Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Techniques are not rules

I read this line recently in another writer’s blog post and while it’s not rocket science and I’ve heard it in other forms before, boy did it strike a chord with me.

I think when we write—especially when we’re beginners or when things aren’t going well—we’re so desperate to hold onto something, anything, as we tumble into the great abyss that is a blank page of a 400 page manuscript, that we’ll grab onto anything that anyone will tell us that makes sense.

Not that listening to advice of the more experienced or successful is bad. It’s good. It’s what we need to do to learn and get better.

But folks. These things other writers tell us in workshops and books are techniques, not rules.

It’s a good technique to avoid adverbs and adjectives and instead choose powerful and descriptive verbs and nouns. Does this mean there’s a rule that says you can’t ever use adverbs? NO! And if I see one more contest entry where the writer has simply left the “ly” off a word thinking it’s not an adverb if they spell it incorrectly, I’ll scream. (If they spell it incorrect. AAAAAH!!!!)

It’s a good technique to use the active voice in fiction. Does this mean you should never use the passive voice? No. It can have a strong impact, if it’s used sparingly.

It’s a good technique to make your point of view character have an identifiable and clear goal in every scene. Does that mean your book will fail if their goal is obscure in a couple of scenes? No.

It’s a good technique in the romance genre to have a very likable and easily relatable heroine. Does this mean you can’t write a great book with a harder to like heroine? No. (Ain’t She Sweet, anyone?)

It’s a good technique to use all five senses to immerse the reader in the world you’re creating for your characters to inhabit. Does this mean there’s a rule that says you need to tell us how everything smells? No. (And please don't... Somethings aren't meant to be smelt.)

It’s a good technique to stick to only two or three points of view in a book and avoid omniscient at all costs. Does this mean you shouldn’t add a scene into a book that’s written in an unexpected point of view—even omniscient—for impact? That you can’t have six or seven points of view in a book? No, it does not.

It is important to know and understand the techniques and devices used by successful writers, to study and learn these techniques and understand why they work and have made the writers who use them successful. And as frequent readers of this blog know, we all LOVE talking about fiction writing techniques and devices. BUT, but, but… one part of understanding techniques is knowing when and why you might not want to use them. And always remembering: they’re techniques – not rules.

PS. Still digging David Cook. Billie Jean? Are you kidding me? Awesome. Who'd a thunk it.


Abby said...

Great post, Maureen. The worst piece of writing advice I've ever heard was from a workshop: "Semicolons are not used in genre fiction." Um, I don't think Laura Kinsale got that memo.

David Cook was brilliant. I loathe the combover - just go bald, dude - but what a singer. Sexy voice, too.

Heidi the Hick said...

Great post, and very timely for me. I just got a critiique that was very accurate and correct and would have sucked all the voice out of my story if I'd followed it.

I can use a lot of the suggestions but not all. I have to break a few rules to stay true to the voice!

.. and yup, David C! My friend said his treatment of the song was like Chris Cornell's recent cover, which I shamefully haven't heard yet. Must check it out. David was standout- again!

Kimber Chin said...

I always find it amusing that a "creative" field like writing seems to have more "rules" than a field like accounting.

Though if you look at the great writers (Faulkner, anyone?), they seem to discard most of the rules, don't they?

Heck, I write first for myself, second for the reader, and that reader isn't going to be anal about grammar ('cause they wouldn't make it through my first book if that was the case).

Anonymous said...

Great post, Maureen. As writers we have to know and understand not only what the techniques are, but why we use them.
then we can choose to ignore them.
I'm finding the romances lately that are blowing my little mind are the ones that break the well-known and too often repeated techniques..

Maureen McGowan said...

Abby, great example. It's true that semicolons aren't used much in popular fiction and IMO can slow the flow of prose because readers aren't used to them. But readers can get used to anything in a book they're enjoying...

