Thursday, 3 September 2009

Rules Are Made To Be Broken?

As many of my regular visitors know, I also write book reviews for the Historical Novel Review Blog and not simply books I buy myself. Publishers actually ask us to review books for them and post them on our blog. Yes really!

Anyway, the reason I mentioned this, was I have recently finished a novel that has evidently found an enthusiastic publisher despite the fact the writer ignored many of the rules - perhaps to be kinder I ought to say sidestepped - editors tell me are vital for a manuscript to be considered for publication.

The author constantly dips into omnicient PoV and out again, writes really short scenes which launch the reader into another location with a new set of characters before you have any vision of the previous ones, and then head hops from one character to another and back again. There is also lots of passive voice where it isn't necessary: e.g. one character asks, 'What are you recommending?' The attributions often come before the dialogue: i.e. She said airily, 'I don't really mind'.

I decided I won't comment on these issues in the review, firstly because one of policies of the HNR Blog is never to slam anyone's writing, and the fact the broken rules don't detract from its narrative. Then there is the fact, that, if the publishers are happy with the writing style, who am I to say it is incorrect?

However, if I wasn't confused about what publishers want before, I am now. Does this mean the 'rules' I have been trying to follow, and worse, impress upon other writers in my critique groups are all irrelevant? Have I been giving bad advice and their novels may have been perfectly acceptable for publication after all? And why have I been trying so hard to eliminate all these 'mistakes' from my own writing?


Wendy said...

You know, I have the same concern. That's one reason why i stopped critting. I understand, fully, why the rules are so necessary. New writers don't know how to follow them and it really does show. The stories come across as limp.
On the other hand you read someome like Sidney Sheldon and Nora Roberts who do as they please - and that includes obvious head hopping and it really doesn't matter. They keep me rivetted.
In my own novel, the pov is absolutely always Stefan's, passive voice is avoided at all cost, 'was' appears only about 40 times in 95,000 words ('went' not even once) reaction follows action -- and who gives a damp? No one certainly not a publisher -- so I guess the answer is very simple. Some people have that touch of genius that makes them damn good story tellers and some of us don't. I hate that. I'm a Gemini. My No is 3. --obvious calling is in communication -- educated, well travelled, think about nothing elser but writing, have been a winner in NaNo 3 times, but I ain't got it.
So I can only advise new writters of the rules which make reading more pleasant for readers but if their stories are brilliant (and that is very rare) then they should just write them down.
I feel very passionate about this. I wish I was a Gemini genius but since I'm not, I'll continue to stick to the rulea and be proud that I understand them :)

Diane Scott Lewis said...

Anita, I constantly read books that break every rule we're told to follow, and are best sellers, so it is confusing.
I went to a workshop with a well known manuscript doctor and she said these rules should be followed!
So why don't these others follow them? I don't know, but I think it's cleaner and sharper to write the way we're being told to write.

I'm reading a book in a successful series where the author starts almost all her dialog with the tag, like you pointed out.
She said, "Where are we going?"

I think it's sloppy, and annoying. Oh well. I'm sure she cries all the way to the bank over my opinion, LOL.

She also writes 700 page novels when I'm told to cut mine back they're too long.

Jen Black said...

I grow more convinced every day that the rules should be ignored unless you have a contract to be published, and even then argue the case with the Editor!
If you write nothing but SHOW in the present tense with action verbs and no adverbs or adjectives (or very few) then you will end up with something akin to a comic book, IMHO. They are exhausting to read - again, IMHO, because
there is no let up, no relaxing of tension.
My cynical self tells me that this demand for "simple" writing is geared to the lower reading ability of great parts of the population. Publishers want
stories that are exciting and accessible to those whose reading age is much
lower than it used to be.
E-publishing has something to do with it, too. Reading a screen is not as easy as reading a page, IMHO. Longer sentences tend to unravel when they cover half an e-book reader screen, so the answer is to have shorter
sentences, easy to understand.
Storytelling is still the thing that catches a publishers' eye, I reckon. If they like it and think they can sell it, they'll go with it even if it has some passive voice and uses Was and Were. I remember reading lots of books
where the dialogue tag came before the speech. If the meaning is clear, why make it a rule? People's expressions often convey their feelings before they
open their mouths.

