Monday, April 18, 2011

The Rules of This Game

When it comes to writing fiction, a novice is likely to feel strangled, if not utterly terrified, by the plethora of dictates that rise up to confront her efforts. The list of “thou shalt nots” seems longer than anything found in the Old Testament, and some rules seem nearly as arcane. The temptation is to throw one’s hands up in the air and go with the comforting notion of “write whatever you want.”

I’ve actually heard writers say this, usually when their atrocious grammar is pointed out to them. “I don’t care about the rules; rules cramp my creativity.” Well then. If our writing consists of dated entries beginning with “Dear Diary” and kept behind a lock, that’s fine. But surely some rules do matter. It’s worth sorting the wheat from the chaff and following those conventions.

I’ve got my own list of rules that matter, and another list of rules I happily ignore. Grammar and spelling are in the former category. These are the tools of our trade, and it pains me to see even the most basic rules violated by people who call themselves writers. A writer needs grammar and spelling like a kindergartner needs to know her letters. This is not a debatable point. Anyone hoping to get published needs to find a good grammar guide (English Grammar for Dummies comes highly recommended) and apply those principles to her own work. In the bathroom, next to the Sudoku puzzles and yellowed People magazines, keep a copy of Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe's Guide to Better English in Plain English by Patricia O’Connor. And Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss. Both books are funny, irreverent, and instructive.

That said, there are some grammar rules I put in the “pedantic and ignorable” category, such as “thou shalt not split an infinitive.” This commandment is the result of Latin grammar forced on a non-Latin grammar system. Star Trek boldly split an infinitive with “to boldly go where no one has gone before,” and so can you. I still have trouble making myself split an infinitive, but this is because I worry some grammarphile will see my split infinitive and judge me. I avoid it when I can, but for no good reason.

Also in the latter category are such rules as “thou shalt not use an adverb.” How did the poor benighted adverb wind up under the boot heel of modern usage? A writing instructor once told our class we needed to do a text search on “ly” and evict every single adverb from our work. Every one! This is an example of someone unable to see the difference between gentle rule of thumb and Mosaic law. Very occasionally, when critiquing, I come across a writer who overdoes adverbs in a passage. It rarely pulls me out of a story, and is even less likely to pull the average reader, untrained in the art of adverb-hating, out of the story. Perhaps someone can fill me in on how this part of speech became so abominable. Until then, I will continue to willfully use them as I see fit.

Head-hopping: This belongs in the former category to me, and to most American writers, but (oddly, it seems) not to writers in other languages. In case you don’t know what it means: head-hopping is another word for point-of-view violation. If you are in Jane Smith’s head, you can’t know that Harry Jones is admiring her fine flaxen curls. This is one of the easiest things for a critiquer to point out about another’s work, and so we do. But in (for example) The Shadow of the Wind, by Spanish author Carlos Ruiz Zafón, we see head-hopping galore. When we’re in Nuria Monfort’s viewpoint, we find out things poor Nuria can’t possibly know. It’s worth pointing out that this book is a massive bestseller not only in Spain, but across the world. Most readers don’t seem to care, in spite of the “thou shalt not,” that Zafón head hops. Their attitude surprises me a little bit because this rule (unlike the adverb one) actually makes sense. If you are in one point-of-view, you can’t know what someone else is thinking. And nobody writes in third-person omniscient anymore. (Another “thou shalt not” that you violate at your own peril.)

In my snarkier moods, usually after I’ve been caught breaking a rule, I suspect that many of our “thou shalt nots” in writing exist mostly to separate those in the know from novices. Insiders never use adverbs, never split infinitives, never end a sentence in a preposition. This snobbish tendency annoys me. It’s clubby, cliquish. Some of us are in, and know the secret code. Some of us are out, and are regarded with kindly pity. It especially annoys me when rules appear to exist for this reason alone.

The primary way of sorting out good wheat from cliquish chaff is to determine whether a regular-Jane reader will be pulled out of your story, or confused, when you violate the rule. The purpose of grammar, and hopefully of these other rules, is to improve understanding. To provide clarity. If violating the rule muddies the waters, then best you go back and fix the problem. Don’t follow a rule only to impress grammarians with your mastery of the esoteric. To this end, it’s useful to have a first reader who is not trained in the art of critiquing (although critiquers are quite useful in their way). Your first reader, ideally, should be someone who likes your genre, is honest, and has never taken a creative writing workshop.

