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Rules are a part of life. They’re there and we either stick by them or run the risk of serious reproach (and worse) if we don’t. The claim will always be that rules are there to protect us and whatever it is that the rules relate to. For example, football/soccer has rules as it would be a shambolic mess if not.
I get the point of rules and I agree with them in the main. They are necessary when it comes to a lot of things. They ensure that everybody is on an equal footing and nobody gets unfair advantages (not that it always ends up that way. That’s another tale for another day).
The problem with rules though is how they seem to seep into absolutely everything nowadays. Even the most mundane and every day of things are governed by them. That said, those are usually essential in some way too, even if only from a moral standpoint.
Now let’s get this train on the relevant track. If you’ve read this series before then you’ll know that it pertains to my writing and/or reading journey. Rules are present in writing by way of grammar. There’s no real disputing those rules. If your grammar is incorrect then your writing is incorrect full stop. It doesn’t read the way it should. You can break those rules if you wish, but this day and age you’ll be lucky to get away with it. There’s always somebody lurking around on Facebook or wherever who’s waiting to show their Grammar Nazi credentials. While I’m massively irritated by Grammar Nazis (especially on Facebook where, let’s be honest, it doesn’t matter), I agree with grammar rules.
Then we reach a shady part of the woods and things become a little less black and white for me. I write this with great reference to Mosaicca and her insightful and enlightening Writing Pitfalls series. I’ve started work on a third edit of my WIP, Revenge on the Spanish Main, of late and I’m looking very deeply at ensuring it’s as grammatically sound as humanly possible while once again reducing its mammoth word count.
Let’s start at the word count rule. The alleged expectation of “newbies” from publishers is that their first novel doesn’t exceed 70,000 words. Well I’m going to fail there. Revenge is currently over 300,000. To reduce it to the required length would mean to pretty much destroy the story and turn it into something I neither recognise nor can relate to on any level. The story was planned to be of epic length and can’t really be any other way.
I sort of understand the 70k rule. A publisher needs to know that what it publishes is likely to sell and an epic length novel by an unknown isn’t going to be viable from a cost versus profit perspective. Or will it? Could it not be a slightly short-sighted view to say a newbie is incapable of penning a superb epic? I’m not convinced the 70k rule even really exists. I’m suspicious it might originally have been advice to newbies in order to give them a better odds of success in getting published. Since then, it has been taken out of context and Chinese whispers have turned it into a perceived unwritten rule. I don’t know; maybe.
Mosaicca raised a rule that appears to have been passed down from professional authors about the use of the word “said” where dialogue is concerned in fiction writing. That completely negated an article I read not so long ago that urged writers to drop the use of “said” in favour of more flamboyant descriptors. It made sense to me as I think it aids the reader in terms of the way the spoken words are being communicated. So on starting this third edit I went with that suggestion.
Apparently that is the exact antithesis of what you should do if you want to write a manuscript that reads professionally. Well, goddamn! According to things I’ve read aside from Mosaicca’s Writing Pitfalls, a talented writer can communicate the manner in which characters speak without using flamboyant (and consequently incorrect) verbs. So using words like spat, hissed, snapped, mocked, joked, etc. shouldn’t be used unless you want to come across as amateurish.
I take issue with this rule. I’m suspicious that foul play might well be afoot where it’s concerned. It sounds to me more like a guideline. When I see that a verb has been used in place of “said” or variants thereof (asked, shouted, responded, etc.) I certainly don’t see it as an amateurish style of writing. I feel it reinforces the point of what was said and the style in which it was said. A talented writer might well be able to communicate these things without use of verbs; however, I don’t think “he said angrily” reads better than “he spat”. I think it sounds worse; less professional even. Then again, I’m an amateur writer so what would I know?
What I also am is a reader and I know what I like to read. Appealing to the reader of a story surely matters more than appeasing professional peers? If I saw a writer overuse “said” then that would irritate me. On that note, Mosaicca said she doesn’t notice the word as it kind of becomes invisible. She just reads the spoken words and the reference to who spoke them.
From what I can deduce, it’s actually a case of personal preference then. It’s likely that somebody once upon a time preferred to use the “said” method and decided in their infinite wisdom that they were doing it the correct way while all others were wrong, except they weren’t wrong. So this person went with a professional vs amateur yarn instead and filtered it out into the world. What better way to manipulate the system? Nobody wants to be thought of as amateurish.
This is all just conjecture and I’m likely way off the mark, although I do believe firmly that how professional a manuscript reads is in the eye of the beholder. It’s something I’ll communicate publicly if I ever achieve any fame from my writing too. I’ll make aspiring authors aware that there is nothing wrong with use of verbs in place of “said” if that’s how they’re inclined. It isn’t unprofessional at all, just frowned upon by people who consider themselves more professional than others. What ultimately matters is how your audience take to the manuscript once published.
Mosaicca and I ultimately agreed that this is a grey area. I think a ‘to each their own’ mentality is what applies in this situation. If a potential publisher or editor tells you something reads too amateurish then by all means amend if it’ll help you get published. If it gets published as is and then fellow professionals (you would be a professional too as a published author) pan it because it reads amateurish, take a look at sales figures. If the story is selling well and your target audience likes it then show your fellow professionals the middle finger and get on with your day. Who cares what they think?
The wonderful world of literature is littered with rules. Some simply can’t be broken if you want a sensible manuscript. Others, I feel, have been made up by people as they go along and taken as gospel. Folk are very impressionable in the main. My advice is to write your manuscript in a way that feels natural to you. Don’t be ignorant to guidance along the way, of course; however, keep it true to you and don’t let people influence you too greatly with guidelines and rules of thumb. Sometimes a thumb isn’t appropriate and you need an index finger.
I’ll continue to write/edit Revenge my way and only take advice that I feel is definitely going to improve my work. William Hart will continue to bark orders as opposed to say them loudly whether Mr and Mrs Professional like it or not!
What do you make of some of the rules/guidelines as regards fiction writing? Do you find they help? Do some come across as counter-intuitive or even damaging to your manuscript? Should fiction writers follow these rules or go with what their gut tells them? I’m very interested to hear your opinions, especially those of you currently writing fiction and looking to get published or people who have been published already. Thanks for reading!