Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Day Four: Rules are Meant for Breaking by Jenny Twist

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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

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´.

 Jenny Twist

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Mila Ramos said...

I completely agree with point of view you stated. Sometimes putting books in different POV's actually helps the story. Sometimes I have noticed that stories cut or ostracized for not being in the traditional viewpoint.

Jenny Twist said...

I was hoping this would prove controversial, Mila. I've got so fed up with fighting with editors about this sort of thing. I think we should stand up for our right to write the way we want to.
So glad you agree

Paula Martin said...

Another excellent post, Jenny! The 'rule' about tenses is ridiculous IMO! The POV 'rule' has changed now, and editors will accept more than one POV, but at the same time, frown at 'head-hopping' from one character to another in the same scene.
The conversion of British English to American English is one of my big beefs. If I'm writing about British people living in Britain, then I want them to use British words and phrases. We Brits accept American words in American books, and it should work the other way round too! I'm definitely not going to have my British characters talking about faucets, sidewalks, math, freeway (etc etc), and don't even get me started on spelling! Rant over!

Tara Fox Hall said...

I think you got your wish, Mrs. Twist :) I want to know also if there is anything bloody on Stephen King's laundry list....

Time to prove I'm not a robot again. Just why can't robots also read road signs, esp, in this age of GPS?

Suzie Tullett said...

I'm probably about to demonstrate how I break all the rule now, but here goes:

I had three points of view in my first novel, but saying that, I'd actually been encouraged by someone in the know to write it that way.

I sort of get the adverb thing because it's all about keeping our writing active. Although never in my life have I heard the rule about writing in American English - which is a good job considering I wouldn't have a clue where to start.

And again, I've never heard of preterite either. I'd go with your first example every time.

I don't know what this says about me as an author but I just write the way I write...

And thankfully, my readers seem to enjoy it.

A very lively post, Jenny x

Jane Richardson said...

You've raised some great points, Jenny! I think in order to break rules, you have to understand the rules first, and I haven't always been convinced some rule-breaking authors (or editors!) always did that. ;-) I'm a UK writer and don't like being asked to write in US English or swap a UK character's POV or perspective on things into US-speak. That's just plain silly, in my vho. I adore stories written in multiple point of view, but as long as they're clearly defined - in different chapters or with a clean break between them. I don't like head-hopping one bit, although I know it doesn't bother some people, but I just can't stay 'in' the story when I'm being asked to jump all over the place. That's just my preference. Oh, and do i EVER hear you about the simple past!! I once had a fight about 'she only pretended to be serious' v 'she was only pretending to be serious.' As a far better writer than I am once said, 'John was dying' is not the same as 'John died,' lol.
As for adverbs, I don't think they shouldn't be used, but I'd rather see them in moderation and not used in a lazy way. A writer doesn't have to say 'she ran quickly' when there are a gazillion other words that would do the job so very much better.
Lots of stuff to think about - great post, Jenny!

Tabitha Yohe said...

Enjoyed this post a lot. I have had several teachers get onto me about my creative writing assignments. In my head I always wondered why they put "creative" if they don't want your voice. I have not heard about the UK v US way of writing. If I'm going to read a UK author and the story is in the UK why can't I have the UK language? That rule needs to be exiled. Again great post.

Rose!~ said...

The differences between UK English and American English is semantics. I really don't care if someone says "She went to Bath on vacation." OR "She went on holiday to Bath." Personally, I find the use of UK English in romances, especially historicals or those set within another English speaking country much more effective. WHY many American editors insist on "writing by the rules" is beyond me. Using proper grammer is important, but spelling and proper usage is relevant, is it not? In many cases it is a case of being very British, Canadian, Australian, etc. versus American English. To me, the origin of the English is unimportant as long as the story is well written and uses words properly as to meaning. I hate seeing lathe when lave is a totally different word, same goes with taunt and taut. That bothers me more than honor versus honour.

Jenny Twist said...

Hi Paula. Great rant! Loved every word. What's IMO?

Jenny Twist said...

Tara. I would rather not go down the laundry list path! It is a complete mystery why robots aren't supposed to be able to read. Anyway, given the number of times I get it wrong I'm beginning to think I AM one.

Jenny Twist said...

Hi Suzie. You only really notice these things when somebody tells you you're doing it wrong. YOU do it right. (And, presumably, have an editor with the intelligence to know that)

Jenny Twist said...

Hi Jane. Your answer gives considerable depth to the argument. I particularly like your 'John was dying...John died' comparison and intend to steal it at the earliest opportunity!
I must say, I'm delighted with the positive response to this. I thought I might be stirring up a can of worms!

Jenny Twist said...

Hello Tabitha. How nice to meet you. I love your incisive remark about creative writing. Another one I shall have to steal, I'm afraid

Jenny Twist said...

Hello Rose. You're quite right. Most of this stuff is probably much less distressing for the reader than the author. You have to see every other word of your precious manuscript crossed out before you really begin to get annoyed. Homonyms are the very devil. It may not even be the author's fault. Some may be accidental typos the spellchecker can't pick up. But, quite frankly, if the case is that the author really doesn't know, you have to ask yourself whether they should be writing in the first place.


Jessica Sawa said...

I so agree on the point of views! I think a book would just DRAG on and on if you only saw one point of view. When reading twilight I was ecstatic to find out that there was a few chapters of Edwards point of view I thought it was REALLy cool to see why he was making faces and what was really going on during the chemistry class.. AWESOME POST!!

Jenny Twist said...

Thank you, Jessica. Another rebel! xxx

Shadow said...

Great point! And i love the heading. Rules are definitely ment to be broken. Id hate it if i had to read the same type of book. Theres no surprise. Everything is like the last book. I love books! Each one is unique, different, and fantastic!! I love when books switch between characters. I dont want just ones point of view. I want to know whats going on in the others head. Why they do, feel, act the way they do. Thanks for sharing! Loved this post!

Jenny Twist said...

Hi Shadow. You are a breath of fresh air! So glad you agree