What about you? What rules do you feel make sense, and which do you ignore, and why?


  1. I think the rule is, 'thou shalt not *abuse* the adverb.' I think we can all get on board with that one.

    As for which rules to follow and which to ignore, I'd say it might be advisable to find a handful of trusted sources on craft and stick with their counsel, as opposed to trying to assimilate the exponentially increasing cataract of guidelines out there. Everyone has an opinion, expert or no. And it's just like anything else- build a relationship of trust with your sources and temper their advice with your own intuition.

    That being said, ignoring foundational conventions of grammar just because you're an artist who can't be bothered is likely to confine the dissemination of your work to the Internet.

    Two cents.

  2. I'm 100% for using correct grammar in a manuscript. I do think the split infinitive is a bunch of baloney, though. Do you know how many phrases are out there that use it? And some of them wouldn't make a bit of sense without the split infinitive. Steph, you're right in saying it's Latin grammar forced on a non-Latin grammar system. If you don't agree, then take a linguistic semantics course and figure out how the English language (and all the love-languages, for that matter) functions.

    As you stated, most literature from other countries doesn't have a problem with head-hopping. Even so, I have a hard time getting into a story that is all over the place with the characters' POVs. I don't feel I can get to know a character unless I'm viewing the world through that individual's eyes for a certain number of pages.

    Thanks for this post. I enjoyed it!

  3. I think the rule should be “Thou salt not abuse anything”. Therefore, you may head hop once in a blue moon (Hey, Tolstoy and Austen did it) and the sporadic use of adverbs will be excused. I am told that “however” should always start a sentence, yet I have seen the word within a paragraph

  4. Sister Stephanie as a non-native speaker I am willing to bow down to the English grammar. Is the content rules that drive me bananas.

  5. Suze, I love your two cents! Especially "confine the dissemination of your work to the Internet," haha! The grammatically-challenged especially seem to collect in comments sections under news articles.

    "Thou shalt not abuse adverbs" makes perfect sense, but is there any reason to focus on adverbs? Can't other parts of speech be equally abused? (Serious question.)

    Mary Mary, I agree that studying another language is a great way to raise your consciousness about grammar in general. As for POVs, I am reading a fantastic book right now ("The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay" by Michael Chabon), but my one criticism is too many POVs. I didn't feel emotionally connected to any character, so when the Black Moment happens I wasn't especially moved.

    Violante, "do it sporadically" is good advice. It goes with the general admonishment to know the rules first before you break them, and break them for a good reason. Head-hopping is something you can't even get away with once in a blue moon as a beginning writer in the States.

    I can't imagine learning English grammar as a non-native speaker. Our rules are hardly consistent. I studied Spanish for a few years and found those rules so much more logical.

  6. I thought of a couple more "thou shalt nots" while on my morning hike: 1. Thou shalt not use any word ending in "ing." <-- Yes, I see the irony there. :) I recently attended a workshop where the instructor really harped on this rule. This means no gerunds and no present participles. I asked why, and was told something about how "-ing" weakens a sentence but that's not really an answer, is it? 2. Thou shalt not use a semicolon. This is a favorite no-no in the local writer community; not sure whether it's global. (I am having fun breaking the rules here: I also deliberately split an infinitive in the original post.) 3. Thou shalt not use parentheses. I took it seriously when I was told this bit of punctuation is never, ever, ever to be used in fiction. I was directed to go through my mss and use an em-dash instead, so I dutifully did a search-and-replace. Meanwhile every novel I'm reading lately uses them.

  7. One of my reasons to give up on writing fiction in English was a suden attack of humility that told me to stick to what I knew. I am far, far from the Joseph Conrads and other non-natives who dared to write in English, but blogging and the gentle chiding of a couple of Sisters has me running the gauntlet again. G-d knows if I am up to the job. By the way, I find Chabon an overblown author, but I loved Kavalier and Clay. It was so sad. I read this rather popular children´s book, Artemis Fowle it is called, and the author did indulge in some head-hopping.

  8. Violante, let me join in the gentle chiding. :) You have a better mastery of English than many, many native speakers.

    And back to rules, here's a good list of grammar rules that aren't:

    That website is also a podcast and well worth subscribing to. (See, there's me ending a sentence in a preposition! Ha.)

