Writing rules are my friend. They are also my enemy. So in slightly outdated slang speak, that makes them my frenemy. Like spiders. I understand they serve an important purpose, and the large majority of them are benign. But that doesn’t mean I want them cozying up to me, crawling in my mouth while I sleep, and generally taking over my house. Or my book.
In the drive to publish my first novel, I was confident that following all the rules of writing translated into certain success. I tend to do a fair amount of self-editing as I write. I know when to properly apply a comma. I slay superfluous ‘thats’. I understand the difference between ‘writing badly’ and ‘writing bad’ (hint: the first is an adverb and the second is an adjective than needs a following noun. See? I edit good. Gotcha! I edit well.)
When it came time to revise my manuscript, I wanted to know what the pros had to say on well-constructed sentences and scenes. I read an untold number of online blogs posts about the “must-follow” rules for writing and editing. I devoured Twitter links to articles from published authors and literary agents on what makes or breaks a novel. Following their advice, I attacked my young adult book mercilessly. I cut out large sections of purple prose and exposition. Adjectives and adverbs like bad and badly fell victim to my sword of literary fluidity. Metaphors became meta-gones. My novel was sleeker. Tighter. Correcter.
And then, I read some comparative best-sellers.
Know what I found? Metaphors, and exposition and adverbs. Oh, my!
Waaaaait a minute….stop the press. If these books by authors I strive to emulate can get published and get to best-seller status while flaunting the accepted rules of writing, what was the three months of hair-pulling slicing, dicing and rearranging all about? If their characters can look longingly at each other with sky-blue eyes full of regret like an ocean storm tearing down a lovingly-crafted sandcastle, then why can’t mine? Well, my characters can. But should they? Should they not? And what does that metaphor even mean? (I’m not entirely sure, but it sounds exquisite and brooding, doesn’t it?)
I am now in the lit-agent query part of this publication dance, which I believe equates to one of Dante’s circles of hell. Maybe the fifth. Other than the occasional edit or tweak of a detail to correlate with events that are unfolding in book two, I’ve not touched it. And for the most part, I think my take-no-prisoners edit process improved the book. But I’ve been thinking about these rules and how they may or may not apply to my writing, comp books and writing in general. I’ve come up with a few truths that I’d like to offer as the bare-bones basics of writing rules.
1. A good story is queen. (Yes, I’m changing the saying – I’m writing a young adult female series, after all.) No matter how many writing rules you follow or break, it all comes down to having a compelling story. The sleekest, most well-crafted writing in the world won’t save a plotless, boring non-story. Conversely, a riveting story chock full of grammar mistakes and awkward dialogue can be fixed. Granted, it will need to be edited to within an inch of its life, like plastic surgery that requires skin, fat and muscle adjustments. But the bones don’t change. Those are good. It just needs to be prettied up. Make the story interesting. Spellbinding. Intriguing.
The challenge is that we all tend to be blind when it comes to our own work. You wouldn’t be writing what you are writing if you didn’t believe the plot was all those things, right? I suggest seeking out a writer’s group to get their opinion. But try to find one that is full of honest and pragmatic people, and avoid “feel-good, positive comment only” groups. And relatives don’t count. You want brutal honesty, not gentle lies.
2. Make the reading flow. You can have that interesting, spellbinding, intriguing story, but if the writing is so bad your readers can’t follow it, the story doesn’t matter. You don’t have to follow every single rule in the grammar rule book, but sentences need to be understandable. The story needs to flow easily through the reader’s mind. If she has to stop to work out the meaning, or backtrack to the beginning of a five-line sentence to remember the point of it, the story stops. It brings the writing to the forefront. And who wants to think about the mechanics of writing when they are trying to get lost in the imaginative worlds of your book?
This is where I think many “rules of writing” should be applied more judiciously. Sure, a description of eyes, mouth, and body stance is more descriptive than saying something angered the main character. But how many times has your hero already cocked her head, tightened her lips and narrowed her eyes in that chapter? That scene? That page? Consider the overall flow of the prose. If the hero has narrowed her eyes at her love interest several times in a chapter, perhaps one of those times his sarcastic comment should just anger her. Or she should find a new love interest. Just remember, though: you can’t be a sloppy, choppy sentence writer. Don’t throw out all the rules. Make them work for you in the readable style of your prose.
3. Write deep characters. Exciting plot? Check. Expert prose? Check. Flat, uninteresting characters? I don’t care if they all live or die at the hands of that werezombie-fae warlock (don’t steal that baddie, he’s my idea!) Readers need to care about the characters or they may not finish the book, even if they are curious about how it all ends. They certainly won’t invest in the sequels. One-dimensional characters without background, motivation, flaws, and passion don’t inspire passion in the reader. And she so wants to love those characters. She wants to be involved in their lives. She wants good things for them. She wants the MC to get the boy or the girl, to vanquish the villain, to save the world, but not to have too easy a time of it. Obstacles on the way to the primary objective are literary magic.
But it’s not enough to simply throw a lava tornado into the path of the MC on their way to slay the warlock. Provide internal and outward emotional conflict for the characters in fighting that tornado. Maybe someone important dies (someone always dies fighting lava tornados), or maybe the MC has a crippling fear of being melted alive because of a harrowing experience in her past. Developing full backstories for main characters and major secondary characters is a valuable method of character enrichment. I’ve written out detailed biographies for some of my characters and worlds, of which considerable portions may never be directly mentioned in the books. But, I know my characters. I understand them. And I can write their actions and reactions to challenges accordingly, with all the rich detail and nuance of a flesh-and-blood person. Or a flesh-and-blood werezombie-fae warlock.
And there you have it. Those are the only “rules” I think you one-hundred percent have to follow in creating a successful novel. Like I said that doesnt mean you can shun punctuation altogether Or write incomplete. Be creative and personal, but don’t be obnoxious. Ooh! I just found the title for this piece.
– D.M. Domosea