Tuesday, January 29, 2013

My (Secret) Rules

By Hilary Davidson

This will come as a surprise to exactly no one, but I’m not fond of rules. To me, rules are challenges. Did you just tell me I can’t do something? Now watch me do it, or die trying. When I see lists of rules about writing, my mind always gravitates to the exceptions. Breaking the rules can be a joy.

But I have a secret: I actually have some rules about writing! Well, three, anyway. Here they are:

1. Know what words mean. This sounds so simple, until you read, “His head literally exploded.” When I see that, I expect an EXPLOSION. I do not want to discover that the guy’s head is still on his shoulders, and that I was supposed to read “literally exploded” as “he was mad.” (Note: It’s fine to misuse words when writing dialogue; in that case, you’re just introducing me to a character who doesn’t know what those words mean.) It's not uncommon to find a writer using illusion when they mean allusion, or effect when they mean affect. Words have power. Don't misuse it.

2. You need a solid grip on grammar and punctuation before you can break traditional rules. Go ahead, split those infinitives. Write Woodrell-esque sentences that run on and on, twisting around a reader’s brain. Follow in James Joyce’s footsteps. But a writer who thinks hat becomes plural when written as hat’s is not a rule-breaker. That's just a writer who doesn’t know how apostrophes work. Even if you hate apostrophes as much as George Bernard Shaw did, you need to understand their intended use. (Note: this rule is only about published work. I’m well aware that AutoCorrect can change desk to duckbucket’s and its to it's. Damn you, AutoCorrect!)

3. Don’t start slow and expect your story to grab me. I have the attention span of a gnat. If a writer hasn't caught my interest with their opening paragraphs, I’m pressing the “eject” button. This is especially true for books that begin with a lot of backstory. If I haven't started caring about a character, shoving his or her backstory at me is going to make me run away (no, not literally). The slow reveal is always intriguing.


isobel warren said...

Three good rules to write by. I'd also be inclined to add . . . edit, edit, edit to get to the core of the idea, the story or the character. Nothing is ever 'finished' on the first draft.

Hilary Davidson said...

We think alike, Isobel! Rule #4 should be edit, edit, edit. I'm a big believer in working through multiple drafts.