Thursday, 16 December 2010

On Silly Rules

I don't mind a lot of the silliness I see posted on writers' forums, but one thing that really annoys me are those blanket "Never do this" or "Always do that" type. You know the kind of thing. Apparently Mark Twain once famously said "If you see an adverb, kill it". Well good for him, but does every writer on the internet have to quote that in their signature? Okay, maybe not every writer, but I've seen it enough times to set my teeth on edge. For one not insignificant thing, it's a crock of shit.

Then there's the ubiquitous lists. Ten things Agents hate, or variations on the theme. We all have pet hates, agents included. But why poke them up everyone's nose on blogs and forums? To me it's an attempt to create a formula that will guarantee acceptance: Avoid these pitfalls and you too can write like (insert great novelist here). But here's the uncomfortable truth: there is no formula. For everyone who hates adverbs there are just as many who love them. For every editor who tosses a manuscript that opens with a prologue, there is bound to be at least one who finds it intriguing and wants to read more. There Are No Rules. That, my writer friends, is the only rule.

That's what makes literature an art rather than simply a craft. It might be inadvisable to start a novel with It (yes, I've seen that silly rule a few times) but there have been great writers who've managed to pull it off. It's your job as a writer to test the boundaries, to push the limits and see what you can get away with. Tastes change. So experiment. It's your right as an artist. And you duty. If there was a coverall formula for writing good fiction how boring the world would be.

So for your sake as well as your readers, do it your way, and ignore silly rules.


Lexi said...

Don't start a novel with 'it'?

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way--in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

I'm sure no one needs me to tell them where this opening sentence comes from.

Sandra Patterson said...

Not to mention "It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen."

One of the first crits I ever had told me not to start with the word "It"!

scribocin said...

never heard the one about not starting 'it'.

A good point, Sandra.

the same goes for dialogue tags. I've been reading a lot of M&B's romance lately (as part of my research into the genre) and these novels teem with all sorts of 'forbidden' dialogue tags, and adverb, and adjectives and AND! words ending with -ly!
(and exclamation marks)

I'm much more relaxed about these rules now.