  9. Thanks Sister Stephanie. Let the industy hear you!

  10. Wow, Stephanie, I thought I knew all the rules, but you just taught me two new ones: never end a sentence with a preposition and never split an infinitive. (Can you cite an example of this? I'm not too clear on what you mean, or what Latin grammar has to do with it.) I plea ESL for my ignorance on this subject! ;-)

    Yes, the adverb has become taboo, but lately I've also heard hate-speech towards the adjective! (Are we supposed to confine our writing to simply verbs, nouns and prepositions--but only in the middle of a sentence?)

    It's refreshing to read novels by international writers who don't follow the same rules as the American Publishing industry. (Although looking through recently published books in the US, one can also find several broken rules.) As a writer trained in the US, I can say that I noticed all the head-hopping and long paragraphs of narration in "The Shadow of the Wind," but as a reader I can assure you that I didn't care. I was still engrossed in the story (which proves you're right in suggesting that a writer's first reader should be someone who enjoys the genre and is not focused on The Rules.)

    To answer your question, I can't say I purposely break any grammar rules (they're all broken by accident, ha ha.) But one of the rules I consciously have broken has been the use of a prologue in my first novel (which, apparently, is another taboo in the industry.)

  11. I think the adverb gets abused because it is a way of communicating what needs to be communicated: tone. Since we can't interpose emoticons in narrative (unless you want your writing to be confined to the Internet) we look for ways to cue in a reader and an adverb is an accessible default. Finding a non-modified verb that communicates tone with grace is a little harder, since verbs that are 'trying too hard' call attention to themselves and, as John Gardiner has put it, 'suspend the fictive dream.'

    It's inordinately tricky. I just think that the more we work at it, the better we get at it.

    I hope, anyway. (She smiled, self-effacingly ...)

  12. Suze, I wish we could click "like" on blog comments the way we can on Facebook! :)

    Lorena, the split infinitive is when you stick an adverb between the "to" and the verb. So, "to boldly go," or "to willfully use." In Latin (and its offshoots), you can't split an infinitive because the infinitive is one word: like "hacer" in Spanish. Apparently the Victorians decided English needed to be more like Latin, and so arbitrarily made up the rule about the infinitive: it should be treated as one word, and the adverb should go before or after. "To boldly go" becomes "boldly to go." Here's Grammar Girl with more:

    I don't know where the rule about not ending a sentence in a preposition came from. But I just broke it right there. :) Another example: "That's the house I live in." A grammarian might correct it this way: "That's the house in which I live." This, of course, is not a pretty sentence. We can almost always get around the whole problem by simply reworking the sentence: "I live in that house." More Grammar Girl:

  13. If you guys want a compendium of fairly random writing rules, from notable authors no less, check this out:

    A few nuggets: Esther Freud — "Cut out the metaphors and similes. In my first book I promised myself I wouldn't use any and I slipped up ­during a sunset in chapter 11. I still blush when I come across it." Elmore Leonard — "Using adverbs is a mortal sin." Richard Ford — "Don't have children." Jonathan Franzen — "Never use the word 'then' as a ­conjunction – we have 'and' for this purpose. Substituting 'then' is the lazy or tone-deaf writer's non-solution to the problem of too many 'ands' on the page." [also] "Write in the third person unless a ­really distinctive first-person voice ­offers itself irresistibly."

    There's some really excellent advice in that article, too.

  14. Oh, for the love of the adverb! Read any and all romance fiction written today and you shall find where all those adverbs have wandered off to. (Crap, those stupid prepositions just creep up on me at the end of a sentence!) Many people cite Stephen King's book "On Writing," and I've read some bits of it, but to be honest, I don't follow his word, nor do I see it as law. Have you ever read any of Stephen King's work? He's not shy when it comes to breaking the rules, especially in his later works. So who's right when it comes to grammar? Anyone and everyone. As it was pounded into my head through every French grammar course I took, there is always an exception to the rules. Same goes for English, my friends. But in the English case, I think even more so.

    After a while, I really start to hate the so-called "rules."

