Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Advice

No, no, not MY advice to YOU, because I’m not convinced that’s helpful. At least not writing advice. Always happy to offer advice about cakes (of course you should make one tonight!) or dogs (No, of course you should not leap casually into breeding your Yorkie — do you KNOW what kinds of things can go wrong? I would be happy to tell you, at great length.)

But, what I mean is, there sure is a lot of writing advice out there. Like here, for example, a post about whether you should follow “the rules” when writing. It’s a good post, nothing wrong with it, don’t get me wrong. I agree with it, mostly.

But advice. There’s so much of it out there. Seems like every time you turn around, somebody’s explaining how to give your characters more depth or increase your sales or whatever.

Well, it’s nice to understand where a rule comes from and what it’s for and what happens when you bend it or break it or turn it upside down. But I’m not sure there’s a single rule out there that’s, like, really a RULE that you HAVE to follow in order to succeed. And I think that’s true at the craft level (Never Use Adverbs) or at the artistic level (Never Have More Than One POV Character Per Chapter). AND at the get-it-written level (Write Every Single Day). I don’t follow any of those rules, personally, even though I try not to use too may adverbs and a don’t USUALLY have more than POV character per chapter. And when I’m trying to meet a deadline, I do write every day. Well, mostly.

Now, the post I cited? The autor says: When it comes to craft, I believe that there is at least one hard-and-fast rule that ought to be followed by everyone; newbies and crusty, experienced types alike:

“Omit needless words.” Strunk & White, The Elements of Style, 4th ed., p. 23

I cannot say it any better. All of your words should matter. Cut filler, as this only distances your reader from the meat of your story.

Aaand . . . I’m all for rules, in moderation, but you know what? I don’t think I agree that this one is any more universal than a “limit your adverbs” rule. But then, I am not the world’s biggest fan of Strunk and White. Really. Ever happened across the post “Fifty Years of Stupid Grammar Advice”? Because I checked, and the author of that one — google it, okay? — is right: Strunk and White don’t seem able to tell the difference between the past tense and the passive voice, and this does not lead to confidence about the rest of their prescriptions and proscriptions.

But the author of the post I linked above also says this about craft: “There are also many rules that, in my opinion, are best followed by those seeking to learn the craft. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve heard new authors object to a critique with something along the lines of, “Frank Herbert shifts point-of-view multiple times on one page in Dune, so it can so be done!” Well, yes, it can, but not necessarily by you. Not yet. The problem is this: many writers who respond this way weren’t even aware they were shifting point-of-view, let alone doing it for specific effect and in a way important to their story.”

And I think that’s a great way to think about rules and who should break ’em. You get to do it if you know what you’re doing and why and if you can make it work. If you can’t tell whether it works, well, that’s why you need good, critical, analytical readers.

But I think that’s true not just for rules about the craft of writing,, but for all rules about writing. If it works for you to write seventy pages of a manuscript and then set it aside and not even touch a keyboard for the next two months . . . well, it’s not that I disagree with the butt-in-chair rule, but on the other hand, I’ve done exactly that. Once at a convention I was the only person in the room who didn’t raise her hand when asked “Do you write every day?” Because I don’t.

Just thought I’d mention that in case you also don’t and you were wondering if you were breaking a law of nature.

So: advice! Do you find it helpful, or do you think that by the time you’re ready to write a good book, you’ll be doing it by feel, not by thinking about rules? And can writing advice, no matter how good, actually get you to that point?

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