Friday, June 27, 2014

(Almost) Never Say Never

Never begin a sentence with a coordinating conjunction.

Never end a sentence with a preposition.

Never write a book based on current trends.

Never continue to work on a story that isn’t working.

Never ignore the fundamental basics of good story writing: grammar, spelling, punctuation, character and plot development, compelling content, good flow, realistic dialogue, etc.

Never try to emulate someone else’s style.

Never use clichés.

Never start a story with dialogue, weather, excessive narrative or description, a dream, a ringing alarm or cell phone, a prologue, backstory, an information dump, lots of telling and no showing, and the prohibitions go on and on.

Yikes! I’ve already opted to mop the kitchen floor on my hands and knees instead of write—and I
have a bad knee. Wait! Exceptions exist to every rule, right? Make that almost every rule. (Don’t try defying gravity unless you have a parachute.)

Back to books. Starting a sentence with a coordinating conjunction isn’t a great idea, but it’s effective in an intense scene where power sentences must be short. Beginning the next sentence with “and” or “but” gives you a connection and a punch that could be lost by making the previous one longer.

Never ending a sentence with a preposition is an old rule that long ago fell into disfavor. Breaking this one will not likely violate any agent’s taboos.

Current trends are just that—current. By the time you get your story written, rewritten, edited, proofed, laid out, and published, the trend will probably be on death row. New twists on timeless themes are winners; they’re not here today and gone tomorrow.

Never continue a story that isn’t coming together—good rule. If a story isn’t working, shelve it. Maybe you can breathe new life into it later, but move on now.

Grammar and punctuation rules have one objective: clarity. That should be sufficient incentive to obey them unless you have a valid reason for not doing so and know when and how to break them—then don’t make it a habit. Correct spelling? That’s a given. Character and plot development are the foundations of story; don’t shortchange yourself or your book here. Stories need good flow in addition to compelling content to keep the reader turning pages. A reader who has to go back to figure out what's happening is a reader who probably won’t buy your next book; in fact, he/she may not finish this one. Writing great dialogue is an art. Study it. Learn it. An otherwise fantastic story can fall flat if conversation (with others or internal) isn’t “real.” People often don’t talk in complete sentences, speak grammatically, avoid slang, etc. Keep this in mind as you write.

Your own style and voice will set you apart from the myriad writers vying for readers. Develop those qualities. Hone them. Create your “signature.” Make your book your calling card, uniquely and magnificently your own.

Clichés—overused and abused sayings that most editors insist on deleting—can sometimes have a place in stories. A great-aunt, grandfather, or distant cousin from the backwoods may naturally include them as part of his/her speech pattern. A cliché tweaked to fit a character or scene can work well when it’s personalized to fit the story, and it infuses new life into a tired, old saying. Again, avoid excessive use.

Start your story in a compelling way; that is, compel your reader to keep reading. Dialogue? Weather? Description? Dream? Ringing whatever? Prologue? If these are done right, are short and to the point, are relevant to the story, and grip the reader, use them freely but wisely. Backstory? Working it seamlessly into your developing tale as needed is far more effective than overwhelming the reader with it in the first chapter. Information dump? Almost always a “never.” Telling rather than showing? Some telling is inevitable, but keep it in check. Remember that you need to hook your
reader on the first page, ideally in the first paragraph, and cultivate that interest all the way to the end. This is the rule that counts. Most of the others can be broken—occasionally and correctly, that is.

Too many rules imprison creativity. Great writing doesn’t result from driving ourselves crazy in an effort to obey every writing rule we know. It comes from learning how to construct an effective story, letting creative juices flow, understanding rules, and applying those that will turn a good story into an extraordinary read.

How do you feel about the “never” rules? Which ones are better broken? What unmentioned rules have challenged you when beginning a new story? Why do you believe rules should or should not govern our writing?


Linda Lane and her editing team mentor and encourage writers at all phases of the writing process. To learn more about what they do, please visit them at www.denvereditor.com.

