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No! No! Bad Writer*


L&S Rules for Students 3
Photo by Michael Stout (click pic for link)


Growing up, I was a girl who (except for the occasional rebellious moment) followed the rules. I wanted my parents, family, and teachers to be proud of me. I did what I was supposed to, got the As, and developed a bit of a perfectionistic personality. In many ways, this was a good thing. On the other hand, worrying about perfection is a bit maddening because of course it can never be achieved.

When I started to get serious about my writing, I jumped in and just started typing. I didn't pick up a writing book, read an agent blog, or do a lick of research. Very unlike me. But the creative juices were churning and I needed to get the words on the page before I did anything else. Once I finished my first draft, I took a breath and started to read more about writing. And boy, oh boy, there was enough out there to send me into a near panic attack.
There was so much I didn't know, so many rules I had never heard of. I thought with a firm grasp on grammer, an idea about story structure, and the show don't tell rule, I was good to go. I had no idea there was a written (and unwritten) code of the do's and don'ts of writing. This, of course, sent my anal-retentiveness into overdrive. I jumped into editing and tried to fix the things I had no idea were wrong the first time around. Then, draft after draft, I would discover a new rule I wasn't aware of and would have to go back through again. It was liking trying to break the code into a secret society.
And it hasn't stopped yet. I'm still learning new things every day. At times, it's overwhelming, but I want my manuscripts to be as good as they can be, so I'll keep reading and going to workshops and absorbing all I can.
2015 Update: However, I've also learned that rules are not rules. They're guidelines. Writing shouldn't be "perfect" according to some list. That's boring. You have to find your own style, your own voice, your comfort zone with the so-called "rules." But these do exist for a reason. So it's important to know these things and why they exist. Then you're informed and can break them wisely. Because if you're going to break them, you need to know why you're doing that and then do it well. 
What I Done Learnt So Far:
  1. Adverbs are the devil incarnate. They will steal the soul of your verbs.
  2. Excessive adjectives are like white shoes after Labor Day.
  3. Prologues can be a crutch (though, can also be done well.)
  4. Non-said dialogue tags (he growled, she shouted, he bellowed) are like big, fat "I'm a new writer" billboards in your manuscript
  5. The being verbs are the ugly stepchildren of the verb family
  6. You want verbs that go to the gym--nice and strong.
  7. Rhetorical questions in query letters make agents burn your letter in a weekly bonfire.
  8. Backstory should be slipped in like roofies into a drink--your reader didn't even notice it happened.
  9. Present Participial phrases are generally bad. (This one is a new discovery for me. Editortorent has a whole series on PPPs alone.)
  10. Hidden/Buried Dialogue is not preferred and slows down your pacing. (This one is also new to me. My handy dandy critique group gave me a lesson on this one recently. Apparently, dialogue passages need to be in one of the following structures:
  • dialogue -->narrative-->dialogue
  • narrative-->dialogue
  • dialogue-->narrative
NOT narrative-->dialogue-->narrative OR (my personal favorite) Dialogue-->narrative-->dialogue-->narrative. Don't bury dialogue in the middle of narrative. I did this all over the place, including the submissions I currently have with agents--sigh).
There are hundreds of more "rules" out there, but these are the ones you'll hear most often.
What writing rules have you discovered that you never knew existed? Which rule do you disagree with? Which one is your biggest enemy--the one who sneaks in your writing all the time?
**Today's Theme Song**
"Know Your Enemy"-- Green Day
(player in sidebar, take a listen)


Reader Comments (13)

If you had a firm grasp on grammer, an idea about story structure, and the show don't tell rule under your belt when you first started, you were way ahead of me!
One thing I do love about learning, understanding, and applying new rules, is that then I can break them with discretion.

November 26, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterjbchicoine

Wow! I so love that you recognize there are rules. There are RULES?!? How rude is that?

The main rule I have learned is that no one is beating down my door to publish what I write. And how rude is THAT? Too? ~ Yaya" rel="nofollow">Yaya's Home

November 26, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterYaya' s Changing World

The prologue rule was painful for me too. I still have my prologue saved in a special file- a little part of me hopes an agent will take on the book, find out there's a prologue, read it, and tell me I absolutely have to put it back in because it's so marvelous.

November 26, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterStephanie Thornton

LOL! Great post!! When I first started writing seriously, I had to relearn pretty much every single thing I'd learned in high school English classes...heck...most of that stuff went back to grade school! And it was quite hard. It had been about at least a decade and boy did I forget a lot! Even now, my brain just does not want to retain a good amount of it. I have to keep going back and rereading Elements of Style!

November 26, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterStephanie

I hate the rules. Such a necessary evil, unfortunetly :)

Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours Roni!

November 26, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDeb@RGRamblings

I had one writing profressor who taught us never to use flashbacks. I still use them, but sparingly and prudently. I think most rules can be broken if you do it right, but it's always safer to follow them.

November 26, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMeghan Ward

I love all the rules you posted, but I don't think I agree about the buried dialogue. It took me forever to figure out what buried dialoge was, and finally I had to ask google. It wasn't extremely informative, except for this page, which made me feel better. (I bury dialogue quite a bit.)

I am guilty of breaking # 8 and # 10. But I'm getting better:)

Hope your Thanksgiving is great!

November 26, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermelane

Awesome post. "And boy, oh boy, there was enough out there to send me into a near panic attack." That's where I am now!

Backstory is my BIGGEST problem. I just had to cut my entire first chapter (and much of my second) because it was all backstory and the "real" story didn't start until mid-second chapter... IF THAT even. sigh.

November 26, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSara ♥

Oh, crap! I feel like I just got knocked down a few rungs. Oh, well, I suppose I need to revise anyway, so why not just add ten more things to fix:)

November 26, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterTina Lynn

Jb, yes I've heard you have to know the rules to break them, right? :)

Yaya, lol, it is rude indeed

Stephanie T., I understand, I love a good prologue

Stephanie, yes all those english rules are definitely use it or lose it in the memory department

Deb, thanks and yes, evil indeed

Meghan, yes flashbacks could be added to this, although I think if done well, they can work

Too cute, yes I had to learn about buried dialogue when I joined my crit group. My crit partner told me to pick up a modern book and notice how sparingly hidden dialogue is used, and turns out she was right. I don't avoid it 100% because sometimes it works better, but I have found removing or rearranging most of it has made the pacing of my dialogue better. But of course, we can all agree to disagree!

Melane, I still struggle with many of these too and happy thanksgiving to you as well.

Sara, I hear ya, knowing where to start the story is so hard sometimes

Tina, lol, these are all easy fixes if you choose to fix them.

November 26, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterRoni @ FictionGroupie

Ugh. Rules. I suppose every writing rule is what slows me down because I'm not as lucky as you, I never want to take the time to correct them. But I know I will have to....eventually. Thanks for opening my eyes to a few of them!

November 27, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterOddyoddyo13

Accidentally deleted this comment. This is from Martinelli Gold:

I tend to use a lot of passive voice. "He had been running the whole day," for instance, instead of the much nicer, "He ran all day."

Also, I tend to "double up" on descriptions, quite a nasty little habit. Such as:
"The room lay quiet and cold. Her footsteps were heavy and slow. She felt odd and uncomfortable."

I love going back and chopping off words. It's kind of pruning a bonsai tree

December 29, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRoni Loren

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