Victoria Dixon said...

I think we've discussed the piss-poor writing that's out there before. *Sigh* It makes me want to bang my head against the keyboard when I read crap like that.

Anita Davison said...

I knew you would feel passionate about this - thanks so much, knowing I'm not alone helps a lot

Jennifer Hudson Taylor said...

I couldn't have said it better, Jen. There is a time and a place in a manuscript for breaking most rules. The key is balance and knowing when. Don't be excessive with it, but make sure you layer it throughout. Great discussion.

N. Gemini Sasson said...

The fact of it is that writing is an art form, not a science. There is no one 'right' way to do it. It would be wonderful to wrap everything up in a neat set of rules that ensures us if we always follow them, we'll achieve the formula that will lead to success. But not so. 'The Rules' in general do help us communicate with more precision in structured writing like composition, essays, non-fiction, etc. When it comes to telling a story, though, the emphasis has to shift. Sometimes, passive voice IS appropriate to denote an ongoing action; short scenes can feed us an important component without dragging it out; omniscient PoV can add unexpected layers; and sentence fragments can punctuate an action, thought or feeling.

Can breaking the rules be done poorly? Yes - and they are often overdone or misused, which leads to ineffective writing. Following the rules exclusively, I think, can lead to rather rigid writing. But for the writer who instinctively senses where that balance of breaking vs. following the rules lies, their own style and story-telling ability will shine (or not) even more.

If the disregard for rules in the story you are reading gets in the way of enjoying the story, then no, it isn't effectively used. I think as developing writers we spend far too much time touting the technical and ignoring the artistic.

Glynis said...

Anita, I get so frustrated when I read rules have changed. I study, try and retain the information and then bam, everything changes again.
Interesting post, thanks.

The Book Doctor said...

Well said, Gemini!

Anita, I understand the disillusionment after reading such work. But think of it this way, would you rather be known as a writer who writes well, or simply as a "hack writer?" Hack writers get published all the time.

Yes, I'm totally for breaking the rules—I talk about it regularly on my Book Doctor Blog. There's definitely a time and a place to do it. But I believe a writer must master the rules before they can break them.

Kat Taylor said...

If any of you have read some of my blogging--you' ll see more often I have problems with bad plotting than bad writing.
One of my fav authors: Sharon Sala(/Dinah McCall) breaks some rules that can annoy(omniscient foreshadowing, pov switches, etc) but I love her stories enough to forgive them.
Bad plots, stupid time line errors--those grate on my nerves like nails on chalkboard.

Ginger Simpson said...

Face it, most of us here are published by small internet companies, many of them started by authors in order to publish their own works. A great many of the editors "hired" are authors, just like us. They do their best to hone our work, and for the most part, you find some very talented people doing the job. But occasionally, there are some who are clueless and pass along bad information with authority that makes you believe it. Myths are perpetuated, and I've probably been guilty myself of flagging mistakes when the writing was perfectly fine.

The senior editor for one of my current publications returned my manuscript to me with advice that I STOP adhering so strictly to rules about passive voice. In trying to follow them, I made my writing so stilted and unnatural, the writing didn't flow in a natural and easy to read manner. She was absolutely right.

Being published with several houses, I've found the rules differ, mostly based on editorial preferences. An author never knows if we're guided or misguided.

I'm certainly not pointing a finger at anyone. I've learned tons from my editors, but I still wonder, if being in a critique group, I'm passing along sage information or indoctrinating my peers with rules that will make someone in charge of submissions scratch their head... literally.

I'm sorry this is droning on, but now judging in contests presents a bigger question for me. I'm finding so many different writing styles and things I consider "glaring" mistakes, but do I really know what is right or wrong? I'm starting to doubt myself, and that's not a good feeling.

