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The Snobbish Rules of Fiction

Not that long ago, I got it in my head that I wanted to write a novel. I can still remember the day my mom introduced me (via email) to a published author she knows, and her friend was kind enough to critique a sample of my work. I was grateful. I was also puzzled. The author asked me to send her the first five pages of my story. What? Only the first five? The story doesn’t even get going good until around page 23. (Okay. You can stop snickering now. = P)

I was truly puzzled. How could she possibly tell anything about my writing from reading such a short part?

I didn’t understand back then, but I do now. After years of learning the craft, I can spot a new writer at 20 paces...and usually by the second paragraph. How? By looking for subtle clues in their writing. Regardless if they have a good beginning, I can still spot it. Even if they’ve figured out dialogue and POV. Yup. It’s still there.

What am I talking about? I’m referring to what I used to call ‘the snobbish rules of fiction’–those polishing guidelines you discover once you’ve got a handle on the basics of the craft.

Most anyone can understand the reason for a ‘hook,’ or why you shouldn’t ‘head-hop’ POV. But when you get a mandate to banish words like ‘that’ and ‘suddenly,’ the reasons aren’t so clear. What’s wrong with such perfectly good words?

As you stare at your precious prose, you begin to think the 40 writers that commented on that website thread must just be snobs, trying to find some way to keep new writers out of their cliquish club. Heck, most of ‘em aren’t even published. Humph. If they’re so good, why are they still querying so many years into the game? Yeah. That’s the ticket! (...Ooops. Sorry. Had a little flashback there. *blush*) They may not be the epitome of kindness in their comment delivery, but writing snobs? Nope. They’re just trying to make their writing the best it can be.

With many rules of fiction, I wasn’t able to perfect them overnight, but at least I understood. They made sense. These more-subtle rules didn’t at first. But you know what? When I finally relented and made the changes they required, my writing improved. Really improved. So now, when I come across one of these no-no words, I change it. In fact, I’m getting to the point I don’t even write it in the first place because I know it can’t stay.

*There is an exception. If I’m on one of my inspired writing binges and find myself stuck on how to nix a no-no, then I leave it in and deal with it on a subsequent edit. Don’t ever let the rules stop you from writing!

There’s a long list of words fiction writers strive to banish, but for now, I’m going to address some of the more common ones. The reason behind each varies, but, generally speaking, they are a sign of weak writing and often contribute to overly-wordy prose.

First on the no-no list: ‘–ly’ adverbs.
Grammar refresher: an adverb is a word that modifies a verb.
He walked slowly down the hall.
She walked quietly across the lawn and hid behind a tree.

You should avoid these. Choose stronger, more descriptive verbs instead.
He trudged down the hall.
She crept across the lawn and ducked behind a tree.

See the difference?

You should also get rid of passive voice.

Instead of: Paul was struck in the face by the intruder’s fist.
Choose: The intruder’s fist struck Paul’s face.

(*Notice the verb 'was.' You can't and shouldn't cut all forms of the infinitive 'to be' from your writing, but you should run a search for them, since they can signal passive voice and weak sentences.)

For even more verb advice, try my friend’s blog post, The Verb Lottery. Nancy’s got some really great tips.

Now back to those pesky words we should avoid or limit...

Here’s a list, but it’s by no means complete: suddenly, almost, slightly, nearly, just, which, that, rather, quite, really, very, began, could... (I could go on.)

Let's look at a few...
Words like suddenly aren’t bad words, but if you’re writing well, you don’t need them. Your reader will be able to glean from the story that the action happened suddenly. Just write it. They’ll get it.

With suddenly:
Paul raced down the street with the intruder hot on his heels. Suddenly, a gun went off.

Now without it:
Paul raced down the street with the intruder hot on his heels. A gun went off.

Did you feel it? Was that sudden enough for you? It was for me.

The same goes for dialogue. Don’t pause to say there was no pause. (And I'll switch heroes since we've probably killed Paul off. = P)

“Will you marry me?” Ben asked.
Mary didn’t even hesitate. “Yes.”

Now without the phrase:
“Will you marry me?” Ben asked.

What about began?
He began to walk across the room. should be He walked across the room. –unless something is about to interrupt him.

What about very?
‘It was very big.’ could be ‘It was massive.’
Isn’t that better?

Now add to the list these filter words: saw, heard, felt, realized, & thought.

What? Why those!

Because they filter the action through the character, instead of letting the reader experience it firsthand. If you’re doing a good job with your POV, we’ll know whose head we’re in, and it will be clear who saw, felt, and heard.

With filter:
Lucy snuggled deeper under the covers. She heard a clap of thunder jar her window.

Lucy snuggled deeper under the covers. A clap of thunder jarred her window.

See the difference? Heck. I felt the difference.

The word thought is handled a tad differently, but we avoid it for the same reason. Even though we should be writing tightly enough that a good portion of our exposition feels like thoughts, a character’s direct thoughts are typically denoted by italics.

Nathan gathered his books and slunk down the hall. ‘Why does Mrs. Wratchwater pick on me?’ he thought. ‘I’m not the only stupid kid in the class.

Nathan gathered his books and slunk down the hall. Why does Mrs. Wratchwater pick on me? I’m not the only stupid kid in the class.

I don’t know about you, but in the first version, I find myself pulling back and looking at Nathan from the outside, watching him walk and think. In the second one, I stay in Nathan’s head and almost feel as though I’m thinking right along with him.

(...and for those of you who read my post on ‘Showing & Telling’—see what I mean? I bet your mind went right back to that scene in Mrs. Wratchwater’s class. *smug wink*)

Moral? Trust the rules.

Now that I’ve totally overwhelmed you, let me encourage you not to give up. Write whatever flows when you’re inspired. Forget the rules. You can always go back and revise your work later. And again and again after that.

Writing fiction is a process—a marathon, not a sprint. The process of polishing a manuscript is like an onion, Donkey. Layers...Lots and lots of layers.