Dear Rules of Writing: Neener neener neener, you can’t get me

Will I ever write a review that doesn’t provoke one little point that I feel the need to expand upon? Maybe it’s something small, feral redheaded people do. Dunno. I am an accomplished blatherer, though. So, as provoked by “The Speaking Bone” and other ruminations of mine, I shall now expound upon the fact that writing rules, while helpful at one stage, are not laws of nature, not inviolate, and not even useful (all the time).

Something discussed in the Smoke series to great effect is the difference between how to perform an action you’re just learning and how to perform it when you’ve done your thousands of hours and poured in your sweat and tears and made it part of you. For Tony Foster, it was wizardry. It was something the Ginger Waif encountered frequently in martial arts. And I think it’s very true in writing. When you’re a beginner, you need steps. You want numbers or diagrams or guidelines. You study the masters, however that’s done, watching or reading or abjectly begging for critique. A beginner thinks about every motion. A beginner checks if they’re doing it right.

And in that stage of writing, rules are definitely helpful. You check with peers, in crit groupes or complaining online or whatever works for you. You poke at TV Tropes and How Not to Write a Novel, by Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman (amusing book!). You study the various sort-of synonyms for “said” and take note of how seldom one ought to use them. You attend panels on what editors disapprove of. You learn that brevity is the soul of wit, that purple prose is the worst of all condemnations… You learn how not to write, really, more than you learn how to write.

But what happens after you’ve cured the prominent bad habits of the amateur? Take a look around. I have my list of the best books ever. You probably have yours. How many of them have a main character who’s (one way or another) the prettiest and the best? How many of them pile on the descriptive language,  feature all manner of interludes that aren’t strictly necessary to the plot, etc., etc., et freaking cetera. Good writers break the rules. Oh, they have to know the rules to break them. they have to know how and why they’re misbehaving. I think it’s the same in any art. That’s why there’s a difference between stylized art and scribbling. Bad writing is in attitude and execution, not in a list of do’s and do nots.

It is not my intention to go on about my own writing in this blog (got somewhere else for that!) but I do have a prescient example from a crit I received a while ago. Without going into detail, one critiquer singled out a passage and announced “that’s adverb use!” Yes. Yes it is. I’m not going to present the passage and I suppose I don’t know if it’s actually good or not. I think we’re all unreliable when it comes to our own work. But she didn’t say “that’s extraneous adverb use” or “awkward adverb use” or anything so precise. She just singled out the fact that there was an adverb, just sitting there, flaunting its verb modifying ways in front of everybody. I don’t think my critiquer was a bad writer or even necessarily wrong. I just think that the declaration fails to stand on its own. You shouldn’t clutter up your writing with needless frills, says conventional wisdom, and what a sad world it’d be if that rule were followed to the letter. She said glumly.

I’m going to leave that example before I feel any more like a self-aggrandizing nitwit. Let’s go back to “The Speaking Bone.” The majority of the story is written in passive voice, something English teachers and by-the-book authors and hypothetical editors (with horns and big, pointy teeth, I believe) are supposed to leap on and tear limb from limb. Imagine this story without its soft, creeping, sinuous language. Imagine all those sentences twisted up on themselves to force the active voice.

The rules. They have their place. They’re important tools as you learn your craft, vital to keep in mind no matter how good you are, how instinctive the process becomes. But what an impoverished literary canon we’d have without the mavericks. It’d be a world where every story was Serious Literature about white people sitting in rooms (with all due respect to Winston Rowntree), swamped with ennui and nose-deep in small town repression. I don’t want to live in that world. Break some rules.


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