All games have rules. Some games take that further and have rules that are as detailed as they are nit-picky and annoying. Then there’s golf, which has so many damned rules, even the professionals don’t know them all — they have to rely on freaking TV viewers to call in and report violations!
See…this is why I play hockey, our rules are simple: if it would be a felony in real life, it gets you two minutes in the box.
Writing, like *ahem* golf, has rules. More rules, in fact, than any one human can truly master….or even care about. Rules about grammar and punctuation, yes, but also rules about word-counts and naming conventions and style, rules about structure and pacing and subject matter, rules about this and that, rules about rules…
My preferred — and flippant — answer is to treat those rules like I do the rules of hockey: do your crime, then do your time*. To put it in terms my current protagonist would use: you do what you have to, then you pay the price.
*I have, I should probably mention, visited the penalty box a time or two in my hockey life…
Neither editors nor agents particularly like that attitude, however, so maybe I should be a bit more deliberate with my answer (and my rule-breaking).
So, here it is: rules matter…until they don’t. Or, put more accurately: you can never break the rules, until you can break them successfully.
Tom Wolfe broke just about every rule of grammar and dialogue in existence. He even invented a few just so he could break them. But he’s freaking Tom Wolfe, for God’s sake. He did more than make that rule-breaking work, he made it his inimitable style. When it comes to the rest of the writer-ly universe, every (good) beta-reader and editor in existence is going to slap you silly for breaking the accepted rules of grammar and style…
…unless you make it work.
Heck, George RR Martin broke all kinds of rules, too, with the Game of Thrones* series. He broke rules about using names that were “too similar,” rules about depicting sex and rape in darkly explicit terms, rules about tone and content and subject matter. And…well…all that rule-breaking kinda worked out for Martin, too. But it worked precisely because that rule-breaking was the very basis for his world, and for the storytelling of the series. Oh, and because he’s pretty damned good at that whole “writing” thing, too.
*I know, I know — it’s technically the “A Song of Ice and Fire” series, but “Game of Thrones” is just so much easier to type!
Robert Jordan didn’t just break the rules about word-count and story pacing with his Wheel of Time series, he had those rules hung, drawn & quartered, shot, stabbed, drowned, burned, and shot into the goddamned sun. Now, Jordan is an interesting case about rule-breaking: he made it work in that every single one of those books* spent time at number one on the bestseller lists, but…well…not to put too fine a point on it…he needed an editor able to say the word “No” in the worst freaking way.
*And the over four million total words!
There are any number of articles and posts out there with all kinds of rules and suggestions. Editors, authors, agents, readers…you can find a piece from any perspective you want. A good compilation of “rules” from successful writers can be found here, if you want a single go-to resource.
One suggestion I have — I’ll not call it a rule, thank you very much — is to spend some time researching those voices, and rules, that apply to your current story’s genre. Whether you choose to break them or not, you probably should know what those rules are.
Just one simple example as to why I mention doing that research based on genre: a new fiction writer with a first book is “expected” — which translates to “demanded” in agent- and editor-speak — to come in between 90,000 and 100,000 words. More than that and you’re in trouble. In sci-fi & fantasy, however, that expectation becomes 105,000-125,000 words, and it is when you come in below that lower expectation that the trouble really starts.
All that being said, however, there are some general writing-specific rules I have gleaned over time and practice that apply* across the board.
*Err…do I really need to add the caveat that these rules are just my opinion, and that your mileage may — and probably will — vary?
1) Read your stuff out loud — there simply is no better way to find those run-on sentences and awkward constructions and instances of stilted language, bad grammar/tense, and jacked-up tone/POV. The key corollary to keep in mind is that if you can’t read a sentence in a single breath, it’s broken. I find it best to do this process when I am revising for the second draft…which can lead to all kinds of, umm, interesting interactions in the taproom.
2) Words are meant to be cut — no, really, go through and kill all kinds of ‘em. 90% of the time, the sentence is — like biscuits — better with shortening. Shorter is (most often) more powerful. You almost never need, for instance, the word “that”…or adverbs…or most adjectives… And, yes, I do fully understand just how much of a hypocrite I am with this rule! Hey, I’ve mentioned more than once just how little editing I do on these posts…
3) Try alternatives — if a scene feels awkward or forced, try something different. A different tone, a different tense or structure, a different something. My favorite trick here is to write the damned thing from a totally different POV. Even if I never use that alternative, it makes me think about the scene in a completely different way, and (most of the time) gets me over that hump of “awkwardness.”
4) Don’t be afraid of your characters — let them speak to you, let them call their own shots from time to time. Far too many writers out there are slaves to their plot. X has to happen, in their world, because, well, it’s part of the oh-so-holy-plot…even if X is completely wrong for the character(s) in question. In the end, you’ll find that letting your characters make their own choices makes them deeper and more real. Of course, it also means that the lure of letting them call the shots just gets worse and worse as you get the deeper into your story…but that’s a good problem to have, not a defect.
5) Let go your conscious self — yes, I’m quoting Obi Wan Kenobi, dammit. He’s freaking Obi Wan, and I can quote him if I want to! Stop worrying about the details, stop worrying about what others will think, stop worrying about the real world, and let yourself go. Immerse yourself in what you’re writing. You had a vision and an idea when you came up with your story, and you have to let that idea (and the tone/feeling of it) run through everything you do. You’re a writer, dammit, so be a writer, not just someone trying to write. If you don’t believe in yourself and your idea enough to truly let yourself go, why the hell are you writing it?