Happy Memorial Day, to my American readers!
You see, I may live in Greece, but I know it’s Memorial Day today. Likewise, English is not my first language. I was taught English at the tender age of two and a half, alongside Greek. I had English-speaking au pairs to improve my English, I went to a school with plenty of English courses and I read English books, but I grew up in Greece, had Greek friends and spoke and read Greek on an everyday basis. Therefore, you can understand why I was concerned when I decided to write in English: I was worried of making the odd silly mistake, having people laugh at my writing skills. I have studied more grammar and vocabulary websites and books than I care to remember, just to make sure my English was correct. And then I realized that perhaps I was overreacting. Grammar books are wonderful for essay writing or for learning a language. However, somewhere along the creative process, I realized that I needed more freedom and I did not want to stick to the norm of “how to write proper English”.
A few days ago, I read a fascinating blog post by Rebecca Dickson, about the writing lessons we should forget and the writing tips we should remember. It gave me inspiration and consolation because I grasped that I am not the only one having a rough time with all the rules, constantly wondering whether I should actually follow them or not. A while ago, I wrote about the limitations of Showing-Not-Telling. So, how do I feel about other rules? Please join me as I go through some of the most popular ones.
- Three sentences make a paragraph: I confess: I dislike that rule. I think a paragraph is created when the sentences that comprise it make sense and compose a concrete meaning. Then, you should move to the next paragraph. Simple!
- Leave two-spaces between sentences (and, may I add, one space after a comma). I still follow that rule. Rebecca Dickson thinks we shouldn’t, but it comes naturally to me –and the autocorrect on Word thinks the same, so instead of having a text full of words underlined in red, I choose to follow their rule. Lorelei (my editor), however, is adamant that I should only use the one space. I guess it depends on who your editor is, then!
- Every sentence needs a noun and a verb. This is one of the things I completely disagree with, especially in the context of fiction writing. Sometimes, a sentence just needs a word. A single, meaningful word. Evidently, writing pages after pages of sentences without a noun and a verb can be tiring to the reader. But in a moment where you need that special ‘oomph’, a sentence that would otherwise be ‘grammatically incorrect’ is interesting and gives special depth to your text.
- You need a beginning, a middle and an end. I generally stick to that principle. But, sometimes, bringing the end before the beginning can create suspense and an interesting introduction to what is to come. It’s just like in the movies, when you see something awful happening and the next scene reads ‘23 hour earlier’. It’s not the ‘right’ way to present events but it’s the enjoyable way, and rightly used as a means to create tension and anticipation.
- Say things your way: don’t use a thesaurus. Why not? I use a thesaurus. I’m not a skilled enough writer that I don’t need one. I also jot down verbs that I love, but I know I will forget the next time I want to use them. Of course, you don’t want to be Friends’ Joey, either. Or, to use any Forgotten Words!
- If it’s noise, omit it. This is a variation on the well-known “Less is More” design rule, and on the “Kill your darlings” advice. My definition of noise is like this: “if it’s not information, it’s noise.” For example, I often have a tough time with descriptions. I want to create the space within which my heroes work and function, but I am anxious about boring the reader with overtly detailed descriptions. Sometimes, when I wonder whether I want to buy a book, I flick through it, just to see whether there is enough dialogue. If I see too many descriptions, I am probably not buying that book. Judging from experience, I try to set the setting through dialogues, so that my book is more active. I just think that some authors have an amazing capacity to describe something and some don’t. I am the latter. So, my golden rule? I don’t write anything that I would skip over.
- Have a plot. There’s so much information on how to write a plot, that in the end we might forget it all boils down to a simple rule: write something that makes readers want to find out more about the story! A quest, a complication, a solution to the problem, something in between that makes readers go ‘oh, will she live?’ or ‘what happens to him?” or ‘oh my God, he dies?’, and you have a plot.
- Write a lot. Read a lot, write a lot, and then re-read and re-write.
- Hire an editor. Nothing else to say, these three little words say it all. If you feel particularly brave or are Steven King, at the very least make sure that enough people have read your manuscript, and hire a proofreader.
