Having worked in the legal profession for a number of years I understand and appreciate the need for rules and principles, law and order. As with most lawyers, a good part of my job involved interpreting legislation/case law. Sometimes the law is rigid and inflexible. Occasionally, however, the wording is ambiguous, and therefore the way the rule is applied is open to question. I’ve learned that sometimes the most exciting and best things happen when you get a chance to test the limits of the rules. I’m currently editing the final draft of my novel, and I’m hoping to have it finished by the end of this month. As I go through my book with highlighters, and red pens I’m painfully conscious of the rules, both of good writing and of novel structure. I am trying my very best not to break the writing rules.
My novel breaks some fundamental rules around the protagonist/antagonist dichotomy, and I’m not sure how readers will receive it. This being my debut novel, should I play it safe, or is this the best time to break the writing rules? Will readers excited by it, or will it leave them cold? Does a positive experience for the reader completely hinge on following the rules to the letter? I don’t believe it does.
I’ve read so many good novels that break either structural rules or the oft repeated rules of good writing. I’m reading Child 44 right now, the debut novel by Tom Rob Smith. The novel is written in the third person, primarily from the perspective of the protagonist, and yet occasionally, we’ll drift into the minds of other characters and back again to the protagonist. The author commits one of the gravest sins of novel-writing: head-hopping. Yet this isn’t fatal. In fact, I’m finding that it adds texture to the story. The novel is considered by critics and readers alike to be an example of a great thriller.
The popularity of Jane Austen’s novels has endured despite massive shifts in what is stylistically acceptable over the past hundred odd years. Academics pull her work apart, word by word, in an attempt to unlock the secret of the world’s continuing love-affair with her writing. There are even infographics and plain, old fashioned graphs that show how many times a particular word or category of word is used. (I know. GRAPHS FFS!) When Jane Austen wrote her novels adverbs were totally acceptable ways of adding description to sentences. As a result her novels are peppered through with them. Nowadays, writers that use them regularly are considered ‘lazy’. Lazy? A bit harsh. I think Jane Austen would agree.
Trainspotting (another debut novel) is one of my favourite novels. I first read it when I was fifteen, and it was like nothing I’d ever read before. It was a controversial novel in many ways, but stylistically, its use of dialect was particularly risky. It broke one of the cardinal rules of good fiction writing: don’t write dialect. And it didn’t just break the rule once. The entire novel is written in the first person in the Edinburghian dialect. It took me a day of perseverance before I could begin to be able to read it fluently, but in the end the use of dialect made my experience as a reader so much more vivid and immersive. As I read I ‘heard’ the words in a way I’d never done before.
Writers are repeatedly told not to write sentences that are too long, but recently, Mike McCormack’s debut novel, Solar Bones, won The Goldsmith’s Prize. It was written in one sentence!
It would be beyond arrogant for me, a person that hasn’t even finished a novel, to challenge the wisdom of the academics and authors that have studied the tenets of good writing and novel-structure and written them down for the benefit of me and other aspiring authors. I wouldn’t dare. We humans love to find patterns in things.
It’s a natural instinct. It’s reassuring to the aspiring author to know that rules exist. That by doing x,y or z, your writing can be better. But at this stage in the process, the danger of over-editing is a real worry to me. Every single person has their own ‘way with words’ , and as individual writers we naturally and instinctively use words in our own unique way. I worry that in attempting to beat ‘bad habits’ out of my writing, I risk losing something of the essence of myself- and that if that happens, what will the consequences be for my novel? Will it become a write-by-numbers book? Stilted, pedantic, inauthentic, dull. Will it lose its soul?
I’m not writing this novel to prove a point about rule-breaking. I’m not here to lead the charge in a rebellion against writing rules. Far from it, I think my writing has improved because I am starting to internalise those rules. I think if I’m going to break the writing rules, the safest thing is to do so consciously, and to have weighed up the potential consequences. Those consequences are that readers will potentially hate what I’ve done, but I need to be true to myself as a writer and to my story. I must trust that my readers will appreciate that and understand why I’ve had to write my novel the way it is written.
My book has to be what it is.
Sometimes, the longest sentence is the truest.
Sometimes, the sentence with the adverb is the most sincere.
Sometimes, breaking the rules is the only honest thing you can do.