Obey the Rules or Break them Well

Rules for the writer abound in every craft source. Writers groups, blogs, journals, and books berate newbies with axioms and strictures. Don’t use passive voice. Avoid “as”, “was”, and any world ending in “ly”. Watch out for dangling modifiers and chunky sentence construction.

After spending countless hours trying to vanquish these demons in my own writing (though I do give myself a little leeway in the this blog), I cringe whenever I see them in other’s. 

Though I hate to get caught in the crossfire of public sentiment, Fifty Shades of Grey serves this point well. I first heard about it in a New York Times article when the novel was still largely obscure. It piqued my interest and I happily bought the e-book when Vintage bought the rights and released it with full force on the US market.

Definitely a waste of money.  I slogged through fifty pages then had to put it down.  At the risk of sounding haughty, it gave new meaning to the word amateurish.

In fairness, E. L. James is a debut author and wrote the piece as fan fiction. It was never meant to be highbrow literature.  And it is a national bestseller so she must have done something right—I just don’t have the time and patience to figure it out.

But now I’m reading Wolf Hall, an acclaimed novel of historical fiction set in King Henry VIII’s court. In 2009, it won the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award.  One judge praised “the boldness of its narrative.”

Bold is one way to put it. I find the narrative cumbersome and opaque. Hilary Mantel flouts all the rules. She lays down huge tracks of description all at once. She uses the pronoun “he” without clear indication of its antecedent. Her point of view is muddled.

Of course, Mantel also employs vivid word choice, subtle flecks of irony, and witty dialogue. She demands a lot of her reader and rewards them with intelligent, albeit, nonstandard writing. The difference between Mantel and James is that Mantel’s “mistakes” are intentional. She comes off brazen; James comes off inept.

In the case of Wolf Hall, I claim full responsibility for my disgruntled reaction to its prose. I’ve taken the rules of writing and made them sacrosanct. I’ve become so rigid I can no longer appreciate the beauty and, yes, the boldness of originality. 

I’m a tenderfoot author, still learning the craft. Studying the pillars of good writing and employing them in my work does make it better. Nuisance and spice come with time, practice, and a solid foundation from which to springboard.  And it begins with learning to appreciate the deft way masters bend the rules.

 

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4 thoughts on “Obey the Rules or Break them Well

  1. I loved Wolf Hall (as well as the sequel, Bring Up The Bodies). I think one reason I had no problem with the prose style is I listened to the audio version. It seemed to downplay the way she broke the rules.

    • I think I would really enjoy the audio version of Wolf Hall too. It would allow me to disengage the critical part of my brain and just enjoy the lushness of Mantel’s words. The book is engaging any way you experience it. Despite my hang-ups, I can’t put it down.

  2. Amanda, as you well know, I’m something of a rebel in my writing…a rule breaker to be sure…my editor and I clash all the time…she takes out the “has’s” and “was’s” and I put em back… we eventually reach some form of compromise with me as author having final say. Where I come from we used to say, “first rule is…there ain’t no rules” and of course, the axiom NEVER begin a book by saying “It was a dark ans stormy night”…unless…your book happenes to begin on a dark and stormy night…wink

    Donald Riggio-Author Seven-Inch Vinyl

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