If you have been writing awhile (or, more specifically, read about the writing craft), there are certain “Do Not Do” messages that keep being told:
- Show, don’t tell
- Use the active voice, avoid the passive voice
- Eliminate adverbs, especially those with the dreaded -ly ending
- Learn the rules of punctuation so readers can understand what you mean your nuances and the tempo of your sentences
- Refrain from using exclamation points, damn it!
- Develop a sympathetic character readers can identify with
- NO prologues (especially within the fantasy genre)
- Watch out for the Viewpoint Switch–how are you in that person’s head when you were just in that other person’s head?
- No fragments.
- And do not begin a sentence with a conjunction.
Lies. Rules to be broken. Sort of.
All of the above list are writing “guidelines” you need to be aware of, though the validity of some border on outright untruths (though they may have been true in past ages). These guidelines remind me of Captain Barbossa’s definition of the pirate-code-of-parlay in the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie.
Case(s) in Point:
I recently finished reading the best-seller, The Kite Runner, a novel set in Afghanistan and the San Francisco Bay Area, the first novel by Khaled Hosseini. He broke most of the above “rules” several times during the course of the novel, and yet the book’s appeal remains undeniable.
Everybody not living a hermit life in a cave somewhere knows that George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series is a national bestseller, and that the Game of Thrones (the title of the first novel in his epic fantasy) is an ungodly popular mini-series. Martin is an exceptional writer in many ways (not prolific, however, as he has taken up to 6 years to write a single novel within the series), but he breaks the “No Prologue” rule in his novels. I might add that his prologue in Game of Thrones is one of the best action-oriented prologues I have read, but it is still a prologue.
Then there is Cormac McCarthy, a multiple best-selling author and Pulitzer Fiction winner (among other distinguished awards) for his novel, The Road, which was made into a movie starring Viggo Mortensen. I have not been able to read his books, though trying several times. For me, I have a difficult time reading prose that contains little or no punctuation, “especially quotation marks for dialogue,” I declare, quite vehemently.
What does all this mean to you and me, writers struggling to get editors and agents to read and accept our writing?
In the above examples, two of the authors were known and at least semi-famous before the novels mentioned were published; The Kite Runner was Khaled Hosseini’s debut novel—a commendable feat, to be sure.
As a writer, it is critical to know the rules (guidelines?) of one’s trade, not unlike any other profession or art-form. Writers need an intimacy with their tools—words, punctuation, sentence structure—and an understanding of their individual power, for they are the building blocks of creation. In other words, simply knowing that the rule, “use the active voice, avoid the passive voice” is often the best option, one must also know it is not the only option. There are times when you want, even need, to use the passive voice, if for no other reason than to change the pace to set up the next section.
There are some rules that give you a choice such as the use of the colon: The first word following can either be capitalized or not, consistency throughout the document being the most important element.
There are other rules that do not allow modification: the use of dashes—such as this—and parentheses ( ) are examples. Dashes and parentheses are used in order to add, describe or further explain a part of the sentence, the story, or a character.
Walking past the three boys, I ignored—or tried to—their disparaging remarks.
With both the dashes and the parentheses, if removed along with the words, they do not change the main thrust of the sentence; their placement enhances the sentence instead.
Placement of both dashes and parenthesis is critical to sentence construction. As to parentheses (remember these?), think of them as a whisper with less force to the statement than the dashes—get what I mean? In either case, do not overuse them; they hold a power that is lost (or just annoys the reader) when dotting every page.
Again, the words within the dashes and parentheses can be removed without changing the point of the sentence. In other words, (one cannot) use parentheses arbitrarily, as in this sentence; when the words between the punctuation are removed, the sentence either makes no sense or dramatically changes the meaning.
Yes, there is a great deal to learn about language (like life), and every day should be a learning experience. The decision to break a rule ultimately lies with the creator, and I recommend that you conform to the known guidelines until you are trusted by agents, editors, and especially readers. That is, unless you MUST break through the barrier out of artistic necessity; if so, be prepared to explain why you did such-and-such.
Now go write, and I will see you on the next page,