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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.

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  1. Lots of great stuff in this column.
    I know the party line about prologues and I usually adhere to it. But in my forthcoming book, A Battle In Blood (a sequel to A Warning In Blood), I found that a prologue was needed. I wasn’t happy about creating it, but there was a whole lot going on in the first volume and it does help a reader by catching him or her up on what’s been happening. Will I have to do this for the third volume? I suppose so.
    You’ve got many other great points.

    • Thanks, Joe. Good luck with your newest novel. Prologues must have been invented because they can often be useful. Nice to “see” you here!

  2. I totally agree with you on the head-hopping. Drives me nuts when an author does it and leaves me to figure out whose head I’m in. And I’m for the “he said, she said.” Like you said, they’re invisible to the reader. (By the way, that’s head “hopping” not “hoping”. Though I love the imagery of head hoping!”)

  3. This is a very good summary of the basic guidelines. I agree with the head-hopping prohibition, but I remember in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina he changed the POV five times in one scene, ending up in the dog’s head. This must be a the example that proves the rule.

    • Susan, I think that secne would have driven me crazy to read. Story is everything, of course, so great storytellers who are great writers can get away with a lot of stuff I know I couldn’t! I try hard, but I’ll never be a Tolstoy. LOL

  4. All good advice, Jan. As to prologues, I’ve never understood why they raise so much ire with some people. They’ve been in use since the time of Euripides (who may have invented the device) and if it’s good enough for him, it’s good enough for me.
    There are two valid reasons for using a prologue. 1.To provide backstory without resorting to flashbacks or other techniques that might bog down future chapters. Or, 2., to provide a hook for the reader and target toward which the book is directed. Sometimes these goals can be achieved in a first chapter. But not always. And that’s when a prologue becomes necessary.
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    • John, thanks for posting the extra knowledge you have about prologues. I do know that some readers claim they never read them. I guess some are rather boring. But I suspect if the prologue is boring, the rest of the book will probaby be, as well.

  5. Excellent post, Jan. I agree with almost everything you said. (Sorry, but I’m a slightly different kind of rebel.) For the first time, I’m using a prologue in my current novel in progress because it needed it. I’m a huge believer in the Whatever Works rule. The thing is, it takes a helluva lot of practice and experience to know what works. I’m still working on it.

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