- Use “said”. I have mixed feelings about that. I used to use ‘say’ a lot. Then I wondered about the many wonderful little verbs the English language has given us. So, I replaced some ‘said’ with other verbs, more representative of what I was trying to say. Some feel that this is a mistake. It seems that readers are so accustomed to ‘said’ that when reading a dialogue, they pass it without consideration, and focus on the actual dialogue. Putting interesting little verbs will distract them from your story, which, as we have said, is the main point of your book. However, I feel that substituting “said” for another word makes the scene much more alive. Consider this simple example: “This is wrong,” he said. “This is wrong,” she protested. “This is wrong,” he screamed. “This is wrong,” she whispered. The dialogue has not changed, but the feel is completely different. Why should we deny ourselves the power of words, when a verb can easily underline what we are trying to say? Obviously, one should not go overboard with this – but isn’t that the case with all advice? As with everything, moderation is the key…
Anyway, that’s my take on the rules! If you want to find out how that’s working for me, feel free to check out my short stories. Or, use the comments area to let me know what you think! Which rules do you obey, and which ones do you break in your writing?
My editor friend, Dellani Oakes, had these great points to make on the subject:
“I would like to touch on a couple of things. Firstly, the reason your editor dislikes the double spacing is because it takes up too much room. I am the two space person as well, but learned from my editor & publisher that it has to go because of “space” issues in a book. The more empty spots, the more room it takes up. Therefore, I have changed myself over to the one space rule.
Secondly, I agree with you about “said”. I find the constant use of “said” to be boring and intrusive. I like more exciting dialogue tags. “No!” she screamed. “Why not?” he blustered. You can say so much more with a creative tag. It adds to the action, pace and tension of a scene to have characters interject, cajole or expostulate.
Of course, not all my readers may understand those words, but they are terms that I use and understand. I’m not trotting out the thesaurus to come up with something new, they are in my everyday vocabulary. There are times that a thesaurus is helpful, but choose a word that’s not so esoteric that your readers can’t comprehend its subtle nuances.
I decidedly agree that less is more and I adhere to that idea. I also love dialogue and find myself somewhat lacking in descriptions. However, I try to give enough of the environment by the movement of my characters, that I create the space around them, rather than creating the space and dropping them in it.”
I don’t mind writing he yelled or she cried occasionally, but for the most part I like to stick with he said/she said unless I can do without the dialogue tag altogether. I also think there should be a balance between dialogue and prose. Too much dialogue can be boring as well. I prefer to keep my paragraphs short but I don’t think about the number of lines I’m using. I’m done writing it when it says what I want it to say, in the clearest way possible. Great article, Nicholas.
“I’m done writing it when it says what I want it to say, in the clearest way possible” — now, that’s the secret to good writing, right there 🙂
Thank you so much for this article! It’s really helpful; I find I struggle with similar things. And by the way, I had no idea English was your second language.
About description: yes, I sometimes skip over it if it gets lengthy, but when I’m reading a book I love, I take the time to read descriptions just because I want more of the author’s writing.
About description, I do the same. But it has to be someone whose writing I really love!
As for English, I started learning it at the same time as I did Greek, so it’s really my, erm, first-and-a-half language? 😀
If your paragraph has 6 lines or more, stop writing now. It’s long enough. Anything longer is an essay, or excessive for the sake of it. I don’t care how many famous writers you’ve read who do it.
It’s wrong and it needs to be stopped. A paragraph should be five lines. No more!
That way, lies madness.
That’s a good rule. Of course, rules are made to be broken, so… 😉
As a writer of fiction and non-fiction; I have found from former English majors that are now lawyers or teachers that the writer has full control of his/her writing. The power is on what and how you convey it to your selected audience.
There are stories in full slang because the writer wants to capture that audience as well as create a visual of realism in the described environment.
Thanks for that and welcome 🙂
I agree with the majority of what you said, but I would like to touch on a couple of things. Firstly, the reason your editor dislikes the double spacing is because it takes up too much room. I am the two space person as well, but learned from my editor & publisher that it has to go because of “space” issues in a book. The more empty spots, the more room it takes up. Therefore, I have changed myself over to the one space rule.
Secondly, I agree with you about “said”. I find the constant use of “said” to be boring and intrusive. I like more exciting dialogue tags. “No!” she screamed. “Why not?” he blustered. You can say so much more with a creative tag. It adds to the action, pace and tension of a scene to have characters interject, cajole or expostulate. Of course, not all my readers may understand those words, but they are terms that I use and understand. I’m not trotting out the thesaurus to come up with something new, they are in my everyday vocabulary. There are times that a thesaurus is helpful, but choose a word that’s not so esoteric that your readers can’t comprehend its subtle nuances.
I decidedly agree that less is more and I adhere to that idea. I also love dialogue and find myself somewhat lacking in descriptions. However, I try to give enough of the environment by the movement of my characters, that I create the space around them, rather than creating the space and dropping them in it.
Good luck with your writing!