16 comments :

  1. "Never continue a story that isn’t coming together." Mmm, if an author already has a contract for that book, it may not be an option, much as they might like to follow that rule. And there's something to be said for pushing through a little bit longer, just in case the lightbulb goes off. But, personally, I'm a rather erratic author and I easily jump ship to something shinier. So I have to coax myself to persevere.

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    1. Contracts are another story—perseverance must prevail in those situations, as you say, Elle. Then the challenge begins. However, if you're not locked in with a contract, you can shelve a stubborn story until a later time. I have several manuscripts that have been put on hold for various reasons. Recently, I reviewed them, and new ideas flowed freely. I'm already working on more recent ones and can hardly wait to delve into the others.

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  2. You strike the (almost) perfect balance regarding the "always" and "never" of writing, Linda. You didn't mention sentence fragments, another classic taboo sometimes violated in modern writing. I find myself occasionally using them in early drafts, but they almost never survive multiple revisions.

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    1. Good point, Larry. Fragments are a particular pet peeve, and I encounter them frequently in the editing process. The only time I allow them to go uncorrected is in dialogue -- both conversational and internal -- because we don't always speak or think in complete sentences. Even then, the writer can often find a better way to express him- or herself.

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  3. I started a much-publicized book by a very famous writer, and every other word was a single word sentence or sentence fragment and the character "talking to the audience." I couldn't get past chapter one. Rules exist in writing just as they do on the highway so your reader doesn't get lost or out you for drunk driving. :)

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  4. Love this analogy, Diana. We need to remember that we won't be successful writers if we don't offer a marketable (good quality) product.

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  5. BLAM! That was the sound of my poor little mind blowing, Linda. I'm a child of the 60's, and my addled brain can't handle these contradicting concepts. NEVER do that again.

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  6. I will definitely keep your delicate mental state in mind when I write my next article, Christopher. :-)

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  7. Two things to add. The first is related to starting a book with dialogue. Yes, I thought that was taboo until an editor told me to do it! It really helped me add the punch I needed to start my book. The second is related to sentence fragments. Who talks in full sentences? Who thinks in full sentences. No one. They are useful both in dialogue and in internal dialogue. Otherwise the words are awkward and pull the reader out of the story.

    Many nevers are really sometimes. Writers must be free to write and to create in ways that defy the "rules." I agree, however, that writers should not violate rules of grammar or spelling. Again, whatever pulls the reader out of the story is something to avoid.

    Unless, of course, the writer wants the reader out of the story--for reasons I can't fathom--but some writer out there might. . .

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    1. Exactly, Joan (fragment but a complete thought). When our writing demonstrates knowledge and application of the rules, we become free to break them for realism or effect without damage to our reputations as writers.

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    2. I'd never heard of that rule and have started several books with dialogue. A good way to immediately engage a reader is to jump into the middle of a conversation and then do some explaining of who and where and what as the conversation continues.

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  8. My rule is if you know the rules you can break them. If you don't know them, breaking them usually leaves a mess. Break with discretion and not too often. That said, these days in fiction, one is usually firmly inside a character's head, seeing everything from that person's POV, and following his or her thoughts (we REALLY do need a new pronoun!). People often think in incomplete sentences--not to mention incomplete thoughts. Too close an adherence to rules of grammar and syntax can seem very stilted.

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    1. Absolutely, Carola! Compelling prose need not follow every rule in the book (no pun intended). Yet clarity is vital -- losing the reader in a swampy bog of fragments does not create a fan who waits eagerly for our next novel. Finding the balance between the rules and realism can be tricky, but reading our work aloud (or recording it and playing it back) can go a long way toward helping us find those stilted passages, as well as the ones that don't quite fly as fragments.

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    2. And we absolutely do need a new pronoun. Any suggestions?

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  9. Great reminder that there are rules, and then there are rules. Nothing is ever cast in stone. I loved this: "A cliché tweaked to fit a character or scene can work well when it’s personalized to fit the story, and it infuses new life into a tired, old saying."

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    1. Knowing the how and when of breaking rules reminds me of a Kenny Rogers song from decades past: "The Gambler." Only a good writer isn't gambling when she (or he) knows how to use those rules to the best advantage. As you say, "nothing is...cast in stone."

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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