How to Balance Writing Rules with Common Sense

Learning creative writing is a daunting endeavor. There’s this huge gray abyss filled with what-to-dos and what-not-to-dos that new and experienced writers find themselves diving into with no clue how to climb back out.

I tumbled in a few years ago. You couldn’t keep the writing books out of my hands. Anything and everything to do with plots, characters, POV, writing mechanics, grammar (though admittedly, I resisted the proper use of commas and continue to splice to my little heart’s content), tension, descriptions – if it picked the craft apart, I purchased it.

Then came the deep murk of application. Never use the passive verb “was” (She was going up the hill).  Never use the weak, telling adverbs (John angrily told Jane off).  Never tag “said” with an weak, telling adverb (she said cheekily?). Never tell, always show (John was sad = John sobbed in the corner). And those were the tip of the iceberg called Writing Mechanics.

But then there’s the subtle elements of fiction. Style sophistication and little known “gears” that turn your plot into a clockwork of perfection: Tension, Micro-tension, POV, Psychic Distance, Flashback scenes, Foreshadowing, Dialogue, Dialogue beats, Motivation Reaction Units, Active Voice, Scenes and Sequels, and the list goes on.

Once you fall into THAT murk, there’s almost no coming back. Your head is filled with all these tools – too many to keep straight ( <- AH, Split infinitive NO NO!) and you become overwhelmed, stressed out, confused to what you should use and what you shouldn’t. Should you add this flashback here? Or should you somehow incorporate this into the narrative? Should you go present tense or past tense? Would first person POV be the best, or third? Should you dare add more than one POV, and then who should be your POVC? What sort of voice should they have?

By the time you decide this, you’re so exhausted you don’t write anything. But that’s not the worst of it. No, no no. See, now you’re so full of knowledge your brain is ready to implode. You MUST share it or go insane.

So I went on a rampage, telling everyone and anyone about the lessons I learned, sometimes forcing it down their throats. I tried to adhere to every guideline in my examples, showing people how much more “wonderful” their words could be rewritten my way. Understandably, not everyone agreed with my paradigm of prose. Some clashes happened. Diatribes and debates over showing vs. Telling, or questions from the ignorant on why adverbs are “bad”.

Those were dark times, and I got lost in the rules, applications, and techniques of writing. But then, mysteriously and magically, I mellowed.  Honestly, I can’t say how or why, but I began using the no-nos in my writing again. Those adverbs, those to-be verbs, those splices, and fragments. No more wasting hours on an alternative for “was”. I just used the damn word and was done with it.

The great thing about knowledge is that once you know the tools, you can pick and choose what ones work for you. The great story-telling clock is not all that complicated once you break it down and learn how to build it from scratch. Once you picture the finished clock, building it is much easier. You start inherently recognizing what gear will make your clock tick, and what gear will break it. Sure that gear may be a little ugly, or weird on its own, but in the end, if it makes the clock beautiful, then use it. Don’t worry if someone thinks that “gear” is wrong.

Do what is best for your clock.

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2 Responses to How to Balance Writing Rules with Common Sense

  1. blandcorporatio says:

    Ossom. My first plan for this Sunday’s Cracking the WiP was something about “Structure and you- who’s the master” but we had different ideas in the end 🙂 so I’m glad someone else took the baton.

    For what it’s worth, I was going to cite you as a *gasp* bad influence. Not something you told me, rather something I noticed about your style. The lack of names for the POV character. Hey that’s kinda cool, I thought, why not try to juggle that while writing? Yes, it’s a challenge, but I don’t mind challenges, so I decided I’d write “Rendezvous with NECA” without almost ever naming my protag.

    … suffice to say, I need more practice to get the hang of this 😉 The idea seems to be, you do name your characters so the reader has a handle early on, then you don’t anymore, as long as you’re in their POV. For RwN, my MC got named after quite some exposition, in passing. I mention her name because it’s on a label on a sample of blood. Blink and you miss it. Got everybody confused. This is an example of me following a rule (or, in this case, a style guideline) off a cliff.

    • maiafay says:

      Ah, the name game. Yes, it seems a little extreme to many writers (as that one thread where everyone argued the concept was crazy and “never would work”.) Still have yet to complete that Psychic distance exercise, but it’s coming up in my PAD pretty quick so I’ll have it there, posted on the LI thread, and here for reference.

      It’s not something I would force on someone, though the closer your POV distance, the more weird it seems to say their name. Saying their name nudges the camera back. But when juggling several characters of the same gender, it does get challenging having them all in a scene and not saying your POVC’s name. It’s not impossible though.

      I find the best way of getting “away” with this is saying their name asap, then he/she for the rest of the chapter. Then every chapter they’re in, begin with their name to cue your reader, and repeat the process. For Gates, I got the easy way out with Elizabeth and David being male/female, so readers know without names who is who, especially when the two are engaged in dialogue.

      It was almost like cheating, lol.

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