Saturday, July 16, 2011

Ignoring Advice - Breaking the Rules of Writing, with Style

Remember that post from last week about passive voice and how it can subtract from your writing and you should avoid using it when you can? Well, forget about it. That’s right. Usher the thought from your mind. Tell the part of your brain that’s been obsessively replacing ‘was’ and ‘had’ to sit back and relax for a while. Completely ignore everything I told you.

Okay. Maybe not completely. And maybe you shouldn’t forget about it entirely. The truth is, it is a good tip that many people recite when they talk about writing, and using active voice in your writing really can be more effective in gripping your reader and getting your story across in an interesting way. It is good advice.

But it’s just that. Advice. To be taken or left at will.

I recently finished a book that I rather enjoyed, and I’ve just started another book that promises to follow the grand tradition of all such books by that particular author. And something I noticed in both of these books is that they use passive voice pretty often (especially the first one).

Obviously, I noticed, so was it entirely unobtrusive? No. Was it always as gripping as more active verbs might have been? Maybe not. But did it fill me with dread at the thought of reading the book? Did it make me want to chuck the novel in question into the fire pit and roast s’mores over its smoldering pages? No. I liked the book, even if it did use passive language from time to time. Its narrative was very proper, very… formal. And the passive voice worked fine with much of that narrative. It was a good book, with a great plot, and I enjoyed it.

Which brings me back to my point. Advice is advice, and whether it applies to your writing depends on you, your style, the mood and narrative and maybe even setting of the book you’re working on. This isn’t exclusive to passive language, either, people. For every piece of advice you get about writing, there are going to be plenty of published books out there written by successful authors who have taken those ‘rules’, rifled through them, and then tossed them out the window.

Use lots of description. Don’t get bogged down in description.

Use adjectives and adverbs. NEVER use adjectives and adverbs.

Use more interesting words for ‘said.’ Only use ‘said.’

Read everything. Read nothing.

Always use active voice… Except for when you use passive voice.

Even the most rigid ‘rules’ of grammar – the things that your English teachers stapled to your brain with commands to never forget them – are more flexible than you might think. Part of writing is breaking these rules, for emphasis and rhythm and preference of the author. Maybe the grammar Nazis out there will call you out on it. With the short stories I’ve posted online, I’ve had people ask why I use single quotes even outside of dialogue (as I did up above here, when talking about ‘rules’). I’ve had them try to correct stylistic ‘mistakes’ that I’ve made on purpose.

And you know what? In most cases, another reviewer was quick to respond and say, “Hey, actually, it’s fine to do it that way.”

I’m not saying you should completely ignore any and all advice people give you. Chances are, it’ll be good advice. It might address something that you really should try to fix, and most of the time it’s best to go along with the conventions of language and writing.

What I’m trying to say is, advice is not always set in stone.  A published author’s casual tip is not law. It’s up to us – the developing writers – to find our own styles and decide what kind of writing works best for us.

                And it’s up to us to know what kind of writing doesn’t work, and when it’s time to make a change. XD

                So, ladies and gents. What rules do you constantly break, accidentally or on purpose? What conflicting advice have you received? What books have you read that break the rules, but do it with style?

There’s a quote about this somewhere, and I know I’ve heard it before, and I know it has to do with getting conflicting advice… But when I tried to find it online, the closest thing I found was this:

"There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are."

-- Somerset Maugham

Still a very good, very appropriate quote.

Here's another:

"Writing has laws of perspective, of light and shade just as painting does, or music. If you are born knowing them, fine. If not, learn them. Then rearrange the rules to suit yourself."
-- Truman Capote

And, I also stumbled onto this lovely article:

Which talks more about ‘bad’ advice, and addresses some of the same things I have in this post. In a more clear, more professional way. ^^
And, half a week before this scheduled post is made public, this lovely writing blog, the YA Lit Six, posted on a similar topic, but focusing more on how to break the rules in dialogue.

Fun fact: I wrote this post before the one on passive voice. XD

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