Tuesday, August 12, 2014

THE RULES

Avoid adverbs.  Never use the semicolon.  Write simply.  Never use parentheses.  Write your passion, ignore the market.  Omit needless words.  There are all these rules out there for writing, and nearly every great or at least successful author has plenty they'll share in no uncertain terms.

What about all these rules?  If you take them all literally and absolutely seriously, it seems like your book will end up stripped down to a Dick and Jane child's reader, as one wag recently suggested:
See the hero. He is blond. He is Handsome. He is stupid. See him kill the dragon. Kill. Kill. Kill.
who you callin'... what was that word again?
Now obviously that's an exaggeration for comedic effect, but he's not far off.  The rules seem so stifling and so absolute that they leave no room for creativity or expression.  And anyone who reads as much as an author should, will quickly see how often published authors break all these rules.

So what's going on?  Why the rules, what are they for, and why do people keep repeating them?

When I was in school, mom signed me up to take piano lessons.  She thought it would be good to give me regular, disciplined work, and it is always good to teach some music to your children.  One of the things she kept reminding me in it was "you have to learn the rules before you can break them." And that's true in so much of life.

The truth is, none of these rules apply to a great writer.  If you are an experienced, talented author with a good editor, you can blow past all these rules and do your thing.  But until you get to that point the rules are useful.

You're very extremely quite wrong!
Once you're an established, great author, you know all these rules, understand why they exist, and what to avoid or use carefully.  Like Nuke LaLoosh in Bull Durham, you can't let your flip flops mold until you're in the big leagues; then you're just eccentric.  Until you make it, then you're a slob.

See, the reason everyone warns against adverbs is because new writers overuse them trying to add depth and color to their writing.  Its an easy trap to fall into, because simple sentences seem too simple and dry.  Everyone wants to be able to write lines that pop off the page and stick in memory, the kind of lines authors read in a book and go "wow that was great, I gotta write like that."

So instead of writing:
Bob crushed the zombie's head with the baseball bat and it crumpled to the ground.
you get:
Bob brutally hammered the hideous zombie in the very ugly head really hard with the wooden bat until it fell terribly hard against the hard ground.
Adverbs are too often used by the novice author as a poor substitute for clever word selection.  By trimming out the adverbs, the novice fears their writing loses character and distinctiveness.  The see the first line as boring (it is) and try to jazz it up until the line is hideous.

With careful word selection, you can turn the line into something better without all those "verys" and other modifiers:
Bob slammed  the zombie's head with the signed Babe Ruth bat, feeling the bones cave under its wooden impact.  As the zombie fell to the ground, Bob regretted covering the $100,000 relic with rotted gore and bits of hair, but he figured the Babe would understand.
Its a question of telling the story with the line or telling events then trying to make it exciting with a few added words.  Once you can do this, then the adverbs are scattered in once in a while (rotted, for example) as part of the flow of description rather than tacked on like glitter and sequins.

So its not a case of not ever using adverbs.  Instead, this rule is like training wheels on a bicycle: to keep you balanced until you get better at writing and don't need them any longer.  By consciously avoiding using adverbs, you can focus on finding a better way to write that sentence or that dialog.

As for semicolons, well... they are hard to use well.  If they aren't used well they end up a mess and if you use them well, you can come across as pretentious and pompous.  A properly used semicolon can weld two sentence clauses together into a single sentence; or weld two ideas into one statement.  So if you have a short sentence (even too short to be a proper sentence) you can extend it by using a semicolon and adding another related part to the sentence.  For example, you can write this way:
The alien flew by my house today.  It had long green tentacles.
But that implies a significant pause between the two sections and the second sentence is too short to properly stand on its own.  By using a semicolon, you can staple these two sentences together:
The alien flew by my house today; it had long green tentacles.
Then I punched it in the gnarflex
Now there's not a notable pause between the two sections, and it feels more complete, telling the reader one smooth set of related ideas.  But until you get comfortable with welding two related clauses together comfortably like this, you can get into trouble.  If you use it too much it starts to look a bit odd to most readers, like you've got a college education and are trying to show it off.

And the other rules are along these lines.  You write simply to avoid being bogged down with excessive description or narration.  You write to your passion so you aren't writing the latest zombie-werewolf-vampire love triangle steampunk YA romance just to find the perfect market niche.  Doing that means you're writing to sell a book rather than what you find interesting and readers will notice that immediately: if you aren't excited by and love what you write, nobody will be excited by or love it either.

And so on.  As you become better at writing, then you can start to bend and even sometimes break the rules because you've become skilled at what you do to the point that you can carry it off.  But until you get there, those rules help you learn and stay on target.

Because none of us start out great at anything except being selfish and loud as babies.  You have to learn to bat and throw before you can make the baseball team, and even then you're a long ways off from starting on the Yankees.  Writing is no different.  Study, practice, work, learn, and write, and you get better and better.  The rules are there to help you with that.