Wrules for Writers
When you first sit down to write, unless you have been through a rigorous writing regime at an accredited university (nothing against them, but I don’t advise it), you will soon discover a universe of rules, most of which you may have broken in the first paragraph – first page at least. And unless you are a stickler for rules, most of them can be broken. But you need a little practice, a good ear for prose, and an iron constitution for staring down the disapproving looks from your writers’ group. Here are a few.
That’s what it’s called when you are writing from one person’s point of view, as in, "Well, here goes nothing, Jack thought, as he dove into the quarry pool before anyone could stop him.” Your story has been written as if Jack is telling it. Who else knows what goes on in his head but Jack and the narrator? But then you might feel compelled to add, “Show off! Diane thought, as she watched. Serve you right if you break your damn neck.”
Generally speaking, this is a no-no. Diane is not your view-point character. The narrator should not know what Diane is thinking. BUT, there are two ways in which this is perfectly all right.
a. The reader knows Diane well enough to know that’s what she would be thinking AND her thought serves the story in some broader way. I.e., it reveals something of Diane that feeds into the later action.
b. It is the first sentence of a new chapter, told from Diane’s point of view.
c. Yeah, it’s a little story about Jack and Diane, two American kids, etc.
d. I’m sensitive about head-hopping because I used it once in my third novel and was called out for it. It’s still there. I don’t think it confuses anyone at all and I believe it serves the story. So there.
Active vs. Passive
Your main character must be ACTIVE at all times. There is no Passivity in modern literature. Especially if your MC is a woman. Today’s women wait for no one. Not even a good explanation. They are kick-ass.
The main character in my first novel, The Year of the Crow, was criticized by my writers’ group for being too passive. She cooked too much, they said. Granted, Sybil doesn’t actually hit anyone until she is over 80, and as a young woman she is positively diffident – or is that negatively diffident. It’s true. She doesn’t have a strong sense of self-worth. That is something that only experience can teach her. My way of looking at it – not all of us are born kick-ass. Nor should we have to be. There’s nothing wrong with cooking. And sometimes life get more interesting if you allow things to happen to you. Dorothy, you might remember, didn’t get interesting until a tornado happened to her.
One example of passive writing given in this article is They wondered why they had to eat dinner so late every night. But I think that sentence would go well in a vampire story. Don’t you?
Show, don’t tell
99.9% of the time I agree with this. Looong stretches of exposition (as opposed to narrative) can get your reader skimming, skimming, skimming until she gets to quotation marks. Aha! she thinks. On with the story. But there are times when you really read that narrative, and if you can’t help skimming, read it out loud. And if you are writing it, and it can only be done in narrative – i.e., nobody’s escaping over that field of poppies just yet but you want the reader to know it is there when they try – let your reader see, hear, taste, smell and feel those poppies. Make the reading worth their while. Give them words that feel good in their mouths. If you don’t know what I mean, read a few pages of Joyce’s Ulysses out loud. A little of Woolf’s Orlando. Savor those words. They are tasty.
Long words bad, short words good.
Whenever someone complains that a reader might not know what a word means, I snap, That’s why god invented Google. Because I love words, and I won’t give up using them any way I want to, but only if I am certain that that word and no other can say what I mean. In other words, using big words to show you are smart shows you are not. I used diffident, for instance, (see above) instead of self-doubting (a) because it is actually shorter, and (b) because it brings with it a nuance of meaning that describes my character better. Self-doubting describes a woman in the self-help section of a library. A shy woman will not like meeting strangers. A wary woman would not take LSD. No. Diffident is the word. Choose your words carefully. And when you read your work out loud (because of course you do), the wrong words will stand out like sore thumbs, no matter what their length.
Must have conflict.
No, it’s more than that. One overarching conflict that drives the story. And that conflict must be resolved by story’s end. It seems that modern readers want a definable conflict in the first paragraph. Otherwise, why read further? And they must have a satisfactory resolution on the last page. Otherwise, why have they read it at all? I can agree with the demand for conflict in that, if one writes recognizable characters living a life, what life is without conflict, in the inner voice if nowhere else? But I resist the demand for the sort of conflict that must be decided by a kick-ass heroine. Hero, even.
If you’ve got a story to tell, tell it. The “conflict” will be there. You don’t have to impose one on the narrative.
Kill your darlings
The most pernicious one of all. It seems to suggest that you go carefully through your manuscript and eliminate any and all writing in which you take a little pride. A description that says exactly what you wanted it to say. A piece of dialog that, to your way of thinking, illuminates aspects of characters as no amount of narrative could. Everything, in fact, that upon re-reading you find yourself murmuring, “Ooh, that’s good.” A sure sign that it should go.
Okay, okay. It’s not really that bad. But it can seem like it. What it means – what I take it to mean – is that sometimes there are very good bits of writing that don’t belong in this particular story, or in this particular scene, or are said by this particular character. And if that is the case, they should go. But not into the wastebasket. They should go into a drawer. They are your darling children, and they should be kept safe from the scrap heap.
Those are my six favorite rules to break, but I don’t break them with impunity. I don’t break them just because I think I can. Just because James Joyce and Virginia Woolf did not consult Wrules for Writers before putting pen to paper. I knew the stories I wanted to tell, and so do you. And if, as you read your work aloud, something makes you stumble, maybe wince a little, take a closer look. But if it’s one of your darlings, don’t toss it. Carefully excise it and save it for another day. The story in which it belongs has yet to be written.