Do You Follow The Rules?

It’s Sunday, the day when we chat among ourselves, and with you, about topics of interest to writers, readers, and those who love Maine. Kate Flora here, starting a new conversation. This week, I happened upon an essay in the New York Times called Colson Whitehead’s Rules for Writers. My son had just given me his new book for my birthday, so I read them.

They reminded me of Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules for Writers, which I read to my writing classes at the end of every session. Whitehead’s rules made me wonder what my own rules would be if someone asked me to write them down. Mine are a whole lot simpler:

Keep your seat in the seat, writing is a discipline and it demands respect.

Practice turning off your critical heads so that you can write that first draft without interruption.

Believe in yourself, because no one will ever care about your work as much as you do, and honor your passion for writing by giving it dedicated periods of time.

There is rarely a place for semi-colons in fiction.

So, MCWriters…what about the rest of you? Do you have rules for writing?

Barb: I love Whitehead’s rules. I especially like “No. 10–Revise, revise, revise…Get that draft counter going. Remove a comma and then print out another copy — that’s another draft right there…which will come in handy if someone challenges you to a draft-off. When the ref blows the whistle and your opponent goes, “26 drafts!,” you’ll bust out with “216!” and send ’em to the mat.”

Because, true confessions, I actually kind of do this. Most of my short stories go to 20 or 30 drafts and the last several…

I also (mostly) like Leonard’s rules. Especially the last, “10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.” Which is brilliant. I also like “5. Keep your exclamation points under control” because I was way ahead of the curve on this one. I remember solemnly informing my fourth grade teacher that I didn’t believe in using exclamation points because they were stupid. She looked amused and responded, “That’s because in your perfect world no one is ever surprised.” And, she was right. My inner WASP does not approve of the mess (physical, temporal and emotional) most surprises create. That’s why my former boss used to come into my office and say things like, “Tomorrow I am going to tell you something that’s going to blow your mind.”

Of course, now I use exclamation points all the time! In e-mails and social media! To show we’re enthusiastic and keepin’ it light! Like: Would you please complete that task you committed to six months ago! Thanks so much!

However, I do have a bone to pick with Mr. Leonard on “3. Never use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue.” and “4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb ‘said’ . . .

I get that “she proclaimed boldy” is terrible and amateurish, but 1) the whole beautiful English language is there for us to use, and I don’t like to see it restricted and 2) it’s the kind of cut and dried rule that is easily understood and therefore over-applied by idiots and it’s become such a straightjacket now that,…let’s just say I’m waiting for the pendulum to swing in the other direction.

So I guess those are my two rules. 1) Use all the words and 2) Don’t be an idiot.

Kaitlyn chiming in to agree with Barb about verbs and adverbs. Using said is usually best, because it’s an “invisible” word and doesn’t distract, but if a character is asking a question, it should be asked, and there are certainly times when someone needs to whisper, mumble, mutter, or shout. They should be allowed to shout belligerently, too. Or enthusiastically. Or even half-heartedly.

I’ve never understood all the fuss about adverbs. The “rule” that a writer should go through a manuscript and remove every single one of them is almost as silly as always using a modifier with a verb. Please! Let me swing lazily in my hammock. And although I know a character can amble along, there are times when I want him to walk slowly .

So, now that I’ve dealt with a couple of the rules I ignore, what rules do I follow? In no particular order, here are four I try to adhere to.

*Catch typos and bloopers before the manuscipt goes in to your editor.

*Set a personal deadline well in advance of the real one so you’re sure you’ll have plenty of time to revise.

*Trust your instincts about where the story should go.

*Save and recycle ideas that don’t quite work. It may take ten years (and in my case, it has, more than once) but there’s a place for everything somewhere.

Barb: Yay, Katilyn! Welcome to team Rehabilitate the Adverb!  Let’s see if we can get a movement going.

Vicki here, peering through the Maine fog and finding these guidelines fascinating.

