Breaking The Rules

I’d like to start out this blog post by saying that I break the rules. A lot. (Not laws and work rules and such- I’m almost offensively straight-laced when it comes to following those. I am not a rebel.)

Nope, I’m talking about writing rules. The ones that say things like ‘Cut ALL adverbs and adjectives’ and ‘Never start a sentence with a preposition’ and ‘Never use any dialogue tags’. Stuff like ‘Always sit down and outline your book before you write the first word’ and ‘Never use semicolons’. No run-on sentences! Not to mention all the various grammar rules and regulations. Let’s face it, when it comes to writing, there are a lot of rules.

For the record, I use quite a reasonable amount of adverbs and adjectives, and although I don’t tag every bit of dialogue I write, I do tag some. There are some rules of grammar that I break for effect or in line with a particular character’s voice. I quite often, for stylistic purposes, start a sentence with a preposition. I may, in fact, have broken most of the rules of writing. There’s a time and a place for everything.

HOWEVER.

There is a huge, monumental, gaping great difference between breaking the rules for stylistic/characteristic/etc purposes, and breaking them because you don’t know what the heck you’re doing. A huge amount of my favourite authors break the rules constantly, in one way or another (reading Terry Pratchett last night just reinforced this) and I don’t think there are many people who would be daft enough to tell Terry Pratchett, Patricia Wrede, Steven Brust, etc, to pull their socks up and get their grammar right. This is because they know the rules. They simply choose to break them every now and then. But they do know them.

I’ve read a heck of a lot of bad books. Books with bad spelling, the wrong homonyms, atrocious grammar: errors that stick with you whether or not the actual stuff of the book is good. I’ve also heard a lot of authors, when their errors are pointed out, say something along the lines of: “Oh, I didn’t realise that. But it’s okay, insert famous author here does it all the time.”

It’s not okay. Breaking the rules is okay, but there needs to be a reason. And you need to know that reason. You need to know the rules before you break them. It makes all the difference between good and bad writing. You might get it right by accident, breaking the rules, but you’re far more likely to get it horribly wrong and find your book being mocked for the rest of its (probably short) life.

So pull your socks up. Learn the rules.

Then go ahead and feel free to break ’em.

Walking Home In The Fog

I’m a fiddler.*

Even if I’ve only written a chapter of the manuscript, the next day will see me re-reading, editing, revising.  Fiddling.  Reworking.  Obsessing.  By the time I reach the midway point in a manuscript,** I will have read it in excess of 40 times. Then the MS is finished, and the fun really begins. There’s the line by line edit, where I catch*** all those stupid little grammatical errors; not to mention the glaring errors in spelling. There’s the paragraph to paragraph read, when I try to make sure of continuity and flow. Then there’s the last**** read through to be sure my story structure stands up on its own two feet.  That’s not to mention the time I spend on my characters, making sure that each of them is separate from the others; each with their own personality, voice, quirks, and reactions.

That’s now.

But when I finished my first MS, fiddling aside, I did nothing like that. I did read the MS. In fact, I read it exhaustively, niggling at wrong word choices and bits that just weren’t quite right.  The problem was, 9 times out of 10, I didn’t know what was wrong.  I spent the first few days after finishing the MS in a happy daze, certain that I was the next Austen,***** or Patricia Wrede, or Diana Wynne Jones.  Then I re-read it, and I was just as certain that it was rubbish. I could feel that this paragraph or this sentence didn’t fit, or didn’t sit right, or just plain felt wierd; but I didn’t know what was wrong.  I knew that the characters weren’t right, and that everything felt flat, or too fast, or too slow; and that the conversation that felt so very witty and/or grand when I first wrote it, now seemed somehow not quite so witty or grand.  I just couldn’t put my finger on where it was that I’d gone wrong.  The next few weeks after finishing the MS I spent in a black fug, gloomily certain that I would never be published.

I still get both of those feelings.  The euphoria, the fug.  The difference is, now they’re in moderation because I do know what’s wrong and I do know how to fix it.

It’s the difference between walking home on a clear night and walking home in the fog.  In the fog, you know where home is and you’re pretty sure you know where you are, but the turns are obscured and everything feels just that little bit off.  The familiar parts of the road aren’t familiar in the fog, and you can’t see enough to know if you’ve turned rightly or wrongly.  Then the fog lifts, and suddenly you know exactly where you are, and where home is, and every turn and step of the way there.  You know that in two steps you’ll have to turn left, and that the gate across the field is already open so you won’t need to wrestle with that rusty hinge, and that the neighbour’s dog is outside, so you’ll have to watch out for that irritating burst of barking.

walking home in the fog

I know more now that I did when I started.  I know about pacing, and structure; I know about characterization and voice; style and flow; a little grammar and a smattering of spelling.  I read a sentence I wrote last night or last week, and I know straight away what’s wrong with it.  I still make mistakes and write flat characters and make a complete mess of continuity,****** but now I know how to fix it.

And that makes all the difference.

 

 

*No, really. I play the violin.

**Usually 60,000 words, give or take.

***Alright, so I try to catch ’em.

****Supposedly.

*****Well, I am a writer.  Did you think I bought that imagination at a garage sale?

******That’s what sisters are for.  Right?  Right, Sis?  What’s that?  You say that they didn’t have fluffy towels in the whatever century?  And that gun popped up out of nowhere?