Rules Schmules

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“I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs…” ~Stephen King, On Writing

Yes, Mr. King is one author who knows his stuff. If you haven’t read “On Writing” yet, and you have any plans to write at all, then by all means, do get it. He offers valuable insights into the nitty gritty of writing that go beyond your usual “anyone can do this if they just learn.”

The sad fact is that not everyone can do the writing thing. Mr. King is pretty clear on that, but it’s not only because some people aren’t talented at writing. There are people who can write very well, but they won’t make a career out of it for any number of reasons. Perhaps they just don’t enjoy it. Maybe the rest of their lives are too busy to focus on writing. Others find it too hard at some point in the process and give up.

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But, I’m convinced that those who are serious about writing, no matter what their goals or genres, all have one thing in common.
They know the rules, and they know how to break them.

Like Stephen King, I agree “good writing consists of mastering the fundamentals (vocabulary, grammar, and the elements of style).” (On Writing, p 142). If you want to write, especially for purposes of publication, know your stuff. I’m talking basic, bare bones grammar first and foremost. Expand that knowledge to style and beyond that to fantastic storytelling and you’ll find yourself at least a competent, if not good, writer.

And it’s these good writers who go on to learn how they can break the rules without readers so much as batting an eye.

Case in point: The first Heather Graham novel I read, “The Vision”, was liberally showered with adverbs and passive voice (was / had), but it was still a darn good story. Not a blockbuster hit, mind you, but good enough to keep me turning the pages. I only noticed these rule breakers because of my wonderful critique partners. I love them, mind you, but some could masquerade as adverb and passive voice exterminators at night.

You see; I’m certain after having written dozens of books that Heather Graham knows the rules just like Stephen King knows the rules. But, like him and other good / great writers, she’s developed her storytelling ability to the point that she can break the rules and get away with it.

“I broke the rules and I liked it.”
Not everyone can do this, especially in the beginning. If you attempt to break the writing rules too early, you risk looking like a drunken wino who smells of adverb dependence and stale clichés. When you reach the point where your storytelling ability can benefit from an exceptionally placed adverb or comfortable cliché, then you’re more like a sexy redhead in a sequined dress sipping expensive red wine at an upscale bar.

Writing in spite of rules takes confidence, people. But, it doesn’t arrive overnight by FedEx. Like a fine wine, it must improve with age and careful tending. Eventually, if you’re dedicated enough, you can hold your head high and proclaim: “Rules schmules—who needs ‘em?”

2 Comments
  1. Paula Boer says

    I agree. Since becoming (overly) aware of words to avoid like ‘but’ and ‘just’ as well as adverbs, I find they leap off the page at me when other writers use them. However, particularly in fantasy which tends towards being verbose, they seem to fit. Those writers use these words with powerful effect – they knew the rules, and chose to break them.

  2. David CHelms says

    Sometimes it’s better to break them and say I’m sorry later when it may become a best seller of sorts. Because so many great writers do it to keep up with the trending language of the loyal fans to captivate that audience, they worked hard to want to steer in the correct directions in life. Your comment helped Thank you.

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