Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Rules

"There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are."
-W. Somerset Maugham

Last weekend, I had the very great pleasure of listening to Kelley Armstrong talk about the craft.

For those who don't know, I'm a great fan of Kelley's. I've probably handsold as many copies of her novels as our local bookstore has, just because I enjoy them so much and because I think everyone needs to read Bitten.

But anyway, there I was last week at breakfast, and Kelley was giving a speech about The Rules. You know...the rules that Every Writer Needs to Know, the ones we're told and told again from the moment we pick up our pens:

Don't use prologues. Don't use adverbs. And for heaven's sake, don't use the passive voice. Et cetera, et cetera. A laundry list of things we shouldn't do. And Kelley's comment was that rules on getting published are most often quoted, she's observed, by those who aren't yet published, and that writing rules are rather like the Pirate Code: They're more like guidelines, really.

Not only was I happy to discover she and I were kindred spirits on that point, but I was pleased to see that many in the audience for Kelley's speech were writers who were just beginning, still in search of that first contract, still discovering their voices, because they're the ones who really need our reassurance that The Rules aren't absolute.

They have a place, The Rules. As with grammar, it's probably best that one knows the rules first, before breaking them. If I split an infinitive, for example, I know I'm splitting an infinitive. Or using a fragment. But I've chosen, whether for style or cadence or emphasis, to be ungrammatical at that moment, just as I often ignore what the writing books tell me to do, and use adverbs, or start a book slowly. I know that I'm doing it, and that it's not the accepted thing, but for the sake of the story I've chosen to do it.

And that's what new writers deserve to be told: that it's OK to break The Rules, because there aren't any. There are as many "right" ways to write as there are writers, and part of your path as a writer is finding the way that's your own, that works best for you.

What's the rule that you find most constricting? Mine is "always use the active voice". It's terribly exhausting, for my characters...

Come back Thursday, to read Julie Cohen's post.


  1. I'm with on the active voice...and also on the quick starts...


  2. I've always figured you need to know the rules so you know when you are breaking them. Everything has it's place, including adverbs, passive voice and prologues.

    Sounds like a great breakfast meeting.

  3. Don't use adverbs! I hate that rule; I believe it orginated with Stephen King. I think adverbs have their place and if they're not overdone, they're fine.

  4. And adjectives! Why do they exist if they can't be used?

    I find active voice tiring too. And as a reader I don't always want it. I want to be comfortable.

  5. Great post, Susanna! I've just come back from the UK Historical Novel Society conference and one of the speakers there said much the same thing and I totally agree. I also went to a talk the night before by Bernard Cornwell and he said the most important thing is the STORY - if the story is good, it doesn't matter how you tell it. Don't get bogged down by rules, just write things your way.

  6. I am still learning all the rules so that when i break them i can make them work for me.

  7. One of the rules I hate, and sorry because it's not a grammar one, is "you have to write every single day to be called a writer". It's drummed into us new writers and it makes you feel so guilty and inadequate when you don't.
    Obviously the more you write,the more practice you get, but there are times when you simply need a bit of distance to come back with renewed energy and enthusiasm. As long as there aren't any deadlines looming I think we can choose to write when we really have something to write, not just anything for the sake of writing.
    Ok, I've now admitted I can't be called a writer.
    Thanks for this great post.

  8. Sarah, you can absolutely call yourself a writer! You write, therefore you are a writer. Whether you're published or not is purely incidental, and does nothing to define or change your status.

    If it makes you feel any better, I don't write every day, either. I do try, I honestly do, but when one of my children wakes up with a cough, or when the furnace man arrives unexpectedly (because I've forgotten I booked him six months ago), my whole day shifts and sometimes I can't get to my computer.

    Life goes on.

    Thanks everyone for your comments, sorry I didn't get back here earlier to reply to them (I WAS actually writing, as it happens :-), but I'm glad to see you share my views.

    And Winklewitch, yes, it was a great breakfast meeting, not only for the speech and the fact that I got to sit beside Kelley and chat with her, but for the FOOD, which was wonderful, too!

  9. I totally agree with you about the passive voice, Susanna. Some stories need it and using active all the time can be wearing - for me and the reader!