Re: Exceptions


Recently I hosted a panel at the SCBWI-Carolinas annual conference that was basically just an open forum for unpublished authors to ask the published members of the chapter anything at all about the business, the writing life, craft — anything!  At the end I made a comment about exceptions that I think I mangled so I wanted to take the chance to clarify what I meant.

I think there are two sides to the “exceptions” coin.  On the one hand there are a lot of people who talk about the “rules” of writing such as never use adverbs, never start with a dream, don’t use fragments, beware the verb “to be” in its many forms, etc etc.  There are tons of these “rules.”

But what I’ve found is that the only true rule in writing is that there are no rules.  There are hugely successful authors who use fragments, who write in first person present, who open books with dreams and litter their pages with adverbs.  What I think is important is finding your voice and being true to that.  I also think that a lot of authors can get caught up in worrying over minor craft rules which leads to distraction.

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t be aware of things like the use of adverbs or proliferation of is/are/were but I’m saying that you should consider these rules as part of the larger picture of establishing voice and tension and story.  When someone says “You can’t start a book with a dream,” perhaps you should consider the advice but if that’s the only way your book can start then go for it.  Often these rules are just masks for larger issues — using adverbs often means there’s more telling than showing; using is/are/were might indicate a passive character; starting with a dream might be too jarring for a reader when the dream ends.  It’s important to understand these underlying considerations and not just blindly follow the “rules” that come out of them.

We should all strive as authors to stand out and be exceptions in our writing.

At the same time, there’s the other side of the exception coin which is that there are actually some “rules,” that can be important.  For me these are things like following submissions guidelines when querying an agent, keeping in mind word counts for various genres, being professional, etc.

And yes, there are people who have “broken” every one of those rules and have become wildly successful.  But there are a whole lot more people who followed those rules to success and it’s important to see both sides of the situation.  If you’re following in the path of someone who was an exception then it’s important to realize that there might be more roadblocks in the way because of that.  This is when I tend to use the expression that if you think you’re the exception to the rule you should buy a lottery ticket.

Let me reiterate, I’m not saying that exceptions are bad, just that the path might not be as easy and it’s important to be aware of that and take it into consideration.

But how do you tread the line between being an exception and ignoring exception?  To me the key is that if you’re going to break a “rule” then you need to first understand that there is a rule, second understand why there’s a rule and finally understand why you’re breaking it.  If you’re breaking a rule because it’s convenient then you should probably reconsider.  But if you’re breaking a rule in service to plot, story and voice then that might be a reason to push forward.

Those are my (still slightly garbled) thoughts on rules and exceptions.  As always, I’m willing to have my mind changed, so what do y’all think?


14 comments to Re: Exceptions

  • Carrie, yes!
    This part of your post says it all for me
    …if you’re going to break a “rule” then you need to first understand that there is a rule, second understand why there’s a rule and finally understand why you’re breaking it. If you’re breaking a rule because it’s convenient then you should probably reconsider. >>
    Love this!
    Yes! Rule breaking is easy. Writing well requires knowing what the rules are and then breaking them only in ways that improve the story/writing/etc.
    Nice post. 🙂

  • I suspect it’s more important for Indie and less-established authors to follow the sentence-level rules (few adverbs, few passives). The reasons? Readers and agents are looking for reasons to dismiss the author. In the grand scheme, two adverbs on one page may not matter, may even be the best choice in some cases, but it may not be a battle a young author wants to fight on her or his struggle for validity.

    The rules I would truly not wish to break have more to do with story structure, the need for sympathetic characters and an antagonist. I feel that a story following a four-act structure will be more powerful, and deviation from this tried-and-true formula can only hurt the author.

  • Thanks for this, Carrie. Your point about market rules — guidelines, deadlines, word counts — is an excellent one. These are rules that we break at our own risk. I also appreciate your larger point, that exceptions to the writing rules need to be justified by internal factors — what works with your plot, your characters, your setting. Breaking rules for the sake of it probably doesn’t make much sense in this market. That said . . . [begin rant]

    Writing rules tick me off. I understand the need for them. I understand the thinking behind many of them. I think that some of the ones that are prevalent in today’s market make sense — said-bookisms really do tend to make scenes with dialogue rely too much on telling rather than showing. The “rule” against head-hopping and omniscient POV prevents confusion and allows us to get closer to a consistent POV character. But no present tense POVs? Present tense can be an enormously effective tool; just ask Susanne Collins, who wrote the Hunger Games books in present tense. No adverbs? Who came up with that one? “For now on we shall no longer use nouns. They clutter up scenes with objects and names, getting in the way of action verbs!” (What do Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, Herman Melville, and Flannery O’Connor have in common? Well, for one thing, they all used adverbs. Lots of them.)

    Writing is hard enough without having to worry about the little stupid stuff that somebody somewhere, having consulted no one, decided was important. [Here endeth the rant]

  • David, one comment about adverbs. Yes, they were used in the past, and quite well. But today’s wrters needed a rule of thumb to cut out telling and write showing. Examples:
    *She smiled beautifully and sexily.* What does this mean? It’s telling, and it cheats the reader from a more fluid description. Like *The smile started in her eyes and flowed down her face, at last reaching her lips, lifting them with a slow promise of desire.* Which is just so freaking much better.

    So, I can see the *no adverbs* rule of thumb. Just sayin’.

  • The rule thing has caused me a great deal of anxiety in my WIP. I’ve broken a cardinal rule. I know it. I’ve started with a dream.

