Breakin’ Da Rules

Happy Friday, Casey Wyatt here!

Stop me if you’ve heard these before…

  • Write every day (variation, butt in chair, hands on keyboard).
  • Adverbs are evil and should be nuked on sight.
  • Show, don’t tell.
  • Indie published writers have given up because they couldn’t sell their work to a “real” publisher.

    Get your butt in that chair and write!

And there are plenty more. If you’re a writer who’s serious about the craft, then of course you’ve heard all these maxims.

By definition a maxim is “a rule of conduct or a statement of general truth” (Webster’s New World Dictionary). The implication – this is the only correct way to do it. These laws are universal truth and must never be broken or challenged. Ever.

Well, I’m here to tell you a little secret. Lean in closer so I can whisper it in your ear. The rules can be broken – judiciously. See, there’s an adverb and I didn’t burst into flames as I typed it.

There are good, solid reasons for these rules. Three out of the four are true – to a point. And one of these maxims is flat out wrong. I’m sure you know which one I mean. Let’s address them, shall we?

1. Write every day. We tell ourselves this so we don’t get lazy. And because if you don’t write, you won’t have a manuscript to sell. In real life, this is an admirable goal and we should strive toward it. I know I do. This is also a mental trap that goes something like this – I didn’t write today, so I failed as a writer. Um…no. We all have times in our life where other priorities come into play. To beat yourself up is counterproductive. And to write engaging stories, you need to leave your house and live life once in a while. Plus, it’s okay to give the gray matter an occasional break. If you must accomplish something every day, then draft ideas for your next story or learn more about writing.

2. Adverbs are evil. Yes. Do not use empty adverbs. What’s an empty adverb? Words like actually, totally, finally, hopefully and all their ilk. Avoid tacking on needless adverbs to the end of every dialouge tag or using them to prop up weak verbs. When you complete your draft, scan it using word search and nix the vast majority of them. Adverbs, when paired correctly with the right verb are okay. So, if you’re going to use an adverb make it count.

3. Show, don’t tell. Again, true most of the time. Telling results in lifeless, flat scenes that no one wants to read. On the other hand, each action should not read like a how-to manual. For the sake of pacing, telling can be more appropriate. It’s okay to tell us your character answered the phone. Or walked to the car. You do not need to list the precise body movements involved in these actions, unless there is some plot related reason to do so. Think like a reader and consider all the “boring stuff” you pass over to get to the “good parts”.

4. Indie published writers, blah, blah. I can’t even finish repeating this one. This maxim is complete balderdash. It ranks up there with the Flat Earth Theory. Publishing is evolving and the old rules don’t apply anymore. All writers, published and unpublished, should consider both options. We have more choices available to us than ever before. We can reach readers in new and exciting ways. Do not believe or listen to this one.

Here is one maxim that is true – if you build it, they will come. Write the best story you can, professionally present it, and your readers will appreciate it.

What other rules have you heard and how do you like to challenge them?

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21 thoughts on “Breakin’ Da Rules”

  1. I love you, Casey! Thanks for the frank…and accurate post. I am a rule breaker by nature. If someone tells me I can’t do something, I immediately want to do it. Not that I easily fall for the double dog dare ya’ challenges, (because I’ve learned to be a person of my word and once I commit to something, it’s do or die), but having said that, I have an innate sense of gray area. Nothing is black and white and nothing is written in stone. If there is a different way to do something, I want to explore all my options and decide for myself what works best for me. Thus my trek into indie-publishing, my pursuit of stories that don’t quite ‘fit the market’, and my judicious use of adverbs.

    My favorite ‘never’ do this is: Never end a sentence with a preposition.
    Well, sometimes, you have to.
    Just don’t make a habit of it, or the grammar patrol will chase you ‘over, under, through, and above’ to make you stop and rethink your sentence structure. Or they won’t read your books.

    1. I agree – hard and fast rules prevent you from thinking outside of the box. And creativity never works well when it’s too constrained.
      And yes, never end with a preposition. I do it to! Hehehe!

  2. Someone whose name I don’t remember (but I am sure is a lot smarter than I am) once said that it’s important to understand the rules so that you know when it’s time to break them.

    I wanted to comment on the “write every day” thing. I agree that we tend to think of ourselves as having failed if we didn’t do this. But someone else whose name I don’t know (and this one I wish I did, so I could credit her) said at a conference I attended that we tend to skip writing because we don’t feel we have enough time, or we aren’t inspired on some particular days. She said (paraphrased)…

    “We all think we have to sit down and hit some writing goal: A chapter, a scene, 20 pages, or whatever it is that you think of as ‘a good day of writing.’ Then, for whatever reason, you just can’t face it on a certain day, so you don’t write at all.

    Instead, give yourself permission to write less. If you can’t write a chapter, write a scene. If you can’t write a scene, write a page. If you can’t write a page, write a paragraph. If you can’t write a paragraph, write a sentence. If you can’t write a sentence, WRITE A WORD. Then, step away from your desk and tell yourself, ‘I wrote today.'”

    I took this to heart. The really good news is that, on most days, you won’t stop at a word or a sentence or even a paragraph, as long as you make yourself start. But, if not, a word it is. And you wrote today.

    1. Thanks Toni! Those are words to live by (there’s that pesky preposition at the end of a sentence again!). Progress is progress, no matter how small the step.

  3. Rules. Sometimes they motivate me. Other times they discourage me. Writing can prove a challenge if you stick by the rules and never let your creativity show through.

  4. Thanks, Casey, for another great post. What motivates one author to persevere might be anathema to another, and there’s no prescribed path or timetable that works for everybody. Sometimes we need to challenge ourselves, privately or publicly, and sometimes we need to give ourselves permission to fail. Both success and failure can lead to growth if we learn from what went right or what went wrong. One rule I break constantly is the one against writing fragments. Used sparingly (or judiciously, if you prefer 🙂 ), fragments add emphasis and can even change the whole meaning of a sentence. Consider the grammatically correct: “The night was too quiet.” As opposed to: “The night was quiet. Too quiet.” The fragment opens up a whole lot of intriguing questions and possibilities that the “perfect” sentence does not.

  5. Oh, and one rule I DO think is unbreakable? A writer cannot take this journey on her own. She must have the support of at least one other person, preferably more. We say some variation of this all the time here at the Scribes — you need a posse of honest, like-minded writers and readers (not necessarily the same people) to ride shotgun with you.

  6. Great one Casey. Thank you! Loved Toni’s answer. Those rules you posted aren’t really rules, are they? B/c looks like I have broken them making it okay for a paper I am editing. I kept asking myself if it is okay for these telling lines? Feeling guilty b/c i am breaking the rules. Rather than considering them “rules,” consider them suggestions to liven the story. Telling makes those quick passages that (filler word but the right one here) pull the reader through the scene. But showing creates a page turner. There has to be a balance. And writing “fresh” is critical, another rule, so to speak. So many of the fiction books are predictable. Writing “fresh” offers unexpected happenings. What is “writing fresh?” Showing in a way that has not been done before, or is not polluted with sameness.

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