PDA

View Full Version : Authors who break the rules


SFFWorld.com
Home - Discussion Forums - News - Reviews - Interviews

New reviews, interviews and news

New in the Discussion Forum


Barrett
August 9th, 2007, 10:26 AM
Recently, in a critique thread called "Of Shadowcats, Unicorns and a Girl named Dew", Adventurebooks (Robert Blevins) posted a link to a document called "Hunting down the Pleonasm", and it's a heck of a find.
Thanks, Adventure.

This document gives the lean on the rules for quality prose in one of the most concise formats I've ever seen. Examples include;

The Pleonasm - a repititive descriptor, like hunting down from the title.
Avoiding Adverbs
Cutting Adjectives, especially in pairs - such as "the towering, grim edifice."
Keeping speeches short
Describing the setting or introducing an object/place via character action, not with pure description.
Using 'said' more often than not.
Avoiding filters, such as "he wondered" or "he considered".

...and these are just a sample. The document has much more to offer, all of it valid in my humble opinion.

Still, reading through the list and nodding my head with each passing comment, I began to wonder just how many authors had successfully ignored these rules. I should think a number of the rules are ignored completely by some successful writers. Others could really use these rules and yet they are bestsellers, despite my personal views on their quality.

So, who are some authors that break the rules and succeed despite this?
What rules do they break? Can they pull it off or does their work suffer because the rule is not observed enough?

Dawnstorm
August 9th, 2007, 12:22 PM
This document gives the lean on the rules for quality prose in one of the most concise formats I've ever seen. Examples include;

You forget the most important one: "If something works, forget about the rule that says it shouldn't."

And it doesn't give "rules for quality prose". It's a specific style, now popular. For example, Rule 12, "Fix your PoV", is specifically worded to make sense with 3rd limited (thereby assuming that's what should be written, and also simplifying PoV beyond usefulness). Rule 11 ("Avoid sounding 'writerly'") is compatible with this. Follow these line of rules and you'll ignore a vast variety of techniques that are available to a writer.


The Pleonasm - a repititive descriptor, like hunting down from the title.

More specifically, the author of the doc calls the "down" in "hunting down" a pleonasm. And I disagree. "To hunt" and "to hunt down" have different meanings, even if they can occasionally be used interchangably. "Hunting the pleonasm" leaves open the question of why you're hunting it, or what you'll do with it. "Hunting down the pleonasm" gives the appropriate torches'n'pitchfork image.

And remember that pleonasms can have other functions, such as improving the language rhythm, or shifting emphasis.


Avoiding Adverbs

Cutting Adjectives, especially in pairs - such as "the towering, grim edifice."

Well, to the author's credit he doesn't suggest avoiding adverbs and adjectives; instead, he gives you a technique: If there is a verb/noun that can replace a weaker verb/noun (weaker is "more general", I suppose) + adverb/adjective, then do so.

The double adjective avoidance seems to be a personal quibble of his.


He followed Wood along a darkened lane; at one point they skirted a public house, but the sole sign of activity was a man lolling on the front step, studiously chewing his cap. After eight or nine minutes, with only an occasional gas lamp to trouble them, they came upon the dull bulk of St Mark's with its high, double-pitched roof.

Nouns: Wood, lane, public house, sign, activity, man, front step, cap, minutes, gas lamp, bulk, St Mark's, roof (14)
Verbs: followed, skirted, was, lolling, chewing, trouble, came (7)
Adverbs (of manner): studiously (1)
Adjectives: darkened, sole, occasional, dull, high, double-pitched (6)

(57 words in total)

You'll notice that I counted "front step" as a noun, and as one word. Alternatively, I could have counted "step" as a noun, and "front" as an adjective, pushing up the adjective count.

That makes: nouns: 24,6 %
Verbs: 12,3 %
Adverbs (of manner): 1,8 %
Adjectives: 10,5 %

If you wish to push the text analysis in favour of verbs, you could count "darkened" and "double-pitched" as verbs. It's a bit of a stretch, but not undefensible; after all I counted "lolling" and "chewing" as verbs, and they're the same word type: participles. A "darkened street" you could read as "a street that has been darkened". But since the point isn't political rhetorics and style policing, there's no reason for data cosmetics.

