When Authors Break the Rules

Girl lying down with headphones
Image courtesy of pixabay.com
When new writers visit our writing group or read some of my posts about the accepted rules of writing, they often object to the guidelines of good writing. An author they love doesn't follow these rules. Their favorite author uses adverbs, passive verbs, dialogue verbs other than "said," data dumps, and point of view shifts in the wrong place. Worse yet, they don't offer a hook in their boring first lines.

I understand the confusion. If those best-selling writers don't follow the rules, why should we?

Some well-established authors get sloppy. Their books sell, so they don't have to worry about getting the attention of an agent or publisher. They're a known entity. They have a fan base who will buy anything they write.

New writers need to follow the rules in order to get noticed. I'm always thankful to read books by authors who continue, despite their success, to follow the accepted rules of good writing. Their books are better. We tell new writers to find the writers who adhere to the rules and not to focus on what best-selling author A, B, or C does.

For example, I just finished an audiobook by a best-selling author with well over fifty published novels. I don't usually read this author, but the book's concept intrigued me, and Audible offered it in a special deal. If I hadn't been driving when I listened to it, if I'd bought the print book, I never would have finished it. This author violated many rules of writing, and her book bored me for long stretches of time. Add an anti-climatic climax, and you've got the recipe for poor reviews.

If I ever reach the point where I've published several books, I hope I never forget my readers in my desire to get the books out.

What rules did she violate?

  • The first three chapters provided the backstory of the characters. In fact, it focused on the characters who die early in the book, not the protagonist of the story. I thought we'd never get to the birth of the main character, much less action or dialogue. The author kept this up throughout the book, providing long sections of backstory that didn't offer anything to the story.
  • The narrative relied on passive verbs and weak verbs when stronger options existed.
  • Many sentences in a small section started with the same word over and over:  He did this. He thought this. He wondered this. He. He. He. This creates a juvenile tone in the writing. This was not a children's book, though.
  • The author told us what the characters felt rather than showed us. Sometimes she told us and in the next chapter or section told us again as if we couldn't remember what she'd already said. In some of these cases, the characters' action showed us what the author bothered to stop and tell us. None of the telling belonged in the story, but the cases where she did show us, it disheartened me to have her turn around and tell me, too.

I could go on and on, but the ones that bugged me the most were the long sections of backstory and the telling rather than showing. These are boring for the reader, and in the case of this audio book, the artist reading the story sounded bored with this approach, too.

Why did I finish the book?

Changing a book while driving is a lot like texting and driving, but there were times when I wanted to pull off the road and choose something else. I grumbled at the characters and the writer many times, shocked at the poor techniques. The plot, once it surfaced, held my interest enough to stick with it, but the resolution of the plot was too neat, too easy. I wanted the protagonist to act, but instead, just like the writing, she was passive. As I neared the end of the book, I wondered how the author planned to resolve the conflict. I think she didn't know a good way to do it because it came out of nowhere and felt contrived. After I stuck it out, I felt cheated by the anti-climatic ending. Even the love story part rang false.

I felt better when I went to post my review. Many of the online reviewers didn't finish the book, citing the slow pace as a serious problem.

So, yes, we tell new writers, you will find established authors breaking the rules, but they can do it because of their fan base and notoriety.

We can't.

We're better writers for that reason.


Skip Pfaff said…
Ah! All those infernal rules that both strain and constrain us. Avoid passive verbs. Don’t use the same word to begin each sentence time after time. Avoid unnecessary words. Limit dialogue attributives to said and asked. There must be a hook in one’s opening lines. Avoid data dumps. Thus, they proceed in legion ad nauseum.
I think, however, there are the two most important factors which underpin all the others. They are, in my opinion, equally vital. Be it fiction or nonfiction it is necessary to tell a story that will hold the interest of the reader. Writers must be certain they have this in hand. I’ve not always found it so very easy to take what seems like a great premise and turn it into a coherent cohesive interesting exciting story. The other thing is that awful black plague of grammar, punctuation, syntax, and sentence construction. The good news is there is help readily available. I’ve always thought Strunk and White “On Style” and the more voluminous “Chicago Manual on Style” lead the pack in this area. Again, it’s only my opinion. I think everyone who writes should have access and use one or both of these. I know there are those who think they can put what they like in a manuscript while crossing off errors in the name of style. I don’t think that flies when it comes to getting published.

You’s all should know their ain’t no ”u” in harbor or labor when you’s is writin American.

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