My Head Hurts From All the Rules

freeimages.co.uk medical images I’m beginning to wonder if too many of us fiction writers are too closely following the same popular writing rules. And I’ll tell you why.

The openings of at least half the adult novels I’ve read lately were eerily similar. Each story started with an action beat. A character slammed, banged, or shoved something or other. Pages had few, if any, prepositional phrases and were devoid of adverbs and filter words. (Filter phrases such as “I/she thought” and “I/he felt” pull the reader out of deep point of view, or POV.) Narrative was minimal. Most description and background information was worked into the dialogue, which was the only place that had a distinctive voice. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed reading most of these stories. But I’d like to know if anyone else has noticed that some novels published today follow the same rules so closely that they appear to be written by the same author.

On the other hand, I’m reading a YA novel titled My Beautiful Disaster by Michelle Buckman. It breaks all the rules I try so hard to follow. Telling, not showing, makes up the first five pages. But I kept reading! The story is loaded with filtering. The main character felt, thought, doubted, imagined, etc., so I wasn’t in deep point of view. But I kept reading—because the story read as though a friend confided in me. Adverbs were sprinkled throughout. They didn’t bother me at all! They told me what I needed to know in a fraction of a second so I could move forward quickly (tee-hee).

My Beautiful Disaster was published in 2007, so maybe that was before these rules became widely enforced. You’d think this book might employ a high concept to keep the reader engaged in spite of breaking the rules, but that’s not the case. It’s just one of those stories about ordinary events that makes me care enough about a few of the characters to want to learn what will happen to them.

In general, YA fiction authors dare to break rules more often than others do. I’m not a fan of anything way out there, but as long as prose adheres to the precepts of good English and has an engaging story, I tend not to complain.

In my recently completed manuscript, The Other Side of Freedom, I started out using more prepositional phrases than I perhaps would use now. I knew firsthand from hearing my ancestors speak that the Italian immigrant characters, including my young main character, would’ve used a lot of prepositional phrases in translating Italian to English. I can still hear my grandmother and other relatives talking in my head today. Trying to follow the current rules, I wound up eliminating a good many prepositions in the manuscript, but did I damage the authentic voice in doing so?

I’m curious what other writers, readers, and publishing professionals think of this phenomenon–that following the same set of popular rules may destroy the unique quality of our writing. I wonder if the pendulum is about to swing in the opposite direction, away from the rules that many authors now follow and back to styles of writing found in previous decades.

Having said all that, I’m still a huge fan of deep point of view and also admire a clean writing style, often avoiding books that are too wordy.

Have you noticed a similarity in style between novels by different authors who obviously follow the same set of rules? Have you enjoyed a novel published in the last year or two that breaks many of the rules mentioned here?

cynthia-toney Cynthia

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21 thoughts on “My Head Hurts From All the Rules

  1. I love books that take their time in describing scenes and actions, and yes, even feelings! The filtering needs to be well-balanced with other aspects of good writing – all of which you mentioned.
    I say, keep all those prepositional phrases in, especially within dialogue. You want that authentic Italian voice!

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    • I do love reading a variety of writing styles. Recalling books I’ve read recently (because I have a poor memory), I enjoyed the crisp voice and deep POV in Cynthia Ruchti’s They Almost Always Come Home. With the opening line, I was immediately in the MC’s head and involved in her actions. (I think you’d like that one, Linda, if you haven’t read it yet.) Equally enjoyable was Beneath a Southern Sky by Deborah Raney, which starts more slowly. I didn’t feel in deep POV but still connected with the female character. And I appreciated that the author allowed characters to say something “gently.” 🙂

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    • P.S. Linda, thanks for the encouragement about the Italian voice. In the end, it will all depend on what an agent/editor/publisher who’s interested in the manuscript might want! 🙂

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  2. I hear you. Sometimes I think the rules are for the benefit of publishers so they can say, “no.”

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  3. I do sometimes get tired of people describing a person’s face to convey anger instead of just saying that the person was angry. But I haven’t really noticed that books all seem to be the same. I’ve read a lot of good books lately, but they seemed all different to me.

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    • Ha! I know what you mean about describing anger. When the motivation/action is a common one, I can pick up on the most subtle physical reaction from a character without all the exaggerated facial clues. My husband’s facial clues are so subtle, I may be the only person who recognizes them.

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  4. This is interesting. I think “rules” are standards to follow, but ultimately, rules are made to be broken, right? However, when to break the rules remains the question, and I believe much of that lies within the writer’s unique style and voice. The best way to tell if something is working or not is to read your work out loud. You will literally hear where the flow is broken.

    Also, before you break the rules, writers should have a firm understanding of the rules, and why they’re there to begin with. (Hence the benefit of a good editor.)

    I’ve seen two “rules” broken lately. First, I’ve seen more and more adult POV in children’s literature. Previously a no-no, but it can and does work sometimes. Also, according to a film agent I’ve worked with in the past, producers want some adult POV when adapting books to the big screen.

    Another “rule” I’ve seen broken recently, more and more secular publishers are publishing fiction that touches on issues of faith. (Ellen Hopkin’s Rumble is only one recent example.)

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    • Hi, Kim. So glad you joined us! We appreciate an editor weighing in. I suppose if you take any two authors who are equally talented and equally knowledgeable of good writing mechanics, one is likely to be more daring than the other and willing to rebel against current standards. True in any field, now that I think about it! Thanks for sharing with us about the trend toward adult POV in children’s literature and film-making. That’s definitely something I’d like to read more about. I’ve been encouraged by novels containing elements of faith being widely read. Authors sometimes receive criticism but don’t back down, and the complainers still read them!

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    • Kim, all your points are really good, but I particularly perked up at the last one about secular publishers publishing fiction with faith elements involved. I’ve also seen that and have been greatly encouraged by this trend. Also, seeing ‘religious’ films making headway has gotten me very excited.

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  5. I think truly good writing transcends rules though it doesn’t necessarily break them. Originality is usually a non-conformist.

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  6. I think a lot of those rules are just style or preference. Some people love to read or write lengthy descriptions, others prefer to have them glossed over. If it’s well written or engaging enough, you forget about the rules while you read. I don’t think I’ve noticed much of a trend recently other than sometimes the main characters sometimes feel the same between books.Oh – I did notice a lot of filter words when I read the Septimus Heap books – they pulled me out of the story, just like the rule claims. And there are books were I skimmed the lengthy descriptions – but if it’s moderate, I can overlook it. It’s when the story is drenched in broken rules that I tend to notice.

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  7. I violate those rules shamelessly any time, for following them would go against my conscience.

    Adverbs and prepositional phrases are paramount for my writing, as is passive voice. No style guide will be able to deter me from deploying them frequently.

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