The Rules of writing are codified in innumerable writing manuals, style guides, and blog posts. Some rules are almost universal. (Start a sentence with a capital letter.) Others have fewer adherents. (Never use an adverb.) One thing is constant, however: Discussion of The Rules is likely to cause more arguments than any particular rule ever has.
Take a look at any writing-related forum, and it won’t take long to find a hundred-post flame war over The Rules. Most of the the opinions fall into three camps:
- The Rules are Mother. The Rules are Father. Any deviation from The Rules results in bad writing, and no one should even consider taking pen to paper until they have thoroughly learned all The Rules and how to use them in every case.
- The Rules are made to be broken. If I had a nickle for every time I read, “You need to learn the rules so you know how to break them,” or some similar statement, I’d be able to quit my day job and write full time.
- The Rules are an artificial construct designed by The Man to oppress my creativity and keep my amazing writing from reaching the masses!
The trouble with these arguments is that they are missing the point.
Every craft has its own set of rules. Chefs learn how to cook meat safely, what kinds of flavors taste good together, how to present a plate to make it look appetizing. Imagine, though, if they never deviated from The Rules: Every restaurant would be the same. Food would be good, but boring. What if chefs went to school, learned The Rules, and then set out trying to break each one? How does peppermint and orange glaze sound? (Hint: Try drinking orange juice right after brushing your teeth.) What if they didn’t bother to learn The Rules at all? Pork tartare, anyone?
In writing, there is the rule that passive sentence construction should be avoided. New writers, who are trying to sound like not-so-new writers often tack on, “at all times, and at any cost!” If they see a passive sentence, they will call you out on it, regardless of whether a non-passive sentence would have been less effective in the broader context. And don’t ever, ever use an adverb in their presence. They’ll become like some creature from a Stephen King novel, tearing your adverb limb from limb, and enjoying it thoroughly.
Aren’t I just saying, then, that The Rules don’t matter? Not at all. The point of The Rules is to allow the craftsman to produce good work without having to reinvent the wheel. Imagine if we all had to figure out, on our own, how best to punctuate a sentence, or how to hold the reader’s interest. One or two writers might stumble upon the secret in their lifetime, but most would never get it all figured out.
The Rules, or at this point I should say, the rules, have been developed over many lifetimes; they are proven to be what works best in most cases. The rules, however, are not laws. You don’t need to go out of your way to avoid breaking a rule when breaking the rule is the best choice. I don’t even like to refer to it as breaking a rule. The rules are meant to be practiced until they are internalized. Once you instinctively know how to punctuate a dependent clause, or how to structure an engaging story, you no longer need to keep referring back to the rules. You’ll automatically write in ways that work, and you’ll find yourself free to experiment, safe in the knowledge that you’ll sense when the experiment is going wrong.
Don’t fear the rules, but don’t worship them either. Use them for what they are—a tool to make you a better writer.
I recently watched the first episode of the new FX Network series, The Americans. I haven't had a chance to watch any more yet, but I wanted to publish my impression of the show, since it made such a strong impression.
For those unfamiliar with the premise, The Americans is set in 1981, and centers around two KGB officers living near Washington DC as deep-cover Soviet spies. "Philip" and "Elizabeth" have been trained since youth to look, act, and talk like typical Americans. Their cover is so deep that they are forbidden to speak their native tongue, or even to talk about their former lives. They don't even know each other's real names. Nevertheless, they are "married" and have two children.
That might be enough character conflict for most network shows, but The Americans takes it further. In fact, this is where the program rises above the crowd. By the end of the first episode, we know exactly what each character wants, what they need, and why they can't have either. The tension is so high, you can't look away.
Elizabeth appears to be the stronger of the two. She is fiercely devoted to the cause of bringing down the United States, and rejects any suggestion from Philip that would go against their mission. Despite this, she is also a caring mother. She wants her children to grow up knowing nothing of their parents' secret lives. This means, as Philip points out, that they will grow up to be "Americans," but she carefully suppresses this dichotomy, which provides excellent internal tension for her character.
Philip is conflicted as well. He's grown to love his "wife" and his family, but he's beginning to have doubts about their cause. America isn't that bad, he comments ironically. Philip seems to be the softer of the pair, but, by the end of the episode (when he throws a satisfying beat-down on a pervert who threatened his daughter), we realize he's just more subtle.
FX is clearly going for a pair of Sopranoesque anti-heroes here. We know they're the bad guys. We know we're not supposed to root for them, yet somehow we can't help ourselves.
I had a couple of minor problems with the first episode: First, the few attempts at humor kind of fell flat. Second, the sex scenes were a little too gratuitous. Not that they "showed anything," but it was just more than necessary. I realize that shows like this do that sort of thing in the first episode just for the shock value, but I think it detracted from the story.
My final problem was that, this is supposed to take place in the 80's. Other than the music and the cars (and the fact that the Soviet Union still exists) the show could have taken place today. I was expecting at least a few nods to outlandish 80's fashion, or a few we-know-better-now moments à la Mad Men, but if that's the worst problem it won't bother me too much.
