I’ve been going through a reading spurt lately, after I finished the third (and hefty) Eragon book, Brisingr, and I’ve noticed that you can’t judge the validity of the “rules” of writing based on what’s selling in stores.
There are plenty of “rules” that we hear when we’re just starting. I put the word in quotes because really, they’re not rules, but they’re things that as newbies, we might not be able to get away with as much as an established author. They’re things you’ll hear from fellow writers as well as in critiques, both from agents and editors.
What are the “rules”? Here’s a few that I’ve heard and seen broken in books I recently read:
Stick to one point of view: The first draft of my novel switched POV between my protagonist and his father for the first half of the book, then, after the two story lines had come together, focused on the protagonist. In a critique workshop with an agent, I was told children’s books rarely switch POV and I should rework it to just be from my protagonist’s POV. I did, and it worked out fine. But, if you read bestsellers out now, you’ll see that many don’t do this. Christopher Paolini’s Eragon books are a good example.
Avoid ly words: I’ve heard this one a lot, and as guidelines go, it makes sense. The descriptive ly words can slow down prose. Many times, they’re not needed. This is an extreme example, but you don’t need to write “STOP!” the man said loudly. The STOP! tells us he’s saying it loudly. But, I can’t help enjoying ly words at times. I use them probably more than those who tell the “rules” would like, but I like them. To me, used well, they can be delicious and make a sentence that would have been toast and jam, toast and jam with whipped cream and sprinkles. And guess who uses them a lot: J.K. Rowling. She’s pretty successful. 🙂
Never use the word Suddenly: I’ve heard this one a lot too, and actually, I’ve got to say I agree. Never is a bit strong. There’s probably a time and place when suddenly would spark up a paragraph, but not with sentences like: Suddenly, she grabbed him. Using the word suddenly to describe that something, well, suddenly happens, is fine but it’s easy. It’s the quick go to word, but it’s not the most creative way to move the action. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve used this word, and in sentences like my example, plenty of times. But when I see them in my revisions, I try to rewrite them. And most of the time, the context of the story, the action, is moving fine and doesn’t need a suddenly thrown in. Recently, I read the first book in the Sisters Grimm Fairy Tale Detectives series by Michael Buckley and was surprised to see that in the climactic scenes near the end of the book, Suddenly was running around lose and fancy free. Now, I really loved this book. The characters were strong, the story fun and many many times Buckley had me laughing out loud. But, to be honest, all the suddenlys stuck out to me, and I don’t know if it’s because I’ve heard the “rule” so much or what, but it actually slowed the pace of the action. They weren’t needed, because the action was doing fine without them.
For newbie writers trying to get a foot in the business, sure, we have to make sure our manuscripts are Mr. Clean clean. They’re going to be scrutinized more than one from an author whose last book sold 100,000 copies. Do we stick to the “rules” or break them? I say, go with your heart. Ultimately, tell a great story in a great way. If it’s a little unconventional, breaking the “rules” so to speak, it might take a little longer to find the right agent and editor, but you will; if you believe in your story, you will. But it’s good to know the “rules” so you can decide whether you want to break them. Some of them are said for a reason.
What “rules” have you heard and seen ignored in the bestsellers?
I agree entirely.
Also: one thing to keep in mind is that all those bestsellers–usually these books that are selling out aren’t their first ones. The writer has proven himself before with past books. It’s part of another “rule”: You’ve got to know the rules before you break them. I’ve beta read a lot of stuff that just was…wrong…and part of that was because I didn’t trust the writer to know the rule.
When Cormac McCarthy doesn’t punctuate his book, I don’t have a problem with it. He’s proven before that he CAN, so when he doesn’t, I know he’s not doing it on purpose. When Joe Schmoe unpublished writer doesn’t, I’m afraid to say I don’t give him the benefit of the doubt.
Thanks, Beth. I know what you mean. I put up two more broken rules today. Enjoy.