WRITING FOR THE READER—NOT JUST FOR OTHER WRITERS

Since I joined a couple of writer critique groups back in the early 1990s, I learned a lot of basic guidelines for good writing. The majority of them made a lot of sense to me. And as a reader as well as a writer, I now notice some awkward, clunky writing that miss the following points.

• Stay in point of view—no head-hopping inside a scene.
• Write as much as you can in active voice; don’t be passive.
• Leave out the boring stuff.
• Use modifiers sparingly (some say not at all, but I don’t agree with that—see below).
• Never use a semi-colon in fiction. (I break this one every so often, just because I’m a rebel.)
• Learn and use all the rules of grammar.
• Spell check over and over again.
• Get critiques and edits.

Then there were other rules I had trouble with:

• Show, don’t tell. In my opinion, this can lead to choppy writing and lack of interesting details. Yes, show action, but tell descriptions.
• No prologues. Come on. Sometimes they’re exactly what’s needed. They can pull the reader in and explain some backstory so there’s no “info dump” later on. I agree, though, that they need to be done very well. Many best-selling authors use them. Why shouldn’t the rest of us?
• No epilogs. I have two reasons for using them in my Paula PI books—one is that as a reader myself, I like to know what happens with some of the characters later on. In a mystery in particular, it’s hard to wrap up all the loose character threads during the hopefully action-packed ending. The second reason was simply because it was a senseless rule. (There’s that rebel again).
• Don’t use he said/she said. Have the character do something instead (cough, sigh, drink coffee, drink beer, whatever). Sorry, after a while of reading all these small actions (especially the coffee drinking) it gets old AND intrusive AND boring. He said/she said is invisible to most readers. It doesn’t stop them. So, why not use it? I do both the saids and the small actions, mixing it up.
• Split infinitives are evil. Only if you’re an English teacher who hasn’t kept up with the times. When Latin was in use, this was a necessary rule. It’s not one for those of us who speak English. And sometimes splitting the infinitive makes the sentence much stronger: “to boldly go where no man has gone before’ has a much better cadence than “To go boldly where no man has gone before.” Right? Right. When we were motorhoming I found a great bumper sticker that we promptly put on the couch: “Boldly going nowhere.”

But I digress.

One warning about head hopping:

If you do head hop between scenes, be sure the reader knows right away whose head you’ve hopped into if you’ve changed it since the last scene. The book I’m reading currently has made this mistake several times, and it always make me stop in order to figure out I’m in a different head.

So, the biggest rule is to do what works. What works is smooth writing that doesn’t in any way make your reader stop reading to figure something out. This is okay for non-fiction. Not so much for fiction. Thus the rules about using good grammar and spelling in particular.

FICTION WRITING RULES FROM FAMOUS WRITERS

I thought it would be fun to compile a list of lists of rules for writing fiction. We can, of course, start with Elmore Leonard’s famous list. Many people disagree with some of his rules, but it won’t hurt to read them carefully and make up your own mind. What do you like as a reader? Maybe some of the things he’s against, you like to see when you’re reading. Nothing wrong, in my opinion, in breaking some of his rules, or any others in the rest of the lists below. In case you’ve never seen Mr. Leonard’s, here’s a link.

http://www.nytimes.com/2001/07/16/arts/writers-writing-easy-adverbs-exclamation-points-especially-hooptedoodle.html

You’ll love Margaret Atwood’s ten tips:

http://www.literautas.com/en/blog/post-755/ten-rules-for-writing-fiction-by-margaret-atwood/

Of course, Mr. Hemingway had a set of rules. See all seven here:

http://www.openculture.com/2013/02/seven_tips_from_ernest_hemingway_on_how_to_write_fiction.html

Here are six from George Orwell, compiled using one of his essays on writing:

http://www.writingclasses.com/InformationPages/index.php/PageID/300

And then there is the famous Lester Dent  formula, a master plot, for any 6000 word pulp story. This is not a list, but no list(!) would be complete without looking at Mr. Dent’s formula. If you spread it out, it will work for any story, short or long:

http://www.paper-dragon.com/1939/dent.html

Final rule from Jan Christensen:

Trust yourself. Yes, learn the craft, read and ponder the rules. Read a lot of fiction. After you do that, you can  trust yourself to know what works for you and your work.

 Good luck!

HOW TO HANDLE WRITING ADVICE (including mine)

You’ve just read a blog post somewhere about how to write well. Next you must decide if the advice you’re reading is good advice or bad advice, or if part of it is good or bad. The more you read and hear writerly advice, the more you will see certain points made over and over again.

I say, for a writer, the only rules are for grammar, punctuation and spelling, and most of us, especially beginners, had better follow them in order to be taken seriously. But after you’re more established, even these may often be bent.

However, there are some “gurus” who advise you about other topics. For example, to eliminate all modifiers. They say you should make your verbs and nouns “strong” enough so you never need a modifier. Ever. But you’ll see some quite famous writers who use modifiers liberably. What to make of all this? Moderation, of course. Yes, find a stronger verb or noun, if you can, and if the one you choose doesn’t make the sentence sound pretentious or weird. But many times a modifier makes it better. Yes, it does. I don’t ever remember seeing anyone mention flow or rhythm when they announce this rule. And they should, because those little modifiers can help with flow and mix it up so your sentences don’t sound like rifle shots—noun, verb, object, followed one after another in a constant, boring rhythm.

Other examples are the topics of point of view (POV) and “show, don’t tell.” But there are no hard and fast rules in an artist’s world.

Okay, we’ve figured out that we need to take each “rule” and turn it into a suggestion for us to follow. Or not. Some of the suggestions might hit their mark with us, with the way we write, with what we want to accomplish in a particular piece of writing. In other words, we want to remember it, to follow it.

But few of us can remember everything we want to, so we need to write stuff down. In today’s world, there is more than one way to do that—by hand or by keyboard, or even touchscreen.

I started out before everyone used the computer for almost everything. I had a spiral-bound notebook my daughter gave me, and began jotting down anything that struck me as good advice.

That notebook is now almost full. I love to go back and read through it every once in a while. Some of the stuff in there is now ingrained in me so that I don’t have to think about it anymore. Other stuff has been lost to my memory, and it’s good to read it again.

I also have lists that help me with editing, checking for my overused words using the search feature in my word processor, and lots of other tips.

Takeaway #1—The “rules” depend on a matter of style and preference.  As a guideline, if you see a “rule” mentioned over and over, it might be a good idea to follow it as much as possible. And, if you think you may not remember them, write them down somewhere.

Takeaway #2–Look at the title of this post again.

Anyone have any ideas about how to organize their own personal list of rules? I love comments. We’re all in this together, so, if you have ideas, please share.