“Can I pick your brain for a moment?” said my friend.
“Sure.” Here it comes.
“I’m taking this dialog-writing class . . .” He looked down at his feet, cleared his throat, scratched his nose. “And the instructor said that if we don’t have a lot of dialog on every page, no one will want to read our work.”
Oh, for Heaven’s sake. Tell your instructor to go to —
“What do you think, Pari? Is that right?” he said. “Do we really need to have so much dialog? Because when I open the books I like, they all have a lot of description.”
Oh, man. His fundamental question gave me hives. I’ve met so many new writers who try to adhere to all the how-tos and must-dos, they end up with can’t-reads.
So what’s the deal with rules? Which ones are useful? Which ones have lost their meaning? And how is a writer to know the difference?
In order to talk about this, I divided rules into three categories. They include a few examples. Use them as a launchpad for thinking about this topic and for our discussion.
Never start a sentence with “And” or “But” or “Because.”
And watch those commas; don’t ever ever ever split an infinitive!
Or what was I thinking of? Ah, yes. No prepositions at the end of a sentence.
Or sentence fragments.
Every writer I know has had an encounter with Ms. Corrector Lady (always a woman, in my experience) whose raison d’etre is to send us emails every time we err grammatically. While it may be a civic duty to give her life meaning, I can’t help wonder if she’s living in the past?
In writing traditional mysteries, I’ve met:
You have to introduce the killer somewhere in the first two chapters.
You have to introduce the killer within the first 50 pages.
You can’t have a series that switches location from book to book. (Pshaw. I did that with Sasha and no one seemed to complain.)
You have to start with a dead body.
No multiple POVs; those are for thrillers.
Not more than 80,000 words.
You get the idea.
What are the rules for thrillers, romantic suspense, science ficiton, fantasy, YA, romance etc.?
Use a lot of dialog.
Don’t use a lot of dialog.
Don’t pitch a series.
Pitch a series.
Edit and polish and edit and polish again.
Don’t overedit your work because it’ll lose its heart.
“Know the rules so you can break them.” Oh, come on.
“Cut the stuff that bores people.” Yeah. Sure. Right. Clever sentiment. Totally useless to a beginning writer.
#1 Grammar is changing. It’s always changing. Yes, a person needs to know how to form sentences and paragraphs. However, there’s a lot more freedom in this area than there used to be. Is this a good thing? A bad one? Hell, I don’t know. What do you think?
#2 “Genre” is becoming a useless concept. While purists might be upset with all the blending between various literary traditions, I’m dancing a jig. Someday, I hope the only hard genre distinction is between Fiction and Nonfiction.
#3 Many general rules stem from pet peeves. Like the one I mentioned at the beginning of this post, they’re literary soundbites that have become codified because people want a magic bullet.
What do you think?
Which rules still rock?
Which ones have outlived their usefulness?
Are there new ones that you like, find helpful?
I’m looking forward to this discussion.