Should You Follow Fiction Writing Rules?
as suggested by Susan Uttendorfsky.
All writers are aware of some of the most common rules in writing – don’t use too many adjectives or adverbs, don’t rely on passive writing, use nouns and verbs for stronger narrative, don’t overuse ‘ing’ words, don’t overdo he said/she said dialogue tags and so on, but should they even be considered rules?
That all depends on why you want to write. If writing is no more than a hobby, then rules are hardly going to affect what you do. If you want to be a published writer and you want to be taken seriously, then isn’t it best to keep to some of those rules?
The best way to approach this is to remember that there are no ‘rules’ as such, other than those governing grammar and syntax. Those are rules we must not ignore. But fiction writing rules don’t really exist in the same sense. Everyone calls them rules, but instead they are more like guidelines and instructions.
Everyone knows the ‘show, don’t tell’ mantra. We all know the ‘use nouns and verbs, not adverbs and adjectives’, or the ‘don’t mix tenses’ etc. These “rules” came to be because the publishing industry uses them as quality benchmarks. It’s wise to remember that what appeals to an agent or editor isn't what appeals to the general populous (whatever demographic they might be); and it’s the agents and publisher’s opinions that really count if you want to be published.
The rules, therefore, are simply there to assist and to guide writers and despite not being set in stone, these rules really do work.
'Rules' have evolved because writers have gone before us – they’ve been there, written the book and got rejected countless times, so over the last hundred years we have found out what works and what doesn’t. We’ve found out the difference between great fiction and utter rubbish, and so those instructions have filtered down over the decades and have become the industry-accepted quality benchmarks.
The rules became a guide to help others onto the publishing ladder, to impress literary agents and publishers. They exist because no one wants to read a load of rubbish by someone who couldn't be bothered to pay some attention to those 'rules'. That’s why many writers are rejected.
Of course, with the advent of self-publishing, all those 'rules' have largely gone out of the window. That’s why a lot of self-published books are so badly written. Writers write as they please, and sometimes it shows. So, depending whether you're good enough get an agent and a publishing contract, or whether you choose the self-publishing route, it's worth considering how you want to approach your writing.
Who knows, you might fall prey to these terrible, embarrassing writers’ conditions, all of which are unavoidable:
Hanging participleosis – A painful but curable overuse of hanging participles. Requires lots of work to overcome.
Gerundache – A severe ache from using too many gerunds (ing words). It usually clears up over time with some help.
Adverbiolic – This is a severe addiction to adverbs. It’s treatable, with the right guidance.
Passivitis – A terrible word rash because of too much passive writing. Writers should practice their writing so that they can avoid this condition.
Descriptivitis - Inability to describe anything. This is a common illness among first time authors.
Expositionella - An embarrassing condition where writers tell rather than show. With plenty of practice, it can be cured.
Infodumparrhea – A terrible uncontrollable outpouring of backstory, leading to reader exhaustion and even apoplexy. We’ve all had it, so be careful to avoid it in future.
Okay, so these are fun fictional conditions, but they could be real if writers stopped for a moment and considered just how many of these they rely on. All of us have had these at one point or another. But the worst two conditions a writer can suffer are ignorance and arrogance. These are the thought processes of writers who think they know it all, don’t need to be told and won’t listen, even though they’re wrong.
That’s why there are guidelines, or ‘rules’ in place. They’re there to help.
So, should you follow writing ‘rules’? If you’re serious about your writing, then yes, it’s wise to follow tried and tested guidelines to help make your writing better and stronger. There’s no reason why they can’t be broken from time to time. And we all love to bend the odd rule now and then. If do you follow them, there’s every chance they’ll help you get an agent or publisher in the future.
Think of them as not rules, but simply very good advice to make you better writers.
Next week: Does your first chapter work?