  15. I miss my adverbs, but I understand that often a stronger verb can and should be used in its place. I think I may still need to watch out for prepositions at the end of sentences. As a writer one step beyond novice (barely) I think the true novice is the one who writes with wreckless abandon, believing that no rules exist to be followed. I, on the other hand, have just learned them all, and am trying to write the same story while trying not to break any of them! Stress. Super post. I love it here and wish I visited more often. Christy

  16. And we love it when you visit us, Christy. (So keep coming back! :-) )

    [Big sigh] As if I didn't have enough problems with prepositions, now I must also worry about their proper placement in the sentence...

    Thank you, Sister Stephanie for the Grammar Girl links and your explanations.

  17. Head hopping drives me nuts! I'm always amazed when I see it in a published book. It's interesting that it only seems to bother us Americans.

  18. I don't tend to stick to many so-called rules. That said my writing is not exactly strewn with problems.

    An odd mix you may think, but given that I'm a dyslexic, trained in video game design, paranoid of Americanisms infecting British English, and consider George Orwell's standard of written English the only one to be taken seriously... one should be able to appreciate the result.

    As a consequence of all of that I try very hard to improve my standard of written English. I understand, unlike many it seems, that the novel is at the end of the day a product. And a product, regardless of how brilliant it is, needs to be well received by it's users. It needs to be user-friendly, in this case readable.

    That said, one of my personal irritations in other people's writing is a seemingly untouched error in dialogue.

    'Bla bla!' he said grumpily.

    The above is how it tends to be. But damn it, I have already decided in my mind how it is being said by the time the book tells me how it was actually said! I have to bloody read it twice then! It really annoys me as it puts me off.

    So, in my work I have made a point of making it almost always the other way around. So that's a rule I have invented for myself. Other practices I have picked up and corrected by reading books written by the likes of Orwell, then scanning over them for specific formatting practices to emulate.

    The other issue for me as has been stated is the product-evaluation psychology. I seek feedback from readers, and rather than avoiding editing and criticisms, I chase them. I've done more editing of my own incomplete work in the last year than writing new material, in order to bring the standard of English up to scratch.

    I think the best way of explaining the intensity of it is telling a little story.
    In the past I spent a lot of time making custom maps for games I played, it's why I eventually took up the games design career path (which hasn't served me very well unfortunately).

    During the summer I developed a few custom maps, and got a small number of friends to play test it, and listened to their feedback. When one of them complained I argued or ignored it; when more than one did I changed something. I put hours in to making changes to make the game-play experience more balanced and thus fun, because it was necessary to make the experience good. The same is true of literature, or any other sort of product development, for artistic or commercial merit.

    I like to write, to design game levels, to make 3d art, and on rare occasion to attempt to draw. These things all require me to look for specialist friends to give me solid criticism. One can't get better without feedback. Literature is not different.

  19. Poor, beleaguered adverbs. Apparently J.K. Rowling was criticized for her use of them, and for that reason, I've sought them out in her writing to see where and how she uses them, and to me they enrich rather than weaken. I think like any seasoning, a heavy hand will be a problem, but they are part of the tool box of this amazing language, so why not use them? Also, this is the first I've heard of a pox on the semi-colon, which happens to be my favorite, or at least most abused, punctuation mark. Maybe it's the way I think--reluctant to commit to a period, or seeing everything linked in a meaningful way. Anyway, because I know of my weakness for them, I try to pay attention and whittle their numbers, but not remove them entirely. Again, why deprive ourselves of appropriate tools? As for head-hopping, it bugs me if it looks unnecessary or happens so frequently it feels, as a reader, like I'm turned into a badminton birdie. I want to know if the point of view could have been more consolidated, or if there is another way to indicate one of the characters' thoughts through description of expression and gesture.

  20. '"Bla bla," he said grumpily.' I see this frequently in unedited manuscripts. Yeah, it's considered poor form to add an adverb with a dialogue tag. Most writing instructors will strike it. You're supposed to get the inflection across with the language, not *tell* the reader how to interpret it.

  21. Tamara, I couldn't agree with you more! Then again ... I loves me my semicolons. :)

  22. Across with the dialogue only? Are these instructors highly autistic? That's just... horrendous. There's so many nuances to how people say things that makes what they say memorable or realistic.

    What is said is often useless without the tone, if it is of any significance, which is why text-based internet conversation are often such a hateful thing. Of course it'd be poor form to over-do things, but pointless to have no description. Strange practice.


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