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Take it away Jenny!
Rules Are Meant for Breaking
In the, admittedly rather long, interval between my study of English and my emergence as a published writer things have changed. There seem to be a lot of rules that never existed in my young day. Here are some examples:
1. All books written in English must be put into US English.
I find this idea extraordinary. I am English and I write in my native tongue, which we know is perfectly comprehensible to Americans. After all, one of the most popular writers in the States is Jane Austen and she sure as hell did not write in US English.
Clearly I will do a better job if I am allowed to write in my own language. I am fluent in UK English but not confident in US English. I really don't think I should have to pretend to be American in order to sell my books. And, quite frankly, I think it is insulting to my American readers to assume that they are too stupid to understand UK English.
Who invented this rule? Obviously someone who had a very low opinion of the intelligence of American readers.
2. Stories should be limited to one point of view.
Why? The greatest writers in the world write from multiple points of view. I am presently reading a book by John Grisham. In the first chapter there are three characters and the story is told from all three points of view. The second chapter introduces a further three characters and the narrator tells it from the point of view of one of the characters from the previous chapter, plus all three of the new ones, including a dog. I assure you, there is absolutely no problem with the flow of the narrative and I defy anyone to tell me that John Grisham doesn't know how to write.
So what is the point of trying to hamstring authors in this way? Surely if you do want to write from one point of view, you would write in the first person. The whole point of writing in the third person, surely, is so that the narrator, godlike, can see the story from any point of view.
3. All unnecessary words should be stripped out of the narrative
Editors seem to be particularly keen to get rid of adverbs. I have been told on many occasions not to use words ending in 'ly'. Does this suggest to you that the editor in question is not familiar with the grammatical term 'adverb'? Or perhaps thinks I don't know? I was once asked to strike out 'lovely' which, as you know, is not an adverb, but an adjective.
My argument again is that great writers do not feel the need to do this. I would also like to point out that if we followed this advice to the letter, we would not have a story, but a list.
4. We should only use the simple past or preterite
Consider these two sentences: After John had finished mowing the lawn, he settled down to read a book. He was still reading when his brother came home.
If we reduce them to the preterite only, this is what we end up with. John finished mowing the lawn, he settled down to read a book. He still read when his brother came home.
The first sentence is barely acceptable. The second is gibberish.
I was told it was essential to stick to this verb form because the modern reader wants action in the narrative and the other tenses are passive. They're not, actually. Passive is a proper grammatical term. It is not a tense. It is a voice. All the verb forms used above are in the active voice.
The rules described above have resulted in some truly awful writing as authors struggle to stay within the restrictions.
Stories set in England sound ridiculous if American terms are introduced. It would not be possible in England to find a sign saying 'Realtor'. It will say 'Estate Agent'. English trains are not driven by engineers. They are driven by train drivers. In England engineers design or repair trains, they don't drive them. Clearly a native English person might very easily misunderstand such a reference, since it has a different meaning in UK English. It is my belief, however, that most Americans would have the intelligence to work out that a train driver is a person who drives a train.
The ridiculous point of view rule results in the character in question having to be telepathic in order for the feelings and motives of the other characters to be understood. You get sentences like 'Ed could see that Sam was thinking about his marriage and regretting the things he had said to his wife that morning.
Another way is for the characters to explain all their thoughts out loud, as in. “My daughter, Betty, who is twelve years old and goes to school in Lewiston, hopes to go on to be a doctor.” This is particularly unacceptable when the other person is a close friend of the protagonist and would, of course, already know all that. Yet another is for the character to actually talk to himself throughout. Trust me, this sort of thing gets very wearing for the reader.
As for this stripping the language of adverbs and tenses, the idea horrifies me. The English language has a rich vocabulary and variety of verb forms. Stephen King was once told that he was now so popular that he could sell his laundry list. If he adhered to these rules he might as well.
For a full, and highly entertaining, discussion of this I can do no better than to refer you to the blog site of Dr John Yeoman http://www.writers-village.org/writing-award-blog/the-awful-legacy-of-mummy-porn
Did you come back? Stop laughing and pay attention. Great writers did not become great by abusing their language. Throw the rule book away and write something wonderful´.
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