Tag Archives: writing tips
“You must know the rules like a professional in order to break them like an artist.”
That quote is from Pablo Picasso. I figure that if he doesn’t know art, nobody knows art, so it is obvious from that sentence that the rules are important. But, what are those rules, exactly? And how do I go about breaking them?
Let’s start with what the rules are. I have a set I follow. I’ll bet you do too. Tell you what I’ll do. I’m about to list my rules, so I’ll list yours as well. There is a link at the bottom of this post. Click it to send me a copy of your rules. No joke here, I intend to post other people’s rules here as well, with whatever attribution you provide. That’s at the end. Right now, on to My Rules.
- Only write stuff that you want to read. This seems obvious, which is why it took me a lifetime to figure it out. Plenty of others have said the same thing, in so many or more words. Trust me, this truly is Rule #1. But it begs the question, why do you want to read something?”
- Know why you like a story. This is obvious even to me. Here’s what I think, generally, makes people like a story.
- Because it’s a good story
- The protagonist is likeable, a regular decent sort of person.
- The protagonist wants something, not something unreasonable in the grand scheme of things, just something, anything really.
- The protagonist goes after what he or she wants.
- The protagonist gets into unbelievable trouble trying to get it, almost killed, maybe.
- The protagonist almost goes under, but in the end he or she triumphs and there’s a happy ending.
- Just because you like that sort of story
- Show, don’t tell your story.
- Feelings, goals, motivations, conflicts, actions, history, well everything.
- If you don’t get that, read more. A lot more. And get a critique partner or three.
- The use of passive voice is to be avoided at all times.
- Superfluous modifiers are just really very bad.
- Everybody is an expert on comma use, so you don’t have to be.
- One, two, three, and four is how a proper Brit would write a list. That third comma is the famous “Oxford comma.”
- One, two, three and four is how Americans list. No Oxford comma.
- Every other rule about commas has advocates for and against its use. So, see above.
- Always observe proper grammar, spelling and syntax. Or perhaps I should write that it is perfectly to know proper grammar, spelling and syntax. The last sentence adheres exactly to conservative rules of English construction. It sucks, as you can see. So I break that rule virtually all the time and write line such as “the rule is to perfectly know . . .”. Because, of course you can split an infinitive! It consists of two words, you twit! But I know the rule about split infinitives, and how to avoid them, well, perfectly? Okay, as closely to perfect as my sloppy self can get.
- Use a critique group, beta readers, whomever you can to read your work before you publish. If you write romance, have people who like to read romance do the work. If you write mystery, get mystery fans to read it and critique it. If you write, well, you can probably see where this is going. A group of professional writers, which includes professional writers who have never been paid for writing yet, doesn’t have to consist of people who all write one genre, or even all who write fiction or non-fiction. It should, however, consist of people familiar with the rules.
Those are my rules. But there is one overriding rule that trumps every single one of them. It is:
Write a Good Story or Article and People Will Read It
If you’re a writer, you’re an artist. Like Pablo said, an artist breaks the rules. So, what rules do you break? That’s a little vague. What I mean to ask is, what are the rules of writing according to yourself? You can click right here to email me your set of rules. A Word format document would be excellent, or a plain text document, but I can work with a PDF or anything that my computer can display (highlight, copy, and paste, don’tchaknow? I truly will post your list of rules, so make them good. And entertaining, if possible, since I am of dubious maturity. If you’d rather leave them as a comment, please feel free to do that as well.
Want more of Steve? You can check his blog at stevefey.com, or look for him on Facebook, Twitter and other social media.
By Morgan St. James
The word “syntax” has several definitions relative to the English language and grammar, but the one that popped into my mind is from the Bing Online Dictionary.
Organization of words in sentences
The ordering of and relationship between the words and other structural elements in phrases and sentences. The syntax may be of a whole language, a single phrase or sentence, or of an individual speaker.
When things go wrong
I was listening to an audio book by one of my favorite authors—a New York Times bestselling author, no less. All of a sudden, there it was—the dreaded double-meaning syntax. The narrator said, “The two men sat down quickly in suits and ties.” Um, excuse me. Am I to picture these two fellows wandering through a men’s department in Nordstrom or Macys, then quickly plunk themselves down on a pair of chairs as they reached the Suits & Ties Department?
With apologies to an author whose following is huge, and an undoubtedly highly regarded editor, it seems it should have been something like “The two men dressed in suits and ties sat down quickly.”
The result of poor syntax or arrangement of the words in a particular sentence can definitely create confusion and in some cases are also quite funny.
Years ago, mixed up placement was something I was guilty of as an author. Then my sister Phyllice, trained as an editor, brought it to my attention when we began to write the Silver Sisters Mysteries. All of a sudden, misleading sentences jumped off the page and I found myself acutely aware of them in other author’s books as well.
Somewhere in the recesses of my memory, I recalled a song with the line “Throw mama from the train a kiss, a kiss.” The phrasing was such a good illustration of today’s topic that I looked it up on the internet. The song, actually called Mama From the Train (A Kiss, A Kiss) was recorded by songstress Patti Page in 1956 and reached #11 in Billboard’s Top 100. The songwriter, Irving Gordon, said the song was about memories of his deceased mother, whose Pennsylvania Dutch-influenced English lead to quaint phrasings. Playing on the misdirection, there was a movie with Danny DeVito called Throw Momma From the Train. However, DeVito’s character would really have liked to do what the title suggested and throw his shrew of a mother off a real train!
As I searched, I found some real gems.
- The dealer sold the Cadillac to the buyer with leather seats.
So was that buyer wearing leather pants or what?
- They saw a fence behind the house made of barbed wire.
Now that would have been a neat house for one of the three little pigs.
- The waiter served a dinner roll to the woman that was well buttered.
Except for the use of ‘that’ instead of ‘who’ maybe the woman had a unique way of wiggling into skin-tight jeans.
- Joan piled all of her clothes in the hamper that she had worn.
I wonder how much attention she attracted as she walked down the street.
Pennsylvania Dutch sentence structure also yields some winners. Here are two:
“Only people with cars that live in dorms should be allowed to park in those lots.”
“Where one parent would be quiet, polite and conservative the other parent would drive up in a black Trans Am full of arrogance and conceit.”
The point of all this
Make sure your sentences and phrases are ordered in a way that makes sense. You don’t want people secretly asking questions like the ones above.
Want More from Morgan? Check out her website here!