Posts Tagged ‘writing rules’

Recently, I sent a chapter to my critique group from a new MS I’m working on, an urban fantasy. I knew it was rough, and I needed some outside opinions. I got a lot of good advice from a couple of critique partners, but I found myself automatically rejecting the advice I received from the third. Her first comment was that I had a lot of narrative at the beginning of the chapter (true) and that her editor had told her she should never have more than three pages of narrative in a romance.

Now there are a lot of responses to that. One is to say, “You mean three pages of Courier New double-spaced or three pages as they’d appear in the actual print edition, which would be more like five pages of Courier New double-spaced?” Another would be to look at a couple of romance writers to see if it was true (I checked the Nora Roberts I was reading at the time and immediately stumbled over five pages of narrative relatively early in the book). But realistically, I knew the thing that had set me off was the idea that there was some kind of absolute rule for the length of narrative. Had the critiquer said, “Boy you’ve got a lot of narrative here—I’m getting lost and/or bored,” I probably would have gone back to the MS and looked more critically at the passage. But something about the idea of a rule about how much narrative is enough based solely on number of pages rather than quality of narrative just rubs me the wrong way.

I feel the same way about a lot of “rules” that people cite with romances. For example, “The hero and heroine have to meet within the first ten pages.” Now the idea that the hero and heroine need to be introduced fairly soon, like within the first couple of chapters, makes sense. But the idea that they have to meet and meet quickly is just nonsense unless you’re writing a category romance with a very stiff set of rules provided by the publisher. If you don’t believe me, check the romances on your shelf. I’d be willing to bet that a significant number of them don’t have hero and heroine meeting within the first ten pages. The “No adultery” rule is another one that writers continually dance around. In Roberts’ Dancing On Air, for example, the heroine is an abused wife who’s faked her own death to escape her homicidal husband. Technically, she’s committing adultery with the hero, but I doubt any reader holds it against her.

The only romance rule that seems absolutely unquestionable is HEA. But even here, writers like Nicholas Sparks seem to slide by occasionally. Of course, he’s also dismissed by a lot of romance readers as not really writing romance. I tend to agree with that assessment.

The bottom line is this: if you, as a critiquer, don’t like something in my MS, fine. Tell me so, and tell me why. I may wince (and I may call you names, but since most of my critiquing is on-line, you won’t hear them). But don’t claim that my stuff is bad because I’m violating some kind of cockamamie rule. Rule or not, the problem is that you don’t like what I’m doing. I need to know that and I need to know why you don’t like it. Then I can either fix it or not, depending on whether I think it’s a legitimate complaint. But trust me, if you try to hide behind an artificial rule, I can guarantee I’ll ignore you.


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When I was just starting out in fiction writing, I took a short story workshop at a venerable San Antonio writers cooperative. I wrote a story I thought was okay and brought it to class for critiquing. Most of my classmates liked it, and some liked it a lot. One man, though, sat through the discussion with a look of utter disdain. When things finally died down, he gave me his critique. He’d recently taken a workshop with a well-known writer, he said, and she’d told him that using adverbs was the mark of poor writing. He handed me back my MS, and sure enough he’d marked every single word ending in –ly and told me to delete them all. Now some of the words he’d marked were actually adjectives (leisurely, for example), but never mind. I’d heard that advice before. Get rid of all adverbs before you send your MS off to an editor.

Adverbs Bad!

Frankly, that’s crap. It’s also a great example of a half-remembered rule. What the well-known writer had probably told my critiquer was that it’s usually better if you can find a strong verb rather than a weak verb plus adverb. She could also have said it’s better to find a strong noun rather than a weak noun plus adjective. That’s a good principle, but it’s a long way from saying never use adverbs.

Overuse of adverbs is bad, but saying you can never use them, in effect eliminating an entire class of words from your vocabulary, is overkill. I understand why people embrace these ideas, though. It’s a lot easier to say “Never use them” than to try to figure out what constitutes effective and ineffective use. But let’s face it—sometimes that strong verb doesn’t exist. Or sometimes you like the rhythm of the adverb in your voice. Or sometimes you just feel like using “said slowly” rather than “drawled” (and if you think about it, those two aren’t exact synonyms).

In general, I’d suggest caution whenever somebody gives you a hard-and-fast dogmatic writing principle to live by, particularly if it involves style. I once worked for a magazine where the General Editor refused to consider the word dove as a past tense for dive (it was an underwater photography magazine, so this came up a lot). Now I could show her countless entries in usage guides indicating that dove was, in fact, perfectly acceptable. She didn’t care—she knew the difference between right and wrong. She had her principles.

Personally, I’ve always loved what Groucho Marx once said: “I have my principles, and if you don’t like them…I have others.” In this case, the principle should be If it works, do it.

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