Reading rules about writing is like finding coal in your Christmas stocking – you’ve let some weirdo stranger in your house, he’s taken the treats, and left you with a fossil. Piss off, Santa. Nothing crushes the fun of writing by adhering to some set of rules ordained a billion years ago, probably around the same time your coal was forming at the bottom of a swamp.
Yet, while I’m trying to get my story to conform to the rules the way acrobats do when performing, I read other books and see these Dear-Lord-no-the-earth-will-combust-if-you-write-that ‘mistakes’ being poured out like nobody’s business.
While common sense is not common, I think all the rules need to be broken at times, so the book has a more user-friendly experience. We ain’t in the 19th century, bitches. So, which rules do we glamorous, yet lonely, artists break? The big ones.
Rule número uno – Keep the book under 100,000 words.
Whaaaaat? I read The Frozen Heart a few months back, and it had like a million words in it. Could some have been shaved off? Probably, but who cares? It was great. Do you have any idea how hard it is to write a book as short as 100,000 words? My first book is 215,000 words and still my best seller. This rule only applies if you are entering a book competition that has entry criteria, otherwise, write away. Tell Ildefonso Falcones to shorten his Cathedral of the Sea, go on, I dare you.
Rule número dos – Cut out adverbs
Dear mythical God, this rule really rips my nightie. It’s as if adding ‘ly’ to a word will solidify the centre of the earth. I have limited my adverbs in every book I have written (though Night Wants To Forget no doubt has quite a few). For my next novel, Intense Professional Marquesa, I stopped the picking and just let the adverbs in, because they were necessary, especially given the language used in the time period I’ve written. I definitely, completely, utterly, frustratingly, still monitor abverb use, but I won’t lose sleep over readers’ opinions on adverb totals.
Rule número tres – Never start with dialogue
Bitch, please. I almost always start with dialogue. I love starting with dialogue. You aren’t skimming through some dull paragraph to get to the action. The characters are in there, mixing it up. The person who came up with this rule probably died 200 years ago.
Rule número cuatro – Never have a prologue
I have only had one prologue, in Night Wants to Forget. It was a significant time in Canna Medici’s life and was needed for the momentum of the story. It’s definitely not the point in which the story needed to begin. It was a snapshot, to give readers an idea of the character. I regret nothing. The theory is that if you need a prologue, you have started your book in the wrong spot. If it is relevant, it should be chapter one. Not always. Go forth and get your prologue on.
Rule número cinco – Don’t start with the weather.
We are talking about the dark-and-stormy-night approach. Yes, the whole dark-and-stormy (not to be confused with the rum drink) is cliché, but weather can be a significant player in setting the tone. I have read countless books that use the weather as an opener. Just be more original than others, and the weather can do the job. Example – I was writing a chapter about Madrid, and the first thing that comes to mind of Madrid at that time of year is how intensely cold it is, where your bones freeze inside you. So, I started with the icy feeling. Damn the rules.
Rule número seis – Don’t use the passive voice.
The passive voice puts the person or object ahead of the action, the active voice, vice versa. We are always told the passive voice is incorrect, when it is simply different. Yes, when faced with the options of altering a sentence from passive to active, you should, but it doesn’t always work.
Example – Caroline built the sail (active) vs. The sail was built by Caroline (passive)
It is easy to see which is better. Would I change this in writing? Yes, I would. Sometimes, the grammar rules pounce on things.
Example – Caroline was born in 1980 (passive). Yes, it is passive. But that is all I need to write in the sentence, so how can it be wrong to write that? It isn’t. So the sentence is passive. Deal.
Rule número siete – Never start a sentence with ‘however’
There are reasons for this rule, but who cares. That excruciatingly Strunk grammar usage book, first coined almost 100 years ago, hates ‘however’. As long as you put a comma after however, you have it right. Just never confuse ‘however’ with ‘how ever’. That’s a rookie move.
Rule número ocho – Don’t write flashbacks
This one I could caution on a little. Are flashbacks bad? No, not always. I used several in Night Wants To Forget. It seemed the only way to truly convey certain acts which led to certain outcomes later on. I did check their placement, their relevance. I was able to make sure they slotted in without interrupting the chapters. As for my entire Secrets of Spain series, the chapters slide between differing time periods, almost flashbacks, but also stand alone subjects. Plenty of books have this. It can be done well with some thought, and be great for showing character changes. I have seen flashbacks done poorly as they are annoying, as if getting in the way. The trick all about placement and relevance.