I love your comment so much, that I’m adding it to the post. Thank you for sharing these excellent points! Anytime you feel like writing a guest post on writing, please let me know 🙂
You’re very welcome and thank you! That is much appreciated, Nicholas. Thanks!
Interesting thoughts (and comments) Nicholas – thank you for sharing.
Breaking the rules is not a problem if you know what you’re doing. A sentence like ‘Driving up the road, the dog caught my attention’ simply leads to confusion for the reader, and causes them to take time to sort out what the writer is saying.
Besides which, many of the ‘rules’ are not rules; they’re conventions that have been misapplied then accepted as rules. ‘You must not split an infinitive’ applies to Latin, not to English.
Although I edit non-fiction, the basics of helping your readers enjoy your writing applies even more to fiction. Joyful2bee’s comment ‘Do whatever makes your writing flow, understandable and breathtaking!’ sums it up beautifully.
Happy (and successful) writing.
A dog driving up the road would surely catch anyone’s attention 😀
Thanks and welcome 🙂
Reblogged this on AnaSpoke.com and commented:
An award-winning author, whose first language is not English… there’s hope for me yet! I second his motion of hiring editors, regardless of where you were born.
All I can say is,”Thank goodness for creative license!” You are the captain of your ship! Do whatever makes your writing flow, understandable and breathtaking! lol
Lol – well said! 😀
When I re-edited my edited book, I took out most of the verbs that weren’t “said.” I was afraid that if I used a word like whisper, I would be telling without showing. When are readers smart enough that they don’t need to be told? When I explain the plot, reviewers complain that I shouldn’t have explained. And when I don’t explain, they complain that they’re confused. Most of these reviews are from authors. I can’t seem to win.
Fellow authors are usually the harshest critics. 🙂
You’re right, you can’t win – if by win you mean please everybody. I’ve finally given up on that goal, focusing on pleasing myself. I will listen to people’s opinions, of course. My dear beta readers, in particular, are invaluable, as I have found a brilliant bunch who can pinpoint the problems with my work without making me compromise my voice.
My advice: take people’s advice with a pinch of salt! 🙂
Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I’m pretty adamant about some of the rules and as Fros said I study them, then bend them as necessary.
Since I have read all books in your Unelmoija series, I know first-hand how well you do that. So, you’re getting no arguments from me! 😀
On the subject of tags, before knowing that ‘said’ is supposed to be invisible and therefore is preferable, I used to use anything but. Now, I pepper the dialogue with other verbs as well (as you said, moderation is key) but make sure not to use silly ones that are impossible in real life. IE ‘shrieked’,’gasped’,’giggled’ etc as you cant possibly speak and do these at the same time. Other than that, I study the rules and then like to bend them, LOL.
Your writing is fantastic, so as far as I’m concerned you’re doing it just right! 🙂
As for shrieked etc, I confess to use them on (rare) occasion, simply because I love these words and the feeling they generate!
Mwahahahaargh! Great stuff. I write something I would enjoy reading. Then I give it to an editor to turn it into something that at least a handful of the ‘normals’ would read. Then I shamelessly use my beta readers to proof read it and let it go….
Don’t you then need to proofread one last time? I leave my editor/proofreader for last, as I find I need to go through a major rewrite after the beta-readers are done with it. It’s the only way to avoid the typos creeping back in!
The editor is an eagle eyed copy editor rather than a proof reader. Whereas the beta readers tend to pick up the typos. The last thing I do is get the kindle to read it to me which is where I spot all the missed words and any final punctuation glitches. I also do search and replace for things like ,. or .. etc. It’s not how I expected to do it but with the resources available to me, it’s how it’s panned out. I find this whole aspect of it very hard, anyway because the only thing I’ve really learned about punctuation is that everyone does it differently and is convinced that all other methods are WRONG. If you’re being published by Random House it doesn’t matter but if you’re an independent author publisher it does.
* ooops, sorry that was a message from my cat.
I still stick with “says” and “said.” I took a class taught by Elmore Leonard and he beat the crap out of me for dialog tags which were way too complex. I can’t help but think of him whenever I stray. I really prefer to construct dialog without tags if possible. Requires a lot of thought, but makes for a quick read. Thanks for the other points. The proof reader and editor advice was so accurate. I thought my publisher was doing this duty and was surprised to find something slipped.Very well said . . . er demonstrated.