I don't believe there is a time when we can consider we know it all. I learn something every day...right or wrong, the challenge comes from picking and choosing the things that work for me and keep my voice, style and pizazz!

I believe the guidelines I posted for contest judging on my blog last week provide the basics for writing a good novel. I'm going to cross my fingers and follow them. :)

Anita Davison said...

Not droning on at all, Ginger - great comment and I know exactly how you feel. My confidence has been dented too - I apologied for a crit today as I'm not sure any more what I said is true.

Anne Gilbert said...

It sounds to me as if the writer hasn't learned a few things that I rather painfully learned, right at the beginning. One of the earliest was, one POV per scene or chapter. You can have scenes of varying length, especially if you have a number of important characters(as I have in the novel I'm writing. And "omniscient " POV's used to be quite common in books up p until maybe 20-30 years ago(that's how I unconsciously started writing this way), but nowadays, "omniscient" POVs are out of favor with editors. "Head-hopping" isn't acceptable any more, nor is skipping from the POV of character to character, in the same scene(although this can be awfully easy to slip into if you don't make an effort. Some people habitually speak in passive voice, so they have a tendency to write that way also. Scenes should probably be longer than 2/3 of a page, unless there's a very good reason for it(and occasionally there may be). Usually, attributions come after the dialogue, but there may be exceptions. These writing rules are all, occasionally, and carefully, made to be broken, but you'd better learn the rules first before you start breaking them, as every serious beginning writer learns. And it just doesn't sound as if this writer has learned them. But heck, I"m not near enough through with my novel(s) for publication, so what do I know?

Anne Whitfield said...

This discussion has been a topic for years and I'm so surprised by how I've changed during those years.
When I first started writing the 'rules' were a big thing as small publishers were getting off the ground and I was gullible enough to listen to everyone and everything. :o)

After nearly 12 years of writing I no longer write to 'rules' anymore. I write the way it comes out and if that means I occasionally use was and were, an ly ending word, etc, then so be it.
I am getting extremely tired of editors from small USA publishers telling me the use of was and ly words are wrong. I fight them all the way. These words are in the English language and I will use them when I see fit. There are times when 'was' is needed, etc, and honestly as a reader, I do not stop reading when I see 'was' and wonder if the author could have written that sentence better.
I read for entertainment, to be transported into another world. If a novel isn't doing that for me its not because of 'was or were' its because the characters are boring and the plot stupid. :o)

My advice;
1) Write the story of you heart, especially in the first draft. Just write the story.
2) Then in the second edit you can start tidying it up and polishing those words.
3) Let the story sit. Ignore it for as long as you can. (I try for 6 weeks and start something new)
4) Then go back and have another read through and tweak it.
5) Know your market. I didn't at first and suffered for years by it.

Ginger Simpson said...

Anita, what a great discussion you inspired with your blog. I appreciate being a part of it and I'm going to keep Anne's tips on hand. :)


Phyllis Campbell said...

They're not really rules...just guidelines. (remember when this was said in the movie Pirates of the Carribean?) heehe I feel the same way. Am I telling crit partners not to head hop because it's not right - or because that 'rule' was drilled into my head? Everything I've learned over the past 10 years (gads, has it been that long?) are not really rules as I was told...but more than guidelines. Funny, because now it's cemented in my head so bad that I cannot head hop at all. I'm in deep 3rd person pov, and that's where I want to stay. I will continue to write like I was taught, and hopefully some agent or editor will realize that my story isn't that bad afterall.


Anne Gilbert said...