Rule número nueve – Never split an infinitive
At the risk of sounding insulting, the majority of people don’t even know what a split infinitive is, let alone notice while reading. Only the picky notice. Plus, it is one of those grossly outdated rules.
The most famous example ever – To boldly go where no man has gone before
The infinitive is ‘to go’. Boldly splits the infinitive. Does anyone care? Robert Lowth did, a scholar in the 1700’s. He was a brilliant writer and translator and hated split infinitives. But this is not the 1700’s. Split infinitives were hated, but this was a time where people put garlic in their ears for toothache, and America was born with a set of rules which said everyone could carry guns. Thoughts change, and old ideas, like treating your asthma with dried toad, and split infinitive rules, are no longer relevant.
Rule número diez – Avoid regional dialect
Okay, I see where this idea came from. For example, if I used New Zealand kiwi slang, readers would not understand me. When I wrote book on Valencia (and will again), I use words in Valencian rather than Spanish when possible. It is how people in Valencia would/do speak. This rule really can be broken.
Rule número once – Never end a sentence with a preposition
If it’s good enough for Orwell, it’s good enough for me! Prepositions – with, of, by, inside, on, in, around, at, to, about, from – are never to be used to end a sentence. Why? Because in the 1600’s, when English was still based heavily in Latin, it picked up this Latin rule. What relevance does that have in 2015? Nada. The English language is a living creature – it evolves at a constant rate. Don’t risk sounding about 100 years old by spitting out old rules. I must admit, I don’t like ending a sentence with about, with, to, or from. Why? Not sure, maybe it is repressed pain of being told I was too useless to write as a child. I do try to avoid preposition endings, by sometimes you can’t help them – Caroline stood up. See? They can, and do, work. I have used several in this article and I bet you didn’t notice.
Rule número doce – Never use an alternative to ‘said’
It can be seen as a rookie mistake to use anything other than said. But often, there are words that are better. I will use whispered, stuttered, sighed, replied, and not be bothered by them if they suit the conversation. There is no need to use words such as ‘articulated’ rather than said, but let’s not be too picky.
Rule número trece – Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip
Um, if it were that simple, NO ONE would ever put in parts people skip. What is relevant to one reader may not be for another. Second guessing your every word WILL suck the joy from a work. Besides, your editor will tell you if you are getting dull. That’s what their hash love is for.
Rules you should never break
Here is my chance to pass judgement with the rules I think you should stick with, for their benefits.
Rule número uno – Avoid repetitive language
This is obvious. Don’t be boring. English is a crazy language, explore her. I once saw a paragraph of mine that had ‘quickly’ added five times in as many lines. I jazzed it up and the whole scene lit up. I never wrote ‘quickly’ ever again in any book.
Rule número dos – Never start with ‘My name is’
I only say this because it is said to be something agents and publishers hate. I don’t care too much what they hate, they seem to hate everything, but if you are looking for mainstream, commercial publishing, you need to twist to suit others.
Rule número tres – storytelling beats writing
Yes! The ability to tell a story is more important than your grasp on the dinosaur-style writing rules. It is said that is how 50 Shades of Grey managed to sell (I don’t know, I never read them). Readers wants stories, not a stuffy book that feels awkward.
Rule número cuatro – Don’t break every rule all the time
You can add an adverb or preposition, you can split an infinitive or use passive voice. Just don’t do it all at once, or people will get fussy. Ah, the joys of writing. And people still think the hard part is coming up with an idea…
Rule número cinco – Avoid long descriptions
It is easy to go into too much detail. Bryce Courtenay used to with his minute detail on boxing matches in his books, when the fights were not of much consequence. You could skip many pages to get to the point. Same goes for character descriptions. What they look like doesn’t matter much more than the basics. Set the scene and move on.
Rule número seis – Have characters whose names start with the same letter – if you want
Canna and Claudio. Four bestselling books. That is that rule broken. Make your own rules, pick your own names. Though remember that some names might sound fancy, simple names always work well.
Rule número siete – Change the point of view
Never change point of view from the main character? What? I change all the time. In my next book, the point of view flips between Mireya and Tiago with each character. Where the change comes, it’s obvious. I did the same with Luna and Cayetano in the Secrets of Spain series. It is more fluid with Canna and Claudio in the Canna Medici series. But hey, use your brain already.
When in doubt, remember this – kill a character, one everyone loves. Then all the rules in the world will melt away in the eyes of readers.