And sadly, it’s not just ESL. I overheard a woman telling her daughter she was looking for “a pair of shoeses.” Ouch. Every time a native English speaker misuses the language, a kitteh pees in someone’s shoes.
“Rules, rules, rules! Why should I care so much about POV switches and using too many adjectives and adverbs? The average reader will never notice! You’re simply too picky.”
That was an author’s reply to a critique I’d included with a rejection. She’s right – I am indeed picky. And she’s also half-right about the fact that readers may not notice. But here is why she’s mostly wrong.
Who Is Gonna Read Your Book?
The problem with this author’s comment is her lack of vision. She assumes her readers are all pleasure readers and, therefore, don’t care about syntax and structure. Hmm. You know what they say about “ass-u-me,” right?
In truth, readers’ educational background and knowledge of the English language vary a great deal. Does this mean we write to the lowest common denominator, or do we write to a higher standard? It may be that many won’t care about the overuse of adverbs – Lucy totally, absolutely loved her fabulously yellow car [yeech] – but there are a large populace who whose eyes would glaze over at a book filled with this kind of writing. Is that a risk you’re willing to take?
What if that reader is a reviewer? They’ll pull out their razor-sharp scalpel and cut you a new orifice. What if that reader happens to be an editor who bought your book while on their way to Hawaii? They’ll throw your book to the sand crabs and go buy a copy of National Geographic just to get the bad taste out of their mouth.
What if the reader is simply Joe or Jane Reader who is put off by blocks of character description that interrupts the flow of the story? Or they care that you overuse em dashes and ellipses? Or that you use more tell vs. show in your writing? The end result with all these scenarios is that the overall opinion of your book won’t be positive.
Let’s Be Perfectly Clear
The reason you should care about the rules is for the sake of clarity. You want your readers to understand what you’ve written.
POV Switches: POV switches within the same scene, or even in the same paragraph [god forbid] can be horrendously confusing because the reader looses sight of who’s head they’re supposed to be in. Head-hopping is a newbie problem that can only be done in the hands of an fabulous writer. Author Janice Eidus [The War of the Rosens] is just such an author, and I believe it was Kirkus who paid special notice of how deftly she used her POV switches. Janice is a brilliant writer, and readers are crazy not to rush out and buy her tender, heart-warming book.
Comma usage: Improper comma usage is another small thing that can bring clarity or confusion to a sentence, forcing the reader to re-read the sentence. In my mind, that’s a sin against the Reading Gods. If you don’t know how to use them, then how are you going to effectively tell your story?
Adverbs: Yes, I lean on our friend, the adverb, quite a bit and it’s because they are so seductive. I consider them the Antonio Banderas of writing. They’re sexy, handsome, and soooo easy on the eye and, before you know it, your writing is filled with adverbs that crowd, clutter, and irritate your readers. Not that Antonio ever could…
A manuscript filled with adverbs is overkill and there are plenty of readers who get to the point where they shout, “Yes! I get it, the car is wonderful and the character loves it. No need to stick fifteen adverbs in there to say so.”
The Evil Gatekeepers
The last reason authors should give a rat’s patootie about rules is those evil gatekeepers – agents and editors. See, you can rail against the unfairness of it all and be righteously indignant, but it’s not going to amount to a hill of lima beans if you can’t get past us.
We are your first readers. If you can’t get past us, you can’t reach those “unconcerned” readers. You may be happy in your belief that readers don’t care about our nitpicky concerns, and there are many vanity publishers who are thrilled to support you in that endeavor. But the main deal is this; ya gotta get past us. We care because it’s our $$ on the line. Agents care because they need to sell manuscripts to make $$.
So while we may be too picky for your tastes, we have a host of reasons as to why we’re that way. It’s what keeps our books on store shelves and in readers’ hands. And it’s what keeps readers saying nice things about our books.
Lastly, since when is “good enough” an excuse? If you receive a critique that points out weaknesses in your writing, your reaction shouldn’t be, “you’re too picky!” It should be a giant “thank you for pointing out some problems I wasn’t aware existed.”
“If Joe and Jane Big Selling Author can do it, why can’t I?”
The reason you can’t do it is because you aren’t Joe and Jane Big Selling Author. “It” refers to breaking certain writing rules that does not transcend to mere mortals. Many writers derive their inspiration and writing patterns from those established authors whom they admire. My personal writing hero, for instance, is John Lescroart. I patterned my dialog after his, and nearly died a happy death when one of my distributor’s sales reps caught the similarities. My enthralled demise came when John himself told me, “us dialogers have to stick together.” Anything for you, John.
