by Nicholas C. Rossis
Writers seem to fall into one of two camps: Those who love following the rules and those who love to break them. My view? The rules taught in workshops and classrooms only matter to editors and other authors, not readers. So, here are my rules; the ones no fiction writer should ever break.
Rule #1: Don’t let your writing get in the way of your story.
Fragment your sentences. Break the rules. Hemingway is considered the “master of the short sentence”, but when his stories reach a climax, he will suddenly write long sentences — as long as three or four hundred words, even. So, go on. Have fun with the language.
I love everything about English, but I’m particularly enamoured by the language’s flexibility. Its barbarous nature, as John Dyrden characterized it in 1693, is what makes it so appealing to me. I treasure its imperfections, its wildness.
So, do offend against grammar, if that’s what it takes. Be creative. After all, grammar only has one true aim: to make the written word as clear as possible.
Rule #2: Utilize grammar to make the written word as clear as possible.
Everything else stems from that need. Active voice is more immediate, hence it should be preferred. The same is true of commas. In the example of:
“Let’s eat Gramma” vs. “Let’s eat, Gramma”
It is a comma that separates vegetarians from cannibals. However, use of the (in)famous Oxford comma seldom alters the reader’s comprehension. Just use commas consistently throughout your manuscript, and I promise you: there’s a grammar book somewhere out there swearing that your way is the only correct one!
Rule #3: Creativity Trumps Conformity
English in the sixteenth century was a mangled thing, the natural result of having eight conquering peoples add to its vocabulary and syntax. This trait continued with the Bard himself, who made up many of the words we use every day, such as arouse, bet, drug, dwindle, hoodwink, hurry, puke, rant and swagger.
Then, certain clerks and clerics in the eighteenth century took it upon themselves to craft a “Queen’s English” by inventing rules designed to shoehorn English into “properness”. The problem was, they stole the rules from Latin, which is why so many of the grammar rules make little or no sense.
The moral? Be creative and daring in your use of English. You will hardly be the first.
Rule #4: As long as it has a beginning, a middle and an end, it’s a story
We humans are simple creatures. We love our stories, our myths and our tales. Since ancient time, as long as our ramblings have a beginning, a middle and an end, they’re accepted as stories.
So, stop worrying if commas in your story are misplaced or you use more passive voice than you “should”. Stop fretting that you start your lines with a gerund, or your book with a dream. That your sentences are fragmented. Or that you start with conjunctions or end with prepositions. These aren’t even real rules.
Rule #5: Be fearless
Many writers are constrained by a further rule: “write about what you know”. Why? We can all write about the common, usual, boring, ordinary character. The trick is to make this conventional character do something incredible without making this act appear out of place. Don’t constrain your imagination unnecessarily. Write about what tickles your fancy; what gives flight to your imagination; what you’d like to know, but never got a chance to.
Rule #6: Write for yourself
If you write for yourself, readers will see the authenticity of your writing and love it. Write the kind of book you would love to read. Not the kind you think your readers might enjoy. That is what people really mean when they say you should find your voice.
Rule #7: You are the gatekeeper
For decades, writers were constrained by publishers and agents serving as gatekeepers. Then, the walls came tumbling down, and the writers found themselves free: they could reach their readers unimpeded. Unsure of how to handle this new-found freedom, many writers still seek the approval of the old masters, refusing to publish without someone’s stamp on the book jacket.
My feeling is that, were publishers so good at predicting success, every book they published would be a best-seller. They’re not.
So, stop trying to impress editors and agents. Instead, write to the best of your abilities. Hire a professional to handle editing and proofreading. And when you’re done, share with the only people who really matter: your readers.
Nicholas Rossis loves to write. His first children’s book, Runaway Smile, is currently being illustrated. He has published an epic fantasy series, Pearseus, as well as The Power of Six, a collection of short sci-fi stories. You can learn more about Nicholas on his website and his Author Central page.