I especially like Colson Whitehead’s #2 and 3 — “Don’t go searching for a subject, let your subject find you.” and “Write what you know.” Of course these two rules appeal to me — it’s exactly what I did. An entry-level real estate class inspired me to write A House to Die For, and my heroine Darby Farr shares my profession.  Don’t we all love validation?

His rule #7 — “Writer’s block is a tool — use it.” — gives me pause. I never, ever, blame writer’s block. In fact, I have denied its very existence. Am I missing the boat here? Avoiding an opportunity to be one of those mysterious, creative types?

Which brings me to the rule I would add to our auspicious list: “Don’t feel you have to conform to preconceived notion of what a ‘real’ writer is.”

Back in college, I was a cheerful varsity field hockey player, outgoing and positive, while the other writing majors dressed in black and were disdainful of just about everything. My decision to study abroad meant that I had to change majors (a rule I still think is stupid — see Colson’s Number 9) although it was actually kind of a relief. The comparative literature crowd turned out to be much more inviting, and I loved reading texts in their original languages.

Years later, living in Maine and meeting several successful writers made me realize I didn’t need to dress in black, possess an MFA, or be an eccentric hermit to be a writer. Thank goodness, because I look much better in colors.

Sarah: One rule that I used to like a lot was “Show, don’t tell.” The foreign object known as the expository lump was never to be found in my fiction. If the point of view character couldn’t perceive it or think it (or wouldn’t, given the situation), I wouldn’t write it. And this I think is still a pretty good rule to follow. The thing is, though, that some writers do expository lumps beautifully. So I think the rule now is show, don’t tell, unless you’re good at exposition and it works.

Regarding ‘said,’ sure, it’s dandy. But “I’m going to kill you,” the madman giggled, is more chilling (or satirical, maybe, depending on context?) than ‘said.’ Isn’t it? In other words, use the synonyms for ‘said’ for a reason, yes? And even then not very often or they’ll all lose their punch.

Finally, if I can help it I don’t end a writing session at the end of a scene or chapter. It’s so much easier to pick up again in the midst of something ongoing that it is to begin a new session and a new section at the same time.

As for Colson Whitehead I particularly like his rule #8, which seems to be the heart of the matter.  And finally finally: writer’s block. My rule for that is, have it all you want, just write your pages today anyway, because how you feel about it isn’t the point; doing it is.

Lea: I’m loving what everyone’s said!  Yes; “said.” I’m one of those who rarely uses another verb.  But, yes, they’re out there for the picking, so there shouldn’t be a rule saying you should NEVER use them! That’s one of my problems with rules. I want to break them. I do like the classic “show; not tell.” But sometimes you HAVE to tell. Better, of course, if your character does the telling, but still, it is telling.

I agree with Sarah — there really is no such thing as writers’ block. You have to write anyway. But there are days when words come VERY slowly. On those days my mind is sort of like a clogged faucet, dripping the occasional splatter of thoughts I’ll have to clean up later. But sometimes I  have to get the clogs out to be able to get the brain running clearly again. Painful, but true.

As to “write what you know …” I started doing that, and I think it’s a good place to start. But I also believe in “writing what you’d like to know,” because if you’re interesting in finding something out, you can go to a new place — geographically, historically, emotionally — and you can take your reader there, too. Learning something new can awaken a new way of thinking about a subject that’s good for both the writer and the subject. Broadening horizons can be exhausting, but also very exciting. (I don’t recommend writing about something you haven’t done your homework about. That’s just wasting both the writer’s and reader’s time.)

A couple of my personal rules? Rewrite the previous day’s work before beginning each day’s new work. (It helps me get started.) Ban the passive voice. Kill the phrases “there is” and “there are.”  Be aware of personal crutch words. (One of mine is “just.” It pops up an amazing number of times in my manuscripts. I run “search and destroy” missions on it periodically when I’m editing.) Don’t have two characters whose names begin with the same first letter.  Read everything out loud, to make sure it flows.

