end, I think I succeeded since I haven’t heard too many complaints, but that was definitely a stylistic choice.

      Reviews can be fun (I love the ones that praise my writing, heh), but I’m rapidly learning to view them as just a side-effect of writing, not the valuable learning tool that I had once hoped for. Eh, that’s life. Beta reading and writer groups are for the real growth.

      PS still going to get those emails together. The last few days have been hectic.

  8. Hey, Jonathan. That prologue thing is crazy, right? I find myself starting with them nearly every time. I started thinking about stopping that technique, thanks to all of the naysayers. Perhaps I won’t, thanks to your trailblazing post. The story is what the story is, right?
    Have a great weekend!


  9. I think prologues have a very useful purpose in many novels. There are times when the writer needs to convey some back story information, but does not want to make it a chapter. It helps the reader understand the context of the novel. I also think it is critical to have the characters in my books speak like real people, with dialects, and bad diction, and stuttering, when appropriate. It makes them more real and easier to relate to. Keep doing what makes the most sense for you.

  10. Normally, I am thankful when I stumble on a list of writing rules and learn something new–as if these lists are the secrets to successful writing that perhaps not everyone has figured out yet, and the knowledge puts me one step ahead.

    Yeah, that was a run-on. I live for fragments as well. I try to be mindful of clichés but don’t always succeed.

    But no prologues? What do the rule gods say of epilogues? Just a prologue coming out the dirty side? I will tread lightly with those literary slices of bread on my story sandwiches, but I sure won’t be eating open-face PB&J for the rest of my life.

    And as far as character speech, isn’t the cardinal rule to make it believable? No one speaks as if they are in a Shakespearean play in real life, and only a select few literary characters should do so. Who would want to read a gutter rat that sounds like the Prime Minister? Not I, Old Chap.

    I think the same goes for the narrative voice, that is the author’s style/voice that peeks through–more or less depending on which POV you are writing. Obviously, some of our “isms” get in there, and they should; that’s what makes a voice. I will stick to the original rule of “write the way people actually talk” because otherwise your characters will never ring true.

  11. Trust your voice, Jonathan, not some set of rules. You’ve got what it takes. As a reader, I trust you to do what is best for the story and to write in a way that honors the intelligence and sensitivity of your audience.

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