Rules and When to Break Them

rules

Rules, rules, rules.

At a conference, I once heard Joanne Harris say that the reason she wrote Chocolat was to break every rule she had been given by an author who had critiqued (and torn apart) another of her novels.  I love that story.

We all know that there are always rules to every aspect of life and writing is no exception.  But here’s the thing about rules – there are exceptions, so I thought I’d highlight a few of those exceptions.

Rule:  Never use ‘Emolument’ when you mean ‘tip’.

(Stephen King)

What this rule is actually saying is keep it simple.  I have an editor who screeches about some of the vocabulary I use.  He hates words like ascend, he writes comments on why it should be ‘went up’, similarly with descend, he doesn’t even like entered or exited.  Now, maybe I wouldn’t use emolument (because I had to go look up what it meant anyway) but as for ascend and descend, entered or exited, they have there a place in the English language so they have a place on the appropriate prose.

When to break the Rule:  When it’s appropriate to what you are writing.

I write crime, mostly contemporary, but I have recently written a steampunk crime novel set in the 1870s.  These are very different styles.  No one in the twenty-teens would descend – that lot go down stairs.  My Victorians though – they descend from the upper floors.  Then there’s conversation.  Like Stephen King says in another of his rules – Talk whether ugly or beautiful, is an index of character. The vocabulary picked for the character tells the reader who that person is.  So if you want an upper-crust, over-educated egotist, they might not so much leave a tip as talk about extending emolument. Yes as a reader I already despise that character, but then that is the point of the description and the vocabulary choice.  Remember Mark Twain’s rule: Use the right word, not its second cousin.

Rules: Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue

(Elmore Leonard)

The more that I edit, the more I agree with this rule.  It also goes back to the previous rule: keep it simple – I say.  Also remember that you don’t have to use speech tags on every line of speech.  But yet, I can’t always agree with Mr Leonard on this one.

When to break the Rule:  When it gets boring.

There is nothing more irritating to a reader than constantly reading the same word, and after a while, that is true of ‘said’ too.  So if someone shouts, say they shouted.  If they whisper, use the word whispered.  But make sure they do so sparingly and correctly.

Rule: Work on one thing at a time until finished.

(Henry Miller)

If you can stick to this rule, good on you.  I can’t and I’m not going to beat myself up over that.

When to break this rule:  When it works for you.

Love this rule as an idea, but let’s get real here it’s not always possible. So let’s bring a little reality to the world and let me give you a clue how this works for me.  Right now I am writing a User Manual, my second steampunk crime novel, and a contemporary thriller.  Now the manual – that’s part of the day job, so I do it in working hours.  While I’m in the office, because I’m also doing other things, if I have to wait for a long calculation or upload, I have my notebook by my side to write the steampunk because I write that out first in long hand, I find it helps with the Victoriana tone. But when I get home at night, if I’m not editing, I write my contemporary crime because I’m doing that on the computer only.  Three things, all writing, and all happening at the same time.

Rule:  The first draft of a book—even a long one—should take no more than three months, the length of a season

(Stephen King again)

Wow!  To be honest, there’s a huge part of me that utterly agrees with this one.  Generally, I do complete a book in that time frame, so why is it in my list of rules to break?  Because this is a list of WHEN to break the rules.

When to break the rule:  When life gets in the way.

I know that that sounds like a cop-out, and frankly it is, but here’s why.  Unlike Stephen King, I haven’t yet been able to give up the day job, so I can’t write solidly for three months.  If I could this would be easy.  The book that got me my agent was written entirely during NaNoWriMo.  But I know a lot of writers and a lot of us are unnecessarily harsh on ourselves, so you have to be real about the rules you follow.  I started a novel in November I still haven’t finished.  Why haven’t I finished it?  Because I’ve was diverted on to a different novel by some solid agent-y advice, and I have taken some time out to (a) edit my first steampunk crime novel and (b) do a paid editing job.

Admittedly I haven’t finished the other novel either, but I’m 37k words in and trying for 1000 words a day, but even that goal goes by the wayside when I get home from the day-jobbery exhausted.  So the real point of this is to give writers a reason to give themselves a break – don’t beat yourself up too much if you can’t meet this time frame.  Equally – don’t take this as a reason to slouch either.  If it’s taken ten years to write the first draft, that’s not a good sign.

So, go on, be a rebel, break some rules but get the writing job done anyway.

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