Kate: Great conversation, which is one reason I enjoy being a part of this group. I’m in the “nothing but said” group, and I also break that rule. I’m the avoid adverbs group, and sometimes I use them. I also occasionally exceed the speed limit. I think it’s important to know the rules so they’re broken with deliberation.

I’m seriously hoping Kaitlyn is right about trusting where the story should go, because my current book is taking some amazing swerves.

Like Lea, I usually begin a day’s writing session by editing what I wrote the day before. I think of that as the introduction to the day’s writing. It puts me in the groove, it reminds me of where my characters are and what is happening with them. It makes the new writing flow.

And yes. Writer’s block. I absolutely agree that however blocked or uncreative we feel, we still go to work. I just mutter: Surgeon’s block? Mechanic’s block? EMT block? Oh yeah. This is our work as well as our passion, and we have to get it done whether it’s easy and ecstatic or like dragging ourselves naked over gravel and hot tar.

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12 Responses to Do You Follow The Rules?

  1. John Clark says:

    I would add the following. It works well for me, particularly for short stories and has the added benefit of intriguing Bernard Hagrid Dumbledore (our dog) while freaking out the kids who walk past the house on their way to the illegal swimming hole behind the cemetery across the street. Read stuff aloud. If it stumbles off the tongue, chances are it will do so in a reader’s mind.

    • MCWriTers says:

      So true. I’m working up my courage to record myself reading, and see what that tells me, especially now that I’m addicted to audio books.

  2. Lois Duncan says:

    I personally agree with “There is rarely a place for semi-colons in fiction.” However I was told by one teacher that my books would glean students more AR points if I used more semi-colons. Apparently the more words you can cram into a sentence and the more syllables there are in those words, the more AR points students get for reading your books. Therefore, I assume James Patterson’s murder mysteries would be ranked at second grade level, despite the adult content.

  3. Nancy Martin says:

    Surprise and delight are my words to write by—my daily goal. And count me on the adverb team. A judiciously deployed adverb can make a sentence sing. It can surprise and delight. Nice blog, guys!

  4. Nancy Martin says:

    I dislike semi-colons, too But I love me my em-dashes.

    • Barbara Ross says:

      Me, too, Nancy!

      Although as we’re editing stories for the next Level Best anthology, I do find myself thinking, “Writers, it’s okay to at least occasionally end a sentence with a period.”

  5. Lea Wait says:

    I’ll admit I do use semi-colons. Thank you, Lois — now I can justify them! More AR points! (I never trusted those AR points anyway, but might as well use them for something!) I suspect I’ll continue using semi-colons anyway ….

  6. thelma straw says:

    This is an excellent post! I’m recommending it to all my best writer friends! Thelma Straw in Manhattan

    • MCWriTers says:

      We’re delighted to share, Thelma, and so glad you enjoyed it.

      You must leave Manhattan and come to Maine sometime, though.

  7. Enjoyed reading everyone’s views. I have only one rule: know the rules, then discard at will, writing the way it sounds best.

  8. Anne Gooding says:

    I’m with the adverb group and those who use verbs other than ‘said’. I think of writing as painting a picture with words. Imagine if painters were told to use only royal, navy, and sky blue, but not turquoise or aquamarine or any other shade of blue. Imagine if they could use red, but not scarlet, auburn, carrot red or any other shade of red. Do we really want to limit the pictures we describe by forbidding descriptive words that clarify the picture for the reader?

    Of course, words must be used judiciously and must not exaggerate or overpower the scene. But words should be used to communicate feelings, backgrounds, actions. If the only verb for speaking you can use is ‘said’, what does this communicate to the reader when you write, “Get the hell out of my life,” he said. What kind of emotion does that describe?

    I’m basically anti-rules. I think, for the most part, they are limiting and are used by people with less imagination who seek the un-findable: a formula for good writing that can ensure that everything they write will be perfect. No such perfection exists. There are always places and times to change or break these so-called ‘rules’. And imagination and descriptive words can bring joy, horror, shame, boredom, and laughter to many a text.

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