Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Wordcraft -- The write rules and how to break them

At the instigation of blogger Kristen Lamb, I've expanded my blogging topics.  Monday's blog, Totally Texas, features people, places and events around the state.  Wednesday's Wordcraft deals with the art and science of the writing life.  Friday's Adventure Classics features iconic writing with themes of action and wonder. 


In her workshop at the DFW Writers Conference, agent Amy Boggs told her audience that she was going to show them how to break writing rules (don’t we all wish!).  But before we could know how to break rules, we had to know what they were.  So here’s today’s quiz on writing rules and who made them.  Answers will come later in this post, but give yourself extra points if you don’t have to look them up.

a)What famous science fiction writer stated, “multiple exclamation points are the mark of a diseased mind”?  (Don’t just sit there!  Answer!!  Time’s running out!!!)

b)Which one beseeched us to “use the time of a total stranger in such a way they won’t feel it’s wasted”?  (Hint – it’s the same one who advised, “write to please just one person; if you open the window and try to make love to the world, you’ll get pneumonia.”)

c)Which crime fiction writer noted “if it sounds like writing, I rewrite it”?

d)And, for 10 extra bonus points, what literary agent’s list of rules ends with “don’t start a book in bed”?

All of that adds up to, well, I have no idea how much, except the right to feel superior.  But they were fun.  I promise not to forget them, even if I try.  So how do we break the rules and leave readers (not to mention agents and editors) begging for more?  Almost always, in Amy’s opinion, by developing a character’s emotional ties.  (Personally, I’d draw the line at multiple exclamation points.  No amount of emotional tie can help there.  I’ve been known to drive straight to the nearest used bookstore to dump novels that exceeded the legal limit on exclamation points – not to mention ellipses.  Don’t even get me started.)

Other ways to break the rules and get away with it?  Subtlety helps.  So does a great voice.  Although I’ve found that subtlety and voice are among those things that nobody can describe but everybody claims to know when they see them.  Stick with emotional connections.  Who loves the character?  Who does the character love?  To my personal amazement, I’ve had editors tell me a particular character was strong even on the opening pages when she had done almost nothing.  Instead, another character described how much he loved her.  But romantic love isn’t the only strong connection.  Amy illustrated the strength of connections between brothers and sisters by quoting the opening of The Hunger Games, which begins with the protagonist waking up in her bed.  And that’s from a book Amy said she’d loved to have agented.

About the answers to those quiz questions?  a)Terry Pratchett, b)Kurt Vonnegut (who also said Flannery O’Connor broke all his rules except the one about wasting the time of strangers), c)Elmore Leonard.  Question d)is Amy’s.  But even that, of course, can be broken.

The rest of Amy’s rules? 1)Show, don’t tell (who could leave that off?).  2)Don’t address the reader directly (for theater buffs -- don’t break the fourth wall).  3)Back story and detailed descriptions bog a story down, especially at the beginning.  4)Start with action.  5)Don’t philosophize (includes no lecturing). 6)Don’t start in bed means don’t have your character in bed – dreaming or waking up.  No rules against writing while we as authors are in bed.

Find out more about Amy at  And tell us your favorite writing rules.  Or the ones you hate the most, even if – especially if – they’re ones you had to discover on your own.

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