Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Is Voice Determined By How Closely The Author Follows The Rules Of Writing?

One of the most common pieces of advice I see on the web is that a writer needs to understand the rules of writing before he can break them. Unfortunately, the second most common piece of advice is that the only rule of writing is “there are no rules.” Is it any wonder newbie writers bang their heads against the keyboard and scream? Or is that just me?

The more I learn about writing, the more I believe the first rule should be re-written as “a writer needs to understand the rules of writing in order to decide how and when they should be applied."  In other words, I distrust the notion that “following all the rules” should be the default position and that every step away from that position is fraught with danger. For one thing, not every writer agrees on what the rules are. And too much worrying about rules tends to drive the author’s voice right out of the story. Not good.

Two weeks ago I discussed how the difference between showing and telling is often in the eye of the beholder. And after spending the past couple of weeks studying Mary Buckman’s book, Writing Setting, I’m beginning to feel the same way about settings and descriptions. While I learned quite a bit about strengthening my descriptions of settings (thank you, Mary), I couldn’t help noticing that many of the examples she provided of “good” descriptions didn’t strike me as any better than some of the “bad” ones. In my opinion, some of the “good” descriptions went on for too long, or slowed the pacing too much, or just struck me as boring. Of course, not everyone would agree with me, and that’s perfectly fine, but I probably wouldn’t buy many books from authors who used such lengthy descriptions in their stories.

And then it dawned on me. Much of what makes up an author’s voice is in the way the author chooses to follow (or not follow) the so-called rules. Some authors prefer writing in deep POV, some don’t. Neither is right or wrong (despite what some deep POV zealots might argue); it’s just their preference. Some writers enjoy lots of showing, some prefer more of a balance. Some writers feel that if you aren’t specific enough with your details, you’re forcing the reader to work too hard to imagine your world, while other writers think if you paint too specific an image you leave the reader no room for using their own imagination. It’s not a matter of rules; it’s a matter of style. And based on the books I read every day, most of the styles I see involve breaking lots of rules.

As a writer, you have to make your own decisions as to how closely you follow the rules, no matter what the experts say. Learn the rules, yes. Understand the rules, definitely. But don’t feel as though you’re locked into them.

And how will you know if you’ve made the right choices? Listen to your critique partners. Pay attention to your beta-readers. If they say you’re doing too much telling, heed their advice. If they say you’re doing too much showing, heed that advice too. And most of all, listen to the readers who buy (or don’t buy) your books. Because ultimately, they are the ones whose decisions matter most. Readers don’t care about rules. All they care about is whether or not they enjoy your style of writing.

Opinions, anyone?


11 comments:

  1. Very good points. There should be room for style. Every reader is not going to like every writer's work, and that's okay. Different isn't necessarily bad.

    As I learned more about writing, I sometimes felt if I followed all the rules, my voice would sound like everyone else's; and to some extent, tightened writing does sound similar. But then I realized what makes it different is the way characters speak (dialogue) and the way they view and interpret their world. That's a great place for an author's style to show through without upsetting the 'rules' too much.

    Great post, Ken. Very thought provoking.

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    1. I've been struggling with the rules for a while now and I realized I was one of those writers whose voice is smothered by them. I'm not saying the rules are bad, but trying to follow them to the letter can get a writer into trouble.

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  2. I think you hit something there!
    First, we do need to understand the rules and then know when to break them. I do think that should be rewritten.
    But the way we break them can very much be our voice. Those long descriptions might fit someone's voice, but not another's.(Like mine. With you on the boring thing.)

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    1. I think that's one of the reasons I like fantasy and sci-fi the most. The authors tend to get to the point quickly and worry more about the plot.

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  3. I think that does explain voice... what influences the writer and where he/she puts the emphasis. I've been reading Neil Gaiman lately and he's not perfect either. There are some things we have to get right, but others are quite subjective. One person said they thought my books too violent... which made me laugh... but the point is we're never going to please everyone. We must tell our story our way. We can edit or dilute our voices if we're not careful.

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    1. I never would have guessed your books would be considered too violent. Maybe I skipped a chapter or two. Thanks for the comment.

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  4. “a writer needs to understand the rules of writing in order to decide how and when they should be applied." - Yup, you got it. That's 100% spot on. There's also a real difference between VOICE and TONE, and breaking or not breaking the rules can very much affect both. Sorry to muddy things further, here!

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    1. I'm not sure it's possible to make this topic any muddier than it already is. I just feel better knowing that I don't have to follow every rule to the letter.

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  5. Voice is all about the personality of the narrator. I find it easiest to write in the persona of a first-person protagonist to speak through them and have them color the narrative with their own unique take on the world.

    There really aren't any rules for voice other than to write in your own voice, whatever that is. If you try to write in a particular voice you think is allowing you to follow some set of "rules," you've just totally lost your voice. Your voice is YOU, and there can be no rules attached to that.

    The closer you get to either sounding like yourself or the character who is narrating your story, the stronger your voice will be. Following "rules" is completely antithetical to finding your true author voice.

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  6. Quick reply because my iPad just crashed during three attempts to leave an articulate response: 100% agree with everything you just said.

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  7. You hit the nail on the head. I've been careful about correcting dialog to conform to the rules because of concern about ruining voice. The same applies to first person narrative. I'm more strict in following punctuation rules than eliminating.throat clearing because manners of speech form a big part of voice. So far, I haven't noticed your mc's voice suffering from over-tightening, and that's a good thing. Otherwise, it might sound like a pig squealing! Ha-ha, couldn't resist lightening the mood.

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