Heidi, one of the hardest things is to learn to sift through all the advice and critiques. You know... a few things I was told repeatedly during the first few years I was writing, I fought against considering it a matter of voice, too. Then I tried implementing those techniques, and that's when my voice started popping and I started to get requests. So you never know.

Writing is such a balance between fierce determination and belief in your own talent, and keeping your mind open to accepting advice. But only you can make that call and as long as you understand the advice you're being given, but have a good reason not to follow it... then stick to your guns.

Sometimes the advice is being given by a writer who's just learned what they think is a rule and is trying to force everyone else to follow it--I mean share their wonderful knowledge with others. Important to consider the source of advice, I think.

Molly O'Keefe said...

David Cook's hair is a comb over? Really? I'm pretty warm for the guy that's for sure. Idol is fun this year and he's the big reason.

Good post Maureen - I think having that moment when you are able to filter through the rules and figure out what works for you and what doesn't is a big moment on the way to becoming your own kind of writer. Then of course you back slide and get lost all over again - and you read a post like that and are reminded that you don't have to do everything everyone tells you. And then you back slide...

Maureen McGowan said...

I'm thinking DC's hair is just a side-part too... But who knows. My dad started to lose his hair in his early twenties...

And you are so right about the cycling thing, Molly. I think that's why that line spoke to me. I was getting all hung up on a new plotting technique I'd been testing out on this book, and was worried because my book wasn't fitting into it quite as nicely as I thought it would when I did the original outline... and then I slapped my head. It's just a frigging technique, even if it's a technique that made sense to you and helped you when you were outlining a month ago. Don't sweat it.

Flo Moyer said...

I really enjoyed this post. I had to leave an email list I enjoyed because I just couldn't stand everyone saying you "must" do this and that when it comes to writing. I like to trust my instincts and my natural writing flow--as long as my sentences are clear LOL.

Abby--I have a guess as to the origins of that "Semicolons are not used..." bit. My first book with Silhouette, I was told house style was to use dashes, not semicolons. That simple instruction was probably telephoned into "are not used in genre fiction". (Pure speculation.) And it was no prob for me. But otherwise, when writing for submission, I say follow what Maureen says.

M. said...

i had an overly loud 'yeah, baby!' reaction to the point about - don't have to have a very likable heroine for the book to work. allow me to point to Wanda in 'time off for good behaviour'. i do think that the heroine has to be interesting, though. having a heroine both be not-very-likable, as well as uninteresting, would pretty much sink any book's chances IMHO.

david cook - love him also - i didn't suspect he might be going bald, but if he is, i'd think the LAST think he wants to do is give in and shave because that would leave him wide open to suspicions of 'isn't he trying too hard to imitate that other idol rocker dude, chris daughtry????'

Abby said...

LOL, OK let me clarify. Maybe he isn't going bald, maybe he just has a fracking big forehead. Either way the stylists are really working those bangs - they must have a reason.

Flo, interesting point about the semicolons. Of course Maureen is right, and semicolons must be used only in the right place; but it does not mean there is a rule against using them, especially in historicals.


Maureen McGowan said...

Abby, I totally agree about the "especially in historicals" thing. And let's face it. Nothing wrong with punctuating things properly, and semicolons are a valid piece of punctuation. But like Flo says... some houses have a preference against them.

I guess that hits on what irks me about contest judges who think things like that are rules... Taking out semi-colons, if a house's editing style doesn't favor them, is something done at the copy edit stage, I believe. The editor probably wouldn't even care. An editor certainly wouldn't base a decision on whether or not to contract a book based on semi-colon usage alone. So why the frak should a contest judge mark someone down for it?

That said, I have personally commented on them in one entry I've judged. (But certainly didn't take marks off.) It was a chick lit entry and I found the frequent semi-colon use to be distracting. Punctuation shouldn't be distracting. (Says the girl who totally overuses em dashes... And apparently ellipses... But I only use ellipses in blog posts... Mostly.)

Wow. Have I even gone off about semi-colons! Thanks for the tangent starter, Abby. (and thanks for stepping up to judge the golden op. grin)

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