This time I thought I'd write a post that returns to writing. A topic that's really a continuation of some debates I've been engaging in in a couple of fora lately. The rules of writing.
Okay let me begin by stating quite clearly my position on this. There are no rules. In fact the very concept of rules of writing is something that can actually destroy both writing and writers.
So lets begin with the basics of the problem. Every new writer who is desperate to become a writing success, starts by going on line or buying books about how to write. They attend writing groups, online or in the flesh. They get critiques and beta readers, maybe even editors. And all of these things are good. They do help a writer to grow in his craft. I've benefited immensely from those groups I participate in.
But here's the problem. In every group and every guide I've read there is always a rule or ten put forwards. You know the ones. You must get rid of the passive voice. You need more shorter, punchier sentences and to get rid of the run on sentences. You need to amp up the tension, raise the stakes. Decrease the purple prose. The list goes on and on. These things are spouted almost as mantra. And while they may be good advice in some cases, they can also be terrible advice.
And here's the why. No two authors and no two books are the same. Therefore no rule can be simply applied to every book as a sort of cookie cutter template. Because what will work well in one case may damage another book.
Lets just look at a few of these so called rules. Let's start with passive and active voice. In essence active voice is connecting subjects with actions. So “Michael fired the gun” is active. “The gun was fired”, is passive. And of course there's always that master piece of political passivity - “Mistakes were made”! (But not by anyone in particular!)
In essence using a more active voice makes a piece stronger. People do things. They aren't just done with no one taking responsibility. So this is perfect when writing characters like Conan. Conan is an active character. He does things. There is nothing meek or indecisive about him. If he chops your head off then “He” really chopped your head off! It wasn't just chopped off.
But what if your character isn't Conan? What if you want to get into the head-space of someone meek and indecisive? Then passive voice is your friend. Because you're writing a character who not only will never want to admit to doing anything, but even in his own thoughts won't want to accept responsibility.
There are probably a thousand other situations in which passive voice will work better than active. Particularly where you don't want to apply agency to characters, or blame. Perhaps where you want to leave a little ambiguity in a plot. That could be very important in detective / police procedural works. The gun just went off Sir! Because maybe that's exactly what happened.
So my point is simply that there is no rule that you must use active voice wherever possible. The rule is always you have to use your judgement. Write what works. What feels right for your character and your plot. And if someone tells you otherwise, thank them for their opinion, but stick to your guns.
How about run on sentences? Another of those rules that gets spouted repeatedly, and a mistake that gets jumped on, especially these days where the trend is for shorter more action packed reads. In essence a run on sentence is one where there are too many clauses in it, and the sentence starts dragging on and confusing readers.
But here again this is about judgement. Your judgement as the writer. There are run on sentences and then there are run on sentences. You draw the line about how many words and clauses you want in your sentences. And you remember that everyone else will have a different opinion about what is too long and what isn't. There is no rule that says – three clauses, you're out!
As a general guide I would say that if readers are getting lost in your sentences, losing their meaning as the clauses mount up, it's probably too much. But I would also add that run on sentences will be a part of your rhythm / voice. And so maybe you want to have longer sentences because it works for the style of writer you are. Maybe you don't mind losing a few readers here and there because those who stay will be learning to appreciate your voice as a writer. And honestly read some fiction from the first half of the twentieth century. Much of what we now call run on they would have called normal and even good writing.
The same applies to purple prose – prose with too many adjectives in it. What is often also called flowery writing. Again there is no rule that you can have this many adjectives and no more. This is again about voice. Your voice as a writer, and your characters' voices. So if your editor / beta reader / critique partner comes back and says strip these out, again thank them for their opinion and step back, sit down, and think. Is this the writing that I want to write? Or will it be better with all those adjectives stripped out? Remember, it's your book, not anyone elses'.
And then there's the amp it up meme. Make things more tense. Raise the stakes. Put your character through more hell. Go Game of Thrones on the whole damn thing! But is that the right thing to do? Remember it's your book. Your story. If you change the plot significantly to ramp up the tension, is it still the story you wanted to tell? Does the tension add to the story? Or does it detract? Are you turning what was a pleasant romance with a bit of an edge into a seat of your pants thrill ride?
Yes amping up the drama / tension may make your book better. But it may also completely transform it into a book you never wanted to write. It may wreck it.
So to get back to where I started, there are no rules of writing. There are no absolutes. There are only opinions. And no opinion should simply be accepted as gospel. Yes they may be right. They may also be wrong. And the worst thing that any author can do – and this is particularly a problem with new authors – is to simply accept the opinions of others. What you need to do is listen, then sit back and think – is this the story I want to write? Is this the style I want to write in? Is this who I am as an author?
Never simply substitute another's judgement for your own. And never simply imagine that there is a particular formula for writing book that will work. If there was, everyone would be writing it and we'd all be million sellers!
In the end you are the author. The artist. And whether this is your first book or your thousandth, it's still your book. Your baby. You want to be proud of it. You want it to be your vision brought to paper. And if you're just starting out you want one thing more – you want to find your voice. And your voice should not be what someone else says is good writing.
Anyway, enough ranting from me. I have my own writing to do.