I know a lot of writers.
Now, most of these writers blog. And, worse, most of them also Tweet and link to other writers’ blog posts with some frequency.
As a result, I see an interminable stream of post titles like, “Zap Adverbs for Kick-Ass Prose!”, “Thirteen More Ways to Kill Exposition,” “Plot like a Hollywood Screenwriter,” “Write for the Market,” “The Seven Types of Subplot,” and so on, a nightmare cornucopia of deranged dogma and rabid rules almost guaranteed to paralyze any new and impressionable writer.
Oh, please. What about, “The Seven Types of Idiot Advice,” “The Wisdom of the Cookie-Cutter,” and “How Dare You Think for Yourself?!” Now those are posts I’d like to see.
So let’s talk babies and bathwater.
Writing, like any other craft, has some rules. And as we know, it’s wise to learn and internalize these before breaking them. But it’s also critical to know the limitations of rules and when to break them. In the same way that a good doctor who sees someone having a heart attack in the street will help them without worrying that they might be sued if the person dies, so a good writer will always interpret most rules as guidelines rather than holy writ. The problem for most beginning and intermediate writers is knowing where the lines are, where exceptions may be made, and—hardest of all—attaining the correct distance to be able to look at their own work with some degree of objectivity.
Let’s address the last first. As well as having a good group of beta readers, I strongly recommend letting a draft cool for at least a month between revision passes—and by cool, I mean don’t look at it, and try not to even think about it. In the meantime, work on a short story, outline your next novel, do research, whatever. This is the single best way to get some distance from your work.
Some rules—a very few—should probably should be treated as inviolable. These include:
- Don’t switch viewpoints in mid-scene (unless you’re in omniscient)
- Don’t resort to a deus ex machina at the climax to save your protagonist
- Don’t bore the reader with lectures, trivial dialogue, or lengthy, excessive description
- Always deal fairly with the reader and deliver on your promise to them
Pretty much everything else is negotiable.
Take adverbs, for instance. Although it’s true that adverbs can flag vagueness and weaken prose, they exist for a reason. Consider the phrase, “She mostly agreed with him;” this might appear as internal dialogue in a character’s head, and what it means is very clear—that she was in general but not complete agreement. The adverb here (mostly) conveys the meaning with economy and minimum fuss, and any attempt to eliminate it will likely involve a good deal more wordage and burden our prose. Should we eradicate it because some prose Mufti has issued a fatwa? Of course not. This whole foofarraw about adverbs began as good, rule-of-thumb advice and, after endless parroting, has become a mindless mantra (let’s blame Hemingway, as we can for so much else).
Likewise with exposition, the cure is often worse than the disease. The key with exposition is to make sure it’s both interesting and well-timed. Nobody wants a lecture; on the other hand, if the author’s concern over infodumping borders—as many do—on the obsessive, readers will find themselves dissatisfied, even disoriented. I’ve closed and never reopened many a story, including some by well-known authors, because of this. When a reader needs to know something, let them know it. Often the information can be slipped in deftly, but sometimes it’s just more expeditious to tell—yes, tell—the reader what they need to know rather than stand on our heads trying to slip it in under the radar. If the desire for the information is there, the reader will welcome it. Voice can do miracles here, turning an indigestible lump of exposition into a delightful side-trip the reader will be happy to go along with.
Now, I’m a genre writer. And although I make every reasonable effort to write well and polish both story and prose over several revisions, my primary goal is to entertain the reader. I don’t give a damn what the Literary establishment thinks, or, for that matter, what my more rule-obsessed peers think: my goal is to deliver a story that hooks the reader and keeps them turning pages, leaving them with a feeling of having taken a great ride when they finish the book. That’s all that counts. And anyone who believes that exposition and adverbs are going to kill a book needs a reality check.
The truth is that most readers are not writers, agents or editors. They’re not prose wonks. They aren’t swayed by technical mastery or compliance with the latest fashion taught in the prose madrassas. Nor do they care whether a book neatly fits into a genre, category, or reader demographic. Readers want a story, pure and simple. If you don’t believe that, then I guess J.K. Rowling, John Grisham, Dan Simmons, Robert James Waller, Dean Koontz, Dan Brown, and Isaac Asimov were all just flashes in the pan. Because although some of these are terrific writers and others arguably mediocre, all of them have and do flout one or more of the ‘rules,’ flagrantly and often.
In conclusion, I think part of being a professional in any field is to always question received wisdom. Yes, you certainly should learn the protocols and conventions; but slavish adherence to other people’s dogma and assumptions not only limits your range, it also buys into what I believe is an unhealthy mindset. What’s important is to tell your story in the way that best serves the reader.
In the end, the way you choose to interpret the barrage of writerly imperatives coming at you from every corner of the blogosphere is your own business. For myself, I’ve taken to laughing at most of it.