But John gets away with things that I can’t. He can switch POVs faster than my daughter’s hair color, and he never gets dinged for it. Same goes for his use of adverbs. John’s plots are amazing, he’s an internationally famous writer who makes millions, so he can pretty much do what he wants, and I’ll still love him and read every one of his books.
Why can’t I get away with these infractions? Because my editors would nail me to the wall, for starters because they know as well as I that reviewers would toss the book across the room and invite me to learn the rules of writing. This happens every single day, and many of those manuscripts cross my desk and those of my cohorts.
Emulation is a good thing to a point. Reading a lot of books helps writers understand pacing, flow, character development, keeping the fluff to a minimum in order to concentrate on the plot. But reading well known authors can also teach some bad habits as well. The following comments came from replies to critiques I’d made on rejected manuscripts.
“Even though the general rules of writing say to keep semicolons to a minimum in fiction, I saw a ton of semicolons in XXX’s novel. I thought it was okay for me to use them, too.”
This is always a bit of a nail biter for me because I’m basically saying, “Yes, do as I say, not as they do.” This is tough on new writers. Whom do they believe? This author makes millions and is allowed to dress up like a pink poodle, howl a the moon, and use as many semicolons as he wants.
“I saw a novel filled with adverbs, and the rules say to keep adverbs to a minimum.”
That author makes millions and is allowed to dress up like a pink poodle, howl a the moon, and …ok, see the pattern?
Just because you have read books where authors break these generally accepted rules doesn’t mean anyone can pull this off. This is murky water territory because new writers aren’t usually experienced enough to know how and when to break the rules and still have a viable work. I made the comment on an author’s work I rejected that they would do well to lighten their manuscript of 85% of their adverbs because it made for lazy writing. Yet I have other authors whose works are filled with adverbs, and the writing is still brilliant. They are experienced enough to know that adverbs can create a tell vs. show problem and work around it. I have an author whose mid-scene POV switches were called by Kirkus as being some of the best writing they’d seen in a long time. So it can be done….if you know how.
“Screw the ‘rules,’ Price. There should be no rules in writing other than grammar and such.”
If you can convince nearly all the agents and editors of this, then I will gladly march into my local Mexican joint and belt out a hearty rendition of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” with a margarita on my head. The argument for insisting no such rules should exist is fruitless if you’re running up against a body of the publishing industry who disagrees with you.
Remember that the idea is to never give an agent or editor a reason to reject you other than the writing or story isn’t for them. It’s my opinion that new writers who are tempted to ignore these general rules of thumb are playing with fire because it is so easy to label the work as being pedestrian. Learn the techniques of writing and gain some experience so you know exactly how and when to break the rules.
There is one consistent mistake I see writers make in their writing; knowing the difference between who and whom. I’m not going to get all technical English-y here because I’m all about making things easy to remember.
Whom takes a direct object – Whom do you love?
Who refers to the subject of a clause – Who ate my Twinkie?
I can hear you now: “Argh! Subject? Direct object? Whyohwhy didn’t I pay better attention in sophomore English class?”
Here’s a helpful hint:
- “Who/whom do I thank for these Twinkies?”
The answer: “I thank him.”
- Who/Whom ate my Twinkie?
The answer: “He did.”
Him/Her = whom
He/She = who
Or you can substitute personal pronouns (he/him, she/her) for who/whom. I like this because it’s helpful in more complex sentences. You may have to alter the sentence around.
- Lola, my secretary, is an unreliable beagle who got the job because she’s cute. (She got the job because she’s cute.)
- I would have preferred hiring the UPS man whom I lust after because he has a hairy chest. (I lust after him because he has a hairy chest.)
Here’s a tougher one:
- The office argued over who they felt would make the better secretary. (Did I fool anyone? In this case (getting technical here) the entire clause is the object of the preposition. This is why I like substitution. They thought he would make a better secretary.)
So what about whoever and whomever? Same rules apply.
- Since half the office wanted Mr. Hairy Chest and the other half wanted the beagle, I decided to keep whoever bought me Twinkies on a regular basis. (He bought me Twinkies on a regular basis.)
Okay, I could have said “I decided to keep him” (which would make it “whomever”), but the phrase “He bought me Twinkies” is the object of the preposition “keep.” So, it’s “whoever.”)
- The beagle stomped out and said, “Hire whomever you want. I’m going out for a latte.” (“Hire him.”)
“Bertha Bloodhound collapses in front of the Dunkin’ Donuts in order to say goodbye to Fatsy Spatsy, her childhood love, that dumped her for Zelda Crumbrunner.”
Of course, that bolded word should be who. I know it’s a silly thing, but I see this all the time, and it bothers me. It’s a writer’s job to communicate properly, and this includes knowing proper grammar. If you’re talking about a person, it’s who. If you’re talking about a thing, it’s that. Capice?