It’s Weiland Week at A. Victoria Mixon, Editor, with K.M. Weiland, owner of Wordplay, one of the Top 10 Blogs for Writers. She is the author of historical and speculative fiction, including her latest, Behold the Dawn, and she recently released her instructional CD, Conquering Writer’s Block and Summoning Inspiration.
I like to call her Katie.
Writers and pirates have more in common than you might think. Aside from the truth that we all enjoy roaring out a hearty, “ahoy, matey,” now and then, the biggest commonality is the fact that neither of us are sworn to obey the rules. Captain Barbossa’s words in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl apply just as much to writers as to his grubby chums: “The code is more what you’d call ‘guidelines’ than actual rules.” Following are five rules worth the trouble of donning your pirate patch:
1. Never edit as you go.
Why this is a rule: Too many authors have shipwrecked themselves upon the shores of discouragement and procrastination by endlessly editing what they’ve already written, instead of spreading their sails and writing on.
Why you should break it: Editing as you go produces a tighter first draft and allows you to keep your bearings in your story and mend plot holes as you go. Some authors (myself included) get more than a little crazy if they know there’s a problem with that previous scene and they can’t go back to fix it. If you can stave off the pitfalls of perfectionism and procrastination, editing as you go may be a more productive current for you to follow.
2. Never use modifiers.
Why this is a rule: Instead of allowing powerful nouns and verbs to carry the weight of their sentences, inexperienced authors often pile on the adjectives and adverbs—resulting in waterlogged descriptions.
Why you should break it: Quite simply, sometimes modifiers are the best choice for the sentence. Used judiciously, they can offer nuances otherwise unavailable. When in doubt, use this handy litmus test: If you remove the adjective or adverb, does the meaning and flavor of the sentence change for the worse?
Why this is a rule: If a writer doesn’t know what they’re talking about, they can’t be expected to portray their subject matter accurately or convincingly to the reader.
Why you should break it: Many authors take this rule at face value and assume they’re only supposed to write about what they’ve personally experienced. However, when they write honestly about the human condition, even if that condition takes place in outer space, they are writing what they know. When they then fill in the gaps with research, they’re also writing what they know.
Really, this isn’t a rule that needs breaking so much as redefining.
4. Never use the passive voice.
Why this is a rule: Passive verbs get the point across, but they lack energy and flavor. How much more strength is in the active sentence,“Blake’s bat hit the ball,” than the passive, “The ball was hit by Blake’s bat”?
Why you should break it: Just because active verbs are preferable in most instances doesn’t mean passive verbs should be neglected altogether. Sometimes the construction of a sentence demands a passive verb, in order to place emphasis on the object acted upon (the ball in the sentence above) rather than the person doing the acting. Sometimes passive construction is necessary to vary the intensity of a predominantly active paragraph. And sometimes passive verbs are preferable simply because of the inherent understatement they offer.
5. Never use any verb another than “said” in a dialogue tag.
Why this is a rule: “Said” is the preferred dialogue tag because it does its job efficiently and invisibly, allowing the dialogue to carry the dramatic weight. More energetic tags, such as “chattered,” “whined,” or “cooed,” generally offer information that should be apparent from the dialogue itself.
Why you should break it: Very occasionally, a more descriptive verb is necessary to convey an important nuance, such as tone of voice (“whispered” or “shouted”) or to add personality to the text. Used wisely, an infrequent deviation from this rule can strengthen the impact of your dialogue rather than weakening it.
Art of any kind by its very nature demands the freedom to experiment and explore, while rules tend to box the author into an absolutism that stifles creativity. Writing guidelines exist for good reason. Almost without exception they provide useful examples of techniques proven to work. But don’t chain your muse to the tyranny of the rules. Learning when, why, and how to break the rules is just as important as learning to observe them.
Plus, as any pirate can tell you, breaking the rules is way more fun. Arrgh!
K.M. Weiland writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in the sandhills of western Nebraska. She enjoys mentoring other authors through her writing tips, editing services, workshops and her recently-released instructional CD, Conquering Writer’s Block and Summoning Inspiration. She can be reached through her blog, Wordplay, and Twitter.