You are right, no tags does make for speedy reading. The right tag in the right place, however, has the power to make the sentence explode. It’s not an exact science, mind you; and I, for one, confess the need to trim down my tags… 🙂
I agree with most of your points, or rather, with your disagreements on some of them. 🙂
Personally, I use a single space after a full stop, though, especially in HTML (our medium as bloggers) where whitespace is compacted into one space unless you do strange things. WordPress tries to do that (it replaces a double space with a normal space and a non-breaking space), and it leads to some of the lines in your post from being indented a little (for instance, “Sometimes, a sentence…” in point 3 above is indented a bit). Mostly a matter of preference, though, and it’s probably easier to find & replace two spaces with one than it is to replace “. ” with “. ” and then do the same for “! ” and “? “.
I also wouldn’t hire an editor or a proofreader; I understand that this could be useful for some people, but would rather have the required skill-level when it comes to spelling and grammar myself (and take steps to acquire them if I didn’t) than have to rely on someone to edit my work before I present it to a publisher or an agent. Personal choice; wouldn’t impose my choice on anyone. (Look, Ma, no subject!)
Completely agree with moderation being the key in these rules. Don’t follow rules blindly, dare to break or bend them, but… don’t overdo it, they’re there for a reason.
One more I’d add: don’t necessarily impose your personal writing style on every sentence. Allow the voice of the character from whose perspective you are writing to “creep into” your writing, at least to some extent. That way, the reader feels more like that character is telling the story at that moment.
Great post and very good points to keep in mind! 🙂
Thanks for the great comment!
I was fascinated by your explanation of the double space and how it’s interpreted by different platforms – thanks for sharing!
Ideally, you would have the necessary skills to edit and proofread your own manuscript. However, you’d be surprised at how many “blind spots” we have, when it comes to our work. You absolutely need a fresh pair of eyes, if you want your work to be properly polished and professional. If you’re really lucky, that might be a friend or colleague, but I can promise you it’s not enough to do the whole thing “solo.” Then again, like you said, it’s your choice. 🙂
I love your last point. Each character needs to have their own voice, instead of sounding like poor photocopies of the author’s one.
I think we worry too much about rules. I don’t think the reader cares two hoots if there are two spaces after a full stop or one, so long as the wrting is coherent and the story is great. The only people who care about rules are other writers, who can then feel superior as they beat other writers up about using a comma instead of a full stop, or some other such nonsense!
Like! 🙂 (I really should add such a button!)
Might I just say that your English is perfect, and I would never have guessed it was your second language. Also, how much I LOVE Greece! My love for mythology started with Greek mythology when I was a child, and I spent part of my childhood in Cyprus. I was married on Kalymnos, and try to get back there as often as possible. Give me Greek sea and sunshine, bazouki music, dolmades and baklava washed down with an ice cold Mythos and I’m happy!
Thank you – that’s kind of you to say! 🙂
Kalymnos, wow! It is such an untraditional wedding spot (with Santorini being far more popular), unless you’re into climbing, of course. Or diving for sponges, I guess. Plus, a Mythos fan, too – I’m genuinely impressed! 🙂
Hey…I see you have added a ‘like’ button after all! Cool!
Aye, but it’s just not enough to indicate how strongly I liked it. Like, really Like Like! 😀
You’re a couple of hours ahead of us, aren’t you? Have you started on that Mythos already?!!
Oh dear, that’s how rumours get started… 😀
Be sure to give us a ring next time you visit our neck of the woods!
My biggest contention is number six. I agree in principle but there are times you need to slow the pace. Maybe you want to elaborate on the emotion and mood of the character by describing the setting that has him so joyous or despairing.
If converting Hamlet to a novel, would the prelude to ‘The Soliloquise’, the description of the King’s approach to the parapet not be worth half a page on its own?
Arguably, such a scene would not be “noise.” Half a page, though?
The real question is, would readers skip through that half page, or devour it?
Thanks again for your comment! I checked out Dark Angel, and understand it a bit better. For one thing, your descriptions are masterfully detailed – far better, in that respect, than mine. It’s like comparing the style of one of the Old Masters with the broad strokes of an Impressionist.
So, much like Rembrandt, with his attention to detail, your descriptions are wonderfully intricate – far more than mine. Would a reader skim through them, though? I guess it depends on the reader.
Mine are more laconic, as I prefer to sketch out the surroundings in order to focus more on the characters’ voice. Would a reader miss a more complex description? Without a doubt, some have. The most frequent (and treasured) comment I get, however, is, “amazing how you capture the feel of a world with so few words.” On the other hand, I’ve also heard a couple of complaints about the lack of a more detailed description.
So, once again, I guess it boils down to personal preference. 🙂
And thank you!
I must confess, Dark Angel is something of an experiment. Not my usual style or genre. It’s fun to play with though.
(Also, yeah… half a page would be a tad excessive).