    I rewrote the beginning six times to remove the dream, but things just seem to fall apart when I do that. Funny thing, I’ve had generally positive feedback on the beginning. Six pro (and very talented) urban fantasy and fantasy authors read my first chapter, and only one balked on the dream beginning. The rest generally said it was okay, or even good.

    I received comments such as (paraphrased) “it was obvious it was a dream from the start,” “the imagery was great,” “it was only a few pages, short enough to get away with,” and “it obviously supported the story.”

    My anxiety you may ask? Agents and publishers look for a reason to toss manuscripts in the trash, and I’ve heard many say they’d do it immediately if it starts with a dream.

    I’ll probably continue to rewrite the first chapter. Perhaps I’ll try to cheat and turn it into a vision, although most will probably see through my ruse. Perhaps I’ll just toss the darn thing in the trash and cry a lot. Perhaps I’ll just go back to my day job until the voices start again. Assuredly I’ll check myself into an institution, where I can get some nice rest in a padded room, some pudding, crayons, good drugs, and some medical attention for the damage done to my head by my desk.

  • I think I’ll be buying lottery tickets for the rest of my life, even though I’ll probably never win. 🙁

    But writing-wise? I think that I have to listen for, and to, my characters’ voices before I consider whether a rule is worth breaking. Does it fit the story? Unless I’m doing it unconsciously. 😳

  • Faith, I can totally see that, but it seems to be that this has become overused dogma. The example you use is terrific and what it says to me is not “Don’t use adverbs,” but rather “Don’t OVERuse adverbs.” The same advice can be given with respect to descriptive passages. There is effective exposition and there is purple prose and it takes experience and care to stay on the correct side of the line. My point about rules was simply that “Don’t use adverbs” is an overreaction and a couterproductive one at that. Adverbs are useful, and the gymnastics some aspiring writers engage in to avoid that “ly” ending is way worse than the adverb would be. Know what I mean?

  • David, I strove so hard to eliminate all of the adverbs from my WIP and in some places, it made for very awkward wording. I completely agree with “Don’t overuse” instead of “Don’t use”. That said, working to find non-adverby ways to describe things was a useful stretch.

  • Razziecat

    Well, first off, I started a short story with a dream. I’d never heard this rule so I just went where the character was taking me. It starts out “Faran was dreaming again” so it’s not misleading, and because he’s dreaming of the trauma that motivates his actions in the story, it serves as background and character development. It was written as a practice piece anyway and hasn’t been submitted to anyone. I do try to avoid overuse of adverbs, especially the “ly” kind, and I think my writing has improved because of it.

  • Rhonda

    What I’ve noticed is that most of the rules listed are aimed at keeping people who are just starting out from straying too far into the unreadable. They address very common beginning errors: over-reliance on adverbs, summarizing instead of dramatizing (aka telling instead of showing), bouncing around point of view until the reader doesn’t know who’s thinking what, non-standard grammar, sentence fragments, and so on.

    Once good habits are formed, a writer can, knowingly and for effect, break any one of them they please if the story works better that way.

    The only rule I’ve heard so far that I’ve found to consistently apply across all writers and all books is: if it works, it’s right.

  • Writing rules are a Good Thing from the standpoint that they are guidelines developed by writers who are a lot more experienced than me and probably smarter than me. I’m trying to learn those rules to improve my chances of doing a good job in my writing.

    On the other hand, experienced writers who know the rules and understand the risks of breaking them can make a creative decision to ignore them when it suits them.

    I think it’s one of those “spirit of the law” versus “the letter of the law” things. I hope to apply the writing rules in my own work until I internalize their spirit and can decide for myself when exceptions are appropriate.

  • I think y’all are exactly right and proving the point that a lot of rules are developed from underlying issues (as Faith points out that sometimes you can rely on adverbs and fail to truly show the action of a scene) but no rule is absolute. This is why I think you need to look at the “why” of a rule rather than just the rule itself. Blind adherence to rules is what I’d really argue against.

    Opening a book with a dream can be fine but I think you should look critically at that as I’d argue that everyone should look critically at their opening (dream or no dream) to make sure it’s the best way to start a book/story. I think some people use dreams as gimmicks and I think gimmicks should probably be avoided — that’s the underlying reasoning to the rule.

    Something else y’all brought up was the idea that readers/agents/editors are looking for a reason to put a book down. But I’d also argue that they’re looking to fall in love with a book. I do tend to believe that if an editor or agent likes the plot, pacing, voice, story, etc etc but finds there are too many adverbs (for their liking) they’re likely to still move forward and just edit that stuff out. No book ever hits an agent’s or editor’s desk perfect — editors wouldn’t have jobs otherwise. I think minor flaws aren’t what sinks a book — it has to be much bigger issues than that.

  • I know I’m late, I’ve been out of town, so I’m not sure folks will see this. I just wanted to add to the adverb thing.

    The “ly” verbs are mostly verbs of manner. Quickly, beautifully, flirtily, etc. Those, I think, are telling because very often (not always) they can be replaced with strong verbs. That’s the difference. (Try to find a way not to use “mostly” up there as an example of an “ly” word that would be hard to cut!)

    So, “the girl ran quickly between the cars” is much better without the adverb BUT with a stronger verb: “the girl darted between the cars.”

    That’s my $.02. 🙂

  • The adverb rule always smacks me about. I’ve got a character who is very careful and slow to move. There are only so many verbs that incorporate a sense of slow, careful movement.
    eg: He slowly turned to look at the wall.
    He rotated with a gradual twist of his torso.
    His pivot, in as much as it was precise, took more than five minutes.
    With the speed of a tree growing he turned to look at the wall.

    But I really start getting stretched sometimes…
    So sometimes I break that rule and just say he did something slowly.