I wanted to come in here and write something profound and memorial, but alas, it ainít gonna happen today. I hope what I do say speaks to you anyway.
I joined a writers group while I was fired up, excited and anxious to learn Ďthe right wayí to write, you know -By The Rules. Most of you did too, I suspect. What I found was confusion. Do it this way - no, do it that way. This is Passive - bad. Take out all of the --was's--and this will be a great story! What? Sometimes, believe it or not, passive is called for. What are the rules? Has anyone made a list and promised, ďFollow these rules and your writing will be perfect?ď I havenít seen one, and believe me, I've looked everywhere.
In my un-expert opinion, which Iíve earned the right to express because of the copious amounts of novice writer items I choose to read, I think the rules lie in the spelling, punctuation, grammar and common sense consistency in the storytelling. And the grammar is definitely flexible - it should match the characters. Real people don't always talk with perfect grammar. I love dialect. Itís spicy, real, and it can carry a weak plot. Dialect speaks with incorrect grammar. Get over it!
Traditional, correct sentence structure wonít automatically make a story great either. Incomplete sentences are commonly spoken amongst us common folks. The writing may be perfect technically, but howís the story? Does it live, or does it sit stiffly cold and proper as a manikin?
Once you consider yourself a writer, and you know the rules, you are entitled to write your own story. Errors are out, but good writers can occasionally break the rules for effect, if it fits the context of the story. Variety with clarity usually works. If you need to use the word --was-- use it! Like anything though - don't overdo. Using too many of these small, filler or connecting words will only cause a reader to become bored. That is bad.
The more I read and study reviews of others, the more I realize Iíve also been aping the advice of Ďexpertsí in my reviews. There are some ridiculous and damaging suggestions given to both novice and experienced writers. The ones who know the rules can smile and ignore the bad advice, but the novices are left floundering.
Iíve sadly watched one particular work go from potentially good to definitely bad by using these ĎRulesí given as suggestions, because the reviewer did not consider the context. The life was taken right out of it. Iíve read plenty of How-To books while searching for the hidden, secret mysteries of writing well. The advice differs with each article because each writer speaks from his own viewpoint and style. They aren't bad especially; they all contain good advice and learning is always a good thing. Just hold on to your common sense and remember that advice isn't the same as rules that must be followed.
Iíve finally decided the Basic Rules are not mysterious. They are learned in English class.
There are lots of theories about how to construct plots; when and how to introduce elements like setting, description and action. When you can and canít do certain things. I personally like to read stories that begin with action, so I encourage in that direction. But, that isnít the only way, by any means. Listen and learn, then use your own common sense and write it your way. Do you like it? Is it good? You will know by the swelling sensation you feel rising from your heart to your throat as you read the final draft. It will bring a smile to your face. Write it your way, but write it intelligently.
The best and most reliable teacher is good books. Read plenty and pay attention. Find the best writers and read them. Emulate them by writing lots of short scenes in their style. Your unique style will be developed gradually over time.
Beginning a sentence with ĎButí and ĎAndí is frowned upon, but why? I know, there's a rule to be quoted, I saw it. But if the line makes sense and fits the context, I use them. Is the story a flop because I began a sentence with But? I don't think so. Writing is not a static art. Nothing is set in stone. It's a lifelong learning adventure.
Doing it your way does not mean sloppy and anything goes. Writing is more than only typing the words. If no one can understand what is being said except the author, then he hasn't learned the rules yet. Long, rambling sentences with incorrect punctuation are hard to read and the reader quickly becomes annoyed and gives up. Incomplete sentences have their place in dialog, but not in narration.
Learn the Basic Rules, then write your story your way. Believe me, readers will know if you are bending the rule or just plain donít know it. Thereís nothing wrong with inventing new words either, as long as the reader can guess exactly what is meant. Letíem is not the same as letem. Errors are errors, they are not style.
Don't forget there are also young, novice readers who haven't had the life experience to 'get' everything they read. It's not their fault nor is it the writers. Consider the audience. Take all advice with a grain of salt and keep the dictionary handy. Learn the basics of spelling, punctuation and grammar, then study them again. Write your story your way.
Step one: Learn the basic rules of English,
Step two: Then you may break them.
Step three: You can't skip the first step - it just ain't gonna work.
I know, I'm preaching to the choir with this column, but I hope a few novices are paying attention.