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There are no rules…okay, maybe just one

Ask weary DGLMers  how I felt about The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt and they will tell you about the whining, screeching, streams of invective, and endless tiresome commentary  I inflicted on them in the roughly two years it took me to finish that unfortunate doorstop of a book (spoiler alert: I didn’t like it). I won’t go into the details here.  Let’s just say, I had issues.

That unhappy reading experience, however, led me to think quite a bit about the things writers do that drive me absolutely batty—from the macro (indefensible plotting and character choices) to the petty (starting a sentence with a numeral)—and about all the rules we inflict on the process of fiction writing which, really, are mostly discretionary.

As nitpicky as I can be when I line edit a proposal or a manuscript to get it ready for submission, and as much as it annoys me to find typos or anachronisms that momentarily stop you cold during an otherwise pleasant reading experience, my one hard and fast, inviolable rule is “Don’t bore your reader.”

Ethan Hauser, writing in The Millions, seems to agree.  As many rules as everyone, from your first grade teacher to your fellow novelists or journalist colleagues, throws at you, the only real literary crime is boring your reader silly.  So, knock yourself out ending sentences with prepositions, sticking a digital clock in a 19th century drawing room, or opening your magnum opus with five pages of landscape descriptions.  Whatever!  Just don’t bore me, I mean, your reader.

What are your favorite rules to ignore when you’re writing?

10 Responses to There are no rules…okay, maybe just one

  1. Katie Newingham says:

    Maybe this is the difference between writer’s who write by ear and writers who have MFA’s. The rhythm and flow thing mentioned in the piece written by Hauser is what I think keeps a reader, reading. Mechanical sentence after mechanical sentence is boring.

    That said, I like to play around with commas, a well placed run on sentence is poetry to my ears.

  2. Joelle says:

    I’ll never remember where I read this, I think it was a craft book, but the author may have been quoting someone else…the gist of it was, “Leave out the parts the reader will skip.”

    I can never skip, though, and can barely allow myself to skim, so I’m with you, if it’s boring, I’m done. That’s the trouble I had with The Signature of All Things – beautifully written, interesting characters and too many boring stretches.

    My favourite rule to break is to have a discussion over drinks/tea/coffee/food. I challenge myself to make it interesting. If I can’t, I change the scene.

  3. D. C. DaCosta says:

    Rules I like to ignore?

    – Starting a sentence with a conjunction.
    “And he wasn’t about to change his mind now.”

    – Fragments.
    “October…October. The beach, lying in the sand. The Harvest Moon Ball, going to her place afterwards… The drive out to Felton’s Landing, lying in the grass… His place… His heart pounded as he recalled October with Susan.”

    – Showing your character going to bed. This, to me, is the silliest, most arbitrary “rule” of all.
    A bedtime routine can be very telling about who your character is. And (haha, starting with a conjunction!), the most interesting plot developments occur at times like this, when your character — and reader — least expect something to happen.

  4. Kevin A. Lewis says:

    Coincidentally, there was an interesting link on this very subject linked in to Entertainment Weekly that Hanif Kureishi posted about the infuriating experience he’s had with his Creative Writing students who spend hours microexamining their prose technique without bothering or being able to string an interesting story together. I e-mailed a copy of his rant to John but I don’t know if he got it. For some reason the narrative style in Divergent sticks in my mind as something I’m not fond of; deadpan first person in the moment stuff like, “I walk into the room and everyone looks at me. “Hey, look at the new kid,” etc., etc.) As much as I dislike John Green’s cancer theme, he’s at least got style that you don’t have to struggle to stay interested in, although Veronica Roth at least has a less depressing overall story. But a lot of people are impressed by the sort of word salad some people serve up, like those horrible plotless fiction stories the New Yorker used to publish in the 80’s…

  5. Katie Newingham says:

    While reading Toni Morrison last night, I discovered she broke almost every rule mentioned here within two pages. She did it well, so I guess that’s what we have to do – break all the rules well.

  6. Anja Vogel says:

    “Write short sentences. A twenty-word sentence is impossibly long. NEVER do that.”

    I occasionally get advice like this in critique groups.

    Seriously, twenty words, that’s a “long” sentence? Almost any sentence with a subordinate clause will have at least 15 words. Am I to write main clauses only? What would the reviewer say if s/he came across one of my 40-word constructions?

    As a reader, I don’t like too many short sentences in a row. In fact, it’s one of the few reasons why I throw books out without bothering to read past page 5. I can’t stand the choppy rhythm of it. Words need to flow…

    A sentence has to be as long as it takes to express the idea you want to convey. Even a 40-word sentence doesn’t feel too long to me if it’s well-structured.

    I think the real issue here is clarity. So if I get a comment like the above, I try to make the sentence clearer, not necessarily shorter – unless I find it really contains two separate ideas, in which case I do split it up.

    For me, clarity is the top rule or rather the minimum requirement for any text.

  7. Kevin A. Lewis says:

    I suspect we’re going to see more choppy sound-bite writing in the immediate future as more Twitter addicts lose the ability to express themselves (and sometimes think) in statements of more than 140 characters. R.L. Stine used to write like this, but he was aiming at a bunch sugar-rushing Bart Simpsons who had trouble sitting still for 5 minutes at a time. Be interesting to know what percentage of his audience grew up to be social media junkies or Donna Tartt fans…

  8. Wendy Roberts says:

    I’m so glad that I’m not the only reader who needed a metaphorical machete to thwack my way through The Goldfinch (with only a few scars, mostly internal). I feel your pain.

    As for writing rules, one of my least favorite is “write what you know.” This can actually be good advice at times, but personally I find that, say, characters based on people I know (or worse, on ME) fall the flattest on the page, while riskier characters who seem to jump out of nowhere, and whom I have to spend time with to get to know first, tend to be much more interesting–for me AND readers.

    Projecting, transmuting, and commingling actual experiences with dreams, research, interviews, flights of fantasy, and memories of intense emotions are more engaging, I find, that transcribing reality while changing a few names.

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