Rules and art go hand-in-hand. Even if painters don’t like it, it’s a fact that paint thinner and retardant help create exquisite layers and depth. Writers must face the fact that without spelling and sentence structure, readers will never understand what they’re trying to say. That said, not all rules are as hard and fast as they appear, and a lot of people dub their advice a ‘rule,’ when it’s anything but. So here are three rules to question, bend, and break.
We’ll start with grammar. Since strong language skills aid all great writers, it makes sense to follow the rules. Usually. The thing is – language evolves. Sometimes the rules can’t keep up.
Now, this doesn’t mean you can toss all the rules out the window, but editors and publishers realize that modern English often goes outside the bounds of ‘proper’ grammar. Sentence fragments showcase this principle brilliantly. I included one in the paragraph above.
Single-word sentences make perfect sense, especially when they follow longer, complex sections. It’s the same principle that guides sentence variation in traditional literature. Longer sentences mixed with shorter sentences keep readers engaged, sucking them in with intricate rhythms and surprising halts.
Be careful with fragments, though. Even though they don’t need to follow the textbook definition of a sentence, poorly constructed fragments can still confuse and distract readers. When in doubt, highlight the section for your beta readers. Just like your conversation partner can tell when you aren’t making sense, a reader can show you where your fragments fall short.
Write What You Know
If we only wrote about what we know, there would be no books about dragons, or cyborgs, or alternate dimensions, or post-apocalyptic wastelands. Even political thrillers would be much less… thrilling. Fiction is a dream. It may grow out of what you’ve lived, studied, or seen, but it can’t be something you honestly know.
Even if you’re writing a reasonably realistic story, you certainly don’t have to set it in your own time. That’s what research is for. Granted, you know a bit more after research, but if you only wrote about things you have personal expertise in, I image there’d be many more gripping novels about exhausted students eating ramen and cursing their dried-out highlighters.
And traffic. There would be so many more books about traffic.
You don’t need to know anything to start. While you should always take the opportunity to learn, you can’t sit on your hands until you’ve become the world’s leading expert in something before you tell your story.
Imagine how few stories would involve murder if only crime scene detectives and undiscovered serial killers felt they had permission to write about violent deaths. How many romance writers have had a bodice-ripping affair with a dashing highlander?
Do your research, but write what you want.
Follow the Market
This is one of the worst rules I’ve ever heard. If you want to sell your book, the experts say, you must follow the trends. Write what publishers want – right here and right now. At first glance, that may even sound practical, which is why it’s so dangerous. There are three big problems with it, though.
First, you cannot predict a trend. You just can’t. While we may be able to piece together instigating factors in hindsight, you can’t tell what’s going to be popular until it already is. This leads to the second problem: by the time you finish writing your book, the market will be flooded with stories almost exactly like yours, and the trend will be on the way out. So, there’s no point. Thirdly, writing a story simply because it might appeal to readers of a specific subgenre or theme is soulless and disheartening. It’s no way to make a living, and certainly no way to develop yourself.
Rules may be there to guide us, but sometimes you just need to hop the fence and tip a cow. Not all rules are good ones, anyway. So be free, write free, and go scare some livestock.