This isn't really representative. I've chosen a quote that contains an adverb of manner, so I suppose the real adverb-rate is lower. But adjectives abound, and double adjectives aren't hard to find either:

"a solicitor of the old school, lean and white-haired", "neat white coat", "frail and delicate young man" (triple adjectives!) etc.

Double adjectives are harder to find on pages with lots of dialogue.

Arthur & George is a book I grabbed at random. Styles differ.


Describing the setting or introducing an object/place via character action, not with pure description.

If I'm not mistaken, William Gibson tends to describe characters via setting, or leave characters out altogether. Neither action nor character is the main attraction of his stories. He's primarily a stylist.


Avoiding filters, such as "he wondered" or "he considered".

Depends on PoV choice, but since the author seems to be biased towards 3rd limited...


Still, reading through the list and nodding my head with each passing comment, I began to wonder just how many authors had successfully ignored these rules. I should think a number of the rules are ignored completely by some successful writers. Others could really use these rules and yet they are bestsellers, despite my personal views on their quality.

I was reading through the list and was ticking off familiar clichés about writing. At least the author has a light-hearted approach to rules, which is quite appealing.

I'm almost certain that it's impossible to write good fiction while keeping in mind all those rules at once. It's not hard to find exceptions, I suppose, but all my books are in another room (with the exception of Arthur & George ;) ).

nicba
August 9th, 2007, 01:17 PM
I think the first requirement for writing good fiction is that you actually has a good story to tell, with interesting characters and/or interesting plot. And secondly, that you has a solid grip on the pacing of said story.

Once these things - characters, plot(s) and pacing - are in place, the actual "mechanics" of sentence construction, and how many adjectives you use or do not use, matters less. If, on the other hand, these things are not present, then no manner of rule keeping can save the manuscript.

The trouble is that characterization, plotting and pacing are so hard to do and to discuss, that it's easy to become hung up on do's and don't's of setence structure instead.

Barrett
August 9th, 2007, 01:24 PM
I was reading through the list and was ticking off familiar clichés about writing. At least the author has a light-hearted approach to rules, which is quite appealing.

I'm almost certain that it's impossible to write good fiction while keeping in mind all those rules at once. It's not hard to find exceptions, I suppose, but all my books are in another room (with the exception of Arthur & George ;) ).


Thank you. I appreciate your examination of this.
I wanted other views on this, examples of when it worked and when it didn't.

I suppose what struck me about the list was that I agreed with most everything in the list but only to a point. I still think it's an excellent summary but as I said, I was wondering what authors had discounted these standards, and what they did to make the piece work. I also was curious if a work had failed because the rules (Barbosa says ..."more like guidelines.") had been avoided.
Variant POVs would undermine some of these, and I can see a number of times where breaking a rule would be wise. You pointed out a few I hadn't considered.

I suppose the value I see in the list is that it gives me pause when reading my own work, which is just beginning to find it's tone (me new writer guy).
Rather than try to apply the rules with totality, I'm thinking they may be a good list of things to make sure you don't overdo, or that you justify with good structure when you do. Tightening prose is a real snag for me, and seems to be for a number of new writers.
For that matter, a number of published authors are still polishing this skill.

I wonder how much this list breaks down when a piece is not action-driven or event-focused, but is instead an introspective character piece, where tightened prose may be inappropriate.

Dawnstorm
August 10th, 2007, 02:28 AM
I also was curious if a work had failed because the rules (Barbosa says ..."more like guidelines.") had been avoided.

I doubt it. That's not how it works. From the text:


We all strive for different goals. Consequently, we all need our own set of rules—and some of us don’t need rules at all!

So, yes, it's more like guidelines. They're not really rules; they're areas to pay attention to while editing. Some people need rules about what to pay attention to, and some people do it by instinct. Others recognise a few "rules" (which are more like editing habits than anything else) and go the rest of the way on intuition. These rules are NOT indicators of quality.

My favourite example is this:


For example, in “Hunting Down The Pleonasm”, ‘down’ is pleonastic. Cut it and the meaning of the sentence does not alter.

So, "Hunting The Pleonasm" and "Hunting Down The Pleonasm" have the same meaning? My intuition is they do not (and the Oxford Dictionary of English has a separate dictionary entry for "hunt down".)

I wonder, did the author choose to keep the "down" in the title to be able to point to a pleonasm, i.e. break a rule for a reason? If so, it demonstrates the peril of rules. While rule-minded, you may lose sight of the text.

