The “Rules”

The “Rules”

“The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it’s definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it ­honestly, and tell it as best you can. I’m not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.”

~Neil Gaiman

I plan out most of my posts a month ahead of time; this gives me plenty of time to ruminate on what I want to say while also making sure I have some kind of structure for this site between my work assignments. This post, however, was not on the schedule. Instead, it’s a spur-of-the-moment decision prompted by an encounter with a complete asshat who felt the need to spout words I really despise:

“These are the rules for writing/publishing.”

Let me make things very clear for everyone – especially if you’re just starting out in the writing world and trying to get your feet under you:

THERE ARE NO RULES!

When I first started out, I felt victim to plenty of similarly-minded idiots: people who felt the need to rattle off lists and lists of rules I needed to obey if I was ever going to be successful. And I believed them, chasing my tail in circles until I was cross-eyed, exhausted, confused, and getting absolutely nowhere. Why? Because it was absolute crap. In fact, it took talking to people in the industry for me to learn it was crap, and then I felt embarrassed, humiliated…and finally, really angry.

Some of my favorites? You have to use “said” for every dialogue tag. Utter bilk. Are you supposed to bust out the thesaurus and use a different tag for every line of dialogue? No, that’s asinine. However, you can use a sprinkling of other tags without a problem, or you can omit tags altogether and let the dialogue stand on its own.

You can’t kill off a main character. Now, you better have a good reason for doing so, but why can’t you? If it drives the plot forward and contributes to the character development of other characters, execute the bastard! Just be prepared to have readers get mad at you.

You can’t use adverbs. Ugh, this debate kills me – mostly because I’m guilty of overusing them and have to edit mercilessly. There are often better word choices available, but saying that adverbs should be avoided 100% is crap. The adverb was created for a reason, and it does have a purpose. If you’re reading your work (aloud is best), you’ll catch the ones that don’t belong and change them. I refuse to follow the adage that they should be omitted en masse.

Write what you know. I don’t know what moron came up with this one, but they deserve a flogging. Research exists – has always existed – and it’s one of the most valuable tools available to a writer. If you have an interest in something, then write about it! Immerse yourself in it, drown in everything you can lay your hands on! If you only ever write about what you know, you are going to become stale, boring, and people are going to complain that everything you hand them sounds the same.

You’re not [insert author name here]. Follow the rules. I really hope you’re not so-and-so; you should be trying to be YOU. No one else can write like you. No one else has your voice, your tone, your view on a story. Why would you want to be that other person? Don’t you want YOUR books on the shelf? YOUR stories told? If all you want is to be someone else, go write fan fiction (note: I am NOT bashing fan fiction).

The ONLY rule that matters is to write well. Yes, you need to spellcheck and use proper grammar (sad but true), but otherwise, forget the rules. Tell a great story your way – it’ll be a way no one else has done before, and THAT’S what matters.

Want to write something completely devoid of dialogue? Go for it! If you can pull it off, someone’s going to love it.

Want to rack up a higher body count than George R.R. Martin? (First, good luck) So long as those bodies are justified (slaughter for the sake of slaughter is not a good reason), then write it.

Tell the story that is burning to get out of your brain. Write what inspires you. Make it the best possible story, whatever that looks like.

The next time someone spouts rules at you, go look at the books on your shelves. I guarantee that you will find examples that break those same rules.

I leave you with the remainder of Neil Gaiman’s rules for writing (the quote at the top is Rule #8) – they’re the best ones I’ve ever come across:

  1. Write
  2. Put one word after another. Find the right word, put it down.
  3. Finish what you’re writing. Whatever you have to do to finish it, finish it.
  4. Put it aside. Read it pretending you’ve never read it before. Show it to friends whose opinion you respect and who like the kind of thing that this is.
  5. Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.
  6. Fix it. Remember that, sooner or later, before it ever reaches perfection, you will have to let it go and move on and start to write the next thing. Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving.
  7. Laugh at your own jokes.
The Oxford Debate

The Oxford Debate

Comma wall art

Is there anything more hotly debated in the grammar world than the Oxford – or serial – comma? Possibly, but that tiny little punctuation mark definitely ranks in the top five. Personally, I don’t think there should be any debate – USE THE STUPID COMMA! – but since a posting should be longer than a few sentences, I’m going to explain WHY the Oxford comma exists and has its place in proper grammar.

So what is the Oxford comma? By definition, it’s the comma used after the final item in a list of three or more things. Simple enough, right? The purpose it serves is to clarify the items in that list as separate entities. For example, let’s look at the following sentence:

I’m going to make apple, blueberry and kiwi pies.

Instead of making three individual pies, the omission of the Oxford comma translates to making two pies – one of which sounds particularly disgusting, if you ask me. There’s no clarification of the three pies because the comma was left out. Let’s try another:

My personal heroes are my parents, Deadpool and Harley Quinn.

Now, while you might be under some delusion as to your parentage (I’m not trying to judge), odds are your parents were not fictional characters. See what happens without that Oxford comma? You can start to look a little questionable in the sanity department (not a bad thing, but if you write that to an editor, they might wonder). Now, let’s look at a properly written sentence:

I dedicate this book to my sister, Chonky-Butt, and Crazy Town.

Written properly, people may wonder what in the world you’re saying or who you know, but at least you’re not going to offend your sister (can you imagine the hit-man she’s going to contract for you if she reads that without the Oxford comma?!). One tiny little curlicue on the page makes the difference between a snort and you’re life being on the line. One final example of proper grammar:

We entered the maze with our friends, zombies, and victims.

Again, it’s all up to you on whether or not you want to insult your compatriots or not. I guess it might depend on how close those friends are? To be accurate, though, that Oxford comma should be in there.

For whatever reason, Americans in particular have this abhorrence with the serial comma, and they keep trying to sacrifice it to the Grammar Gods. It seems to be related to age, too, with the younger generations trying to execute it (in the killing sense, not in the sense of using it) more frequently than those who underwent grammar lessons “back in the day.”

Strictly speaking, is it wrong to omit the Oxford comma?

….no.

Am I ever going to omit using it? Not a chance. I’m a firm believer that it exists and should be utilized for purposes of clarity and ease of reading. Plus, I’m not a psycho, and there are some truly great psychotic sentences generated out there when the serial comma is omitted – just run a Google search for examples.

My best advice is to read your sentence through aloud and ask yourself whether there is any doubt as to how the content could be interpreted. The last thing you want to do is cause someone – say, an editor – to laugh at you when you were trying to be serious.