Gemini, Anita, Jen, and all:

Like I said, these rules are made to be broken, or at least bent some. But it takes a writer a while to perhaps know when and where to break them. It also depends a lot on what you're writing. I've noticed, for example, that a lot of books aimed at the YA market are written in the present tense. Apparently the publishers of these books thin that teens and "young adults" will respond only to a sense of "immidiacy", either because they're used to TV reporting or film, or because thaey think that's the ooly way to get them to read anything. It just so happens, I don't think present tense writing works all that well in a lot of cases -- Ive seen it used in historical novels, and this, for me, just doesn't work. But it sells, apparently, so what can I say. I also see "mannerisms" in some writers; using the same phrase over and over until it leaps out at you in an irritating way. I don't like that, either. I don't so much mind "omniscient" POV's, the books I read when I was younger were full of these things. But if the writer can't pull these things off in an interesting way, then I don't want to read it. On the other hand, maybe some publisher or agent feels entirely differently. There's no accuounting for taste, and if the person who has the power to publish it, likes what they read, well all we aspirers can do, I guess, is shake our heads, go on, and write the way we personally, tend to write, but do it as well as we can.

Nan Hawthorne said...

You know, I would just say what you really believe about the book in your review. I can't speak for all editors.. I tend to think it is the marketing people that are gumming all this up and editors often have to toe the line. One of the reasons I am so passionate about indie book publishing is that I believe the readers should decide what's published.

So for what it's worth.. my 2 kb's worth.

George Taverner said...

Yeah, i agree with Anne, this writer either hasn't learnt the 'rules' yet or is taking one massive risk with publishers. Then again, just like everything else even writing has changing trends. I remember the first romance book (wot, about 15yrs ago??) i read and it was loaded with the stuff you've mentioned, and where 1st person was practically non-existent. It's all changed now and whilst i believe you can bend the rules, i think you have to be an amazing witer to completely break them. i don't have an editor, so i rely on helpful advice from fellow writers to point me in the right direction and it's worked really well for me, so don't beat yourself up Anita over this. Quite frankly (and i am very frank!) if i was to read a book that constrantly head hoped along with that other stuff (don't know technical word for it), it would do my head in! Moreover, if that person isn't willing to take good advice then how can they move forward? How can publishers
think that readers would enjoy a book of that kind? Sometime, they really get my goat!

Rosemary Morris said...

Actually, I'm grateful to other writers and books on how to write which explained writing rules. I stopped head hopping, stopped writing long flashbacks, learned to show instead of tell and cut down on my use of was, were, had, feel, felt and feeling. And I learned so much more about the craft of writing. However, having learned all these rules I break them when it suits me.

We all write differently. I like to polish my work as I go - Anne likes to write the dirty draft etc., but however we choose to write we want a polished end product which is saleable.

Anne Gilbert said...

I noticed some of you have mnade a big deal about how you don't use was, were, etc., no passive voice, and so on. This is one of the siutations where "rules" can be bent, as long as you learn to develop an "ear" for these things. Just an example: I was rewriting a first draft of a chapter I started writing earlier this week. It's not finished, but it's a very tense scene -- there's a huge battle going on, and several of the major characters have to get away or end up dead, essentially. There were several places where I found some of these "was","were", "had" "felt" and so on, and substituted something "punchier". Why? Because there was a lot of action going on, and I wanted to make it as "tight" as possible. I don't know whether or not I did a good job, butI did eliminate words that seemed to slow the action. OTOH, in a quieter place, while I still try to show, rather than tell, action can be described more slowly. I think you have to both learn what the rules are, and when you can bend them. As someone else here said, they're guidelines for better writing, not chiseled into stone tablets. And as someone else here also pointed out, writing is an art, not a science. So my advice, suce as it is: Rule-followers, loosen up a bit and see where you can bend the rules without writing flabby. Everyone else needs to learn what the rules are, practice them, and then just let go when the story calls for it.

Paul Lamb said...

Think of them as tools, not rules. If they benefit you, use them. If not, create new rules. We're creative writers, not high school term paper writers. The point is communication, not adherence to abstract rules for their own sake.

Helena said...

Coming in late, as often.

I'm with Jen. In every mastery there are rules to be learnt upfront. Only when you master the rules and skills you can decide what to use from your skillset and when what not.

And... we are story tellers not bean counters. Bottom line: it's the story you're selling and not a number of adverbs and POV switches.