Rules always simplify the matter and encourage one-track thinking.

Example:

"Use strong verbs in preferance to adverbs." I actually agree with this advice. It'll generally make for more vivid writing. But if you treat this as a rule, you're neglecting the specific strengths of "general verb" + "adverb".

1. The aspect contained in the adjective can be separated from the general meaning of the verb, e.g. for emphasis: "Slowly he walked..." This is impossible with "trudged", "plodded"...

2. "General verbs" stand out less. This is an advantage if you don't want emphasis on the action.

Next, rules can dull your reading taste. To the extant that a person is "rule-minded" the idea of a broken rule can be enough to kick the reader out of the text. Rules can lead to self-fulfilling prophecies. It's only bad because you know the rule. (A variant of this is: it's only bad while you're editing, not while you're reading.)

An example from my own editing-experience: I'm not a master of punctuation. One of things I'm rule-minded about are "comma splices", i.e. two independent clauses separated by commas rather than fullstops or semicolons. When reading, some disturb my reading flow, but most don't. The editor within me has no clue what makes some acceptable and others not. The writer in me avoids them. I have no doubt that this makes my texts better, but I'm also aware that my texts would be even better, if I realised what kind of comma splice is good and what kind of comma splice is bad. Sticking to the "no comma splice" rule is pragmatic. It's more about my confidence in the text than about its quality.

I also flag every single comma splice in texts I critique, suggesting commas or semicolons (or - occasionally - colons). I do suspect that many comma splices are writing-flow-enthusiasm left-overs, but I do hope that people who have a better grasp of comma splices will not listen to me too much.

I suspect that much of the passive voice aversion falls into this category.

"Rules" can be helpful for people when editing, if they like to tick off lists for example. But they're not usually flags for quality. If you're using a "weak verb + adverb" rather than a "strong verb", are you really breaking a rule? Are you keeping another rule? Writing is so complex that - if the rule-thing is taken seriously - a sentence would take you a day to write.


I suppose the value I see in the list is that it gives me pause when reading my own work, which is just beginning to find it's tone (me new writer guy).

Which is a good thing. And you've come across a good text in the sense that it's keeping an appropriate distance to the rules. "Writing rules" are something of a sore subject with me since they've ruined quite a few texts before my eyes.

*****


Tightening prose is a real snag for me, and seems to be for a number of new writers.
For that matter, a number of published authors are still polishing this skill.

What helped my prose-tightening skills the most was translating poetry from English into German (my mother tongue). I got down to syllable level (and learnt to despise the German syllable structure). Once you spent two hours on four lines, you'll have little tolerance for rules; they become silly. ;)


I wonder how much this list breaks down when a piece is not action-driven or event-focused, but is instead an introspective character piece, where tightened prose may be inappropriate.

Interesting question.

It's important to remember that the end-goal isn't "tight" prose, it's well-flowing prose.

Tightening: cut and merge words. Replace long words with shorter words. Do this to improve the ratio of "meaningful" to "meaningless" syllables.
Rearranging: change position of words for emphasis and rhythm.
Padding: Add words, replace short words with longer ones. Do this to allow for relief; to let important stuff sink in.

***

I find the idea behind this thread to be important: Look at published work, see how they "break the rules", and evaluate if the books had been better if they had kept the rules. But - unless you're going into rhetoric "proof" of rule-superiority - this is going to be hard work. See what I did with Arthur & George above. All I did was describe the text. The only rule it clearly violates is the one about "double adjectives"; all other rules would need closer attention. I haven't even begun to suggest alternatives, more in keeping with the rules, or to evaluate what adjectives (and the adverb) do for the text. This would be a thirty-page article and probably not comprehensive enough.

Davis Ashura
August 10th, 2007, 05:37 AM
One author who I haven't read using the adverb describing dialogue is Robin Hobb. Two others who did were Patrick Rothfuss and Scott Lynch. All three are fine writers.
These rules aren't really rules. They are just suggestions, but when written by professionals, they come across as strict rules, when that's not really the case.
My least favorite suggestion and one that probable is the most worthless I ever heard of is the idea of a 'hook' in the first sentence. It is so pervasive and destructive.
Think about it: would you really discontinue a book simply because the first line wasn't a grabber?