I'm hoping to get in the second episode on Hulu, tonight. I'll let you know my thoughts. In the mean time, let me know yours.
As an aside, it seems our culture may be on the verge of a period of Soviet chic. I think the Nazis are out as the go-to bad guys, and we're increasingly turning to the Red Menace to provide dramatic tension. I think it began with the lamentable Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. The independent Web drama Pioneer One makes a compelling story out of the unexpected return of a Soviet-era capsule from the planet Mars. There are several recent novels that reference the Cold War, and one new one, called Wolfhound Century, that blends magic with alternate history in Soviet Russia. What do you think? Is Red the new black?
Somehow, I ended up with a little book in my collection with the deceptively long name, Pocket Library of the World’s Essential Knowledge, Volume III: Outline of Science, Part I: Man and His Environment. It belonged to my great uncle, in his college days, and was published in 1929 (a decade after “the World War,” as mentioned within).
It was interesting to read about the state of science in the 1920’s. Some of what was presented wasn't much different than what I learned in high school in the 1990’s. Some was drastically different, and almost comical.
As for the words I didn't know, there were only four.
ether-drag — a slowing force acting on bodies and light moving through space induced by some unknown medium [In 1929, scientists didn't even know the extent of the Earth’s atmosphere, which had only been explored a few miles up. What outer space was made of was even more of a mystery. The catch-all term for the unknown medium of outer space was ether, and ether-drag was a catch-all explanation for observations of motion that couldn't be easily accounted for.] <If he attempts to measure his universe, his measuring rods shorten as he goes out, much as ours shorten when we attempt to measure ether-drag.>
scout — [in this case] to mock; to deride as absurd <We may yet find some of the old traditions of our forefathers, lately scouted, put upon a firm scientific basis.>
depredation — an act of plundering or spoiling <Of these pests weeds are among the most annoying. Their depredations are so quiet, however, that they are less noticed than are those of insects and birds.>
rachitic — having to do with the disease, rickets [caused by a vitamin D deficiency, and almost unknown today due to fortified milk] <Since green vegetables have an anti-rachitic effect, is it because of their long exposure to the ultra-violet of the sun?>
Confession time: How many did you know?
Misuse of the question mark has become epidemic these days. I see it most often in business communication, of all places, but it also shows up on Facebook, and in personal e-mails.
With a few notable exceptions, it's pretty easy to determine whether a sentence is a question or a statement. You'd think it would be easy to decide if a sentence needs a question mark or a period. Apparently, it's not. For example, have you seen this?
Guess who's coming to dinner?
That's not a question. Just because the dinner guest's identity is unknown doesn't make this a question. It's an Imperative sentence. I'm telling you to guess. Now, If I asked, "Can you guess who's coming to dinner?" that's a question.
The other big one that trips people up is I wonder.
I wonder if we should postpone the meeting?
Gah! You're not asking if we should postpone the meeting, you're expressing your indecision. It's a declarative statement. I think the confusion lies in the fact that there's an implied question:
I wonder if we should postpone the meeting. What do you think?
Once you go down that road, though, almost any sentence could take a question mark.
You told me you'd be here at 3:00?
I'd like to discuss this on the phone?
All my files are missing???
I've seen every one of the above examples. Every one grates on my nerves like curly nails on a chalkboard. Tell me it's not just me. Tell me that punctuation is important, and that precise language still means something.
Whenever I read, I like to keep an index card as a bookmark, so I can write down words I don't know the meaning of. I like to read older books, so I'm often scribbling down words that I've never heard before. I'm not too proud to admit that I haven't memorized the entire dictionary, so here, for your amusement and edification, is a list of words from Rudyard Kipling's The Day's Work. (I promise, all my posts will not be about R.K. It's just the index card I happened to pick up!)
“The Tomb of His Ancestors”
parvenu — one who has risen above one’s station; an upstart <”Nothin’ like havin’ a father before you,” said the Major. “I’m a parvenu with my chaps. I’ve only been twenty years in the regiment, and my revered parent he was a simple squire.” p. 115>
tutelary — having to do with guardianship <Because the savage and the child who plays lonely games have one horror of being laughed at or questioned, the little folk kept their convictions to themselves; and the Colonel, who thought he knew his regiment, never guessed that each one of the six hundred quick-footed, beady-eyed rank-and-file, to attention beside their rifles, believed serenely and unshakenly that the subaltern on the left flank of the line was a demi-god twice born—tutelary deity of their land and people. pp. 127-8>
murrain — a deadly plague <Who has done wrong? Is it pestilence? Is it murrain? Will our children die? p. 130>
“The Devil and the Deep Sea”
stolid — not easily excited <They looked at the palm-fringed hills inland, at the white houses above the harbour road, at the singe tier of native craft by the quay, at the stolid soldiery sitting round the two cannon, and, last of all, at the blue bar of the horizon. p. 176>
sago — a powder from the trunk of the sago palm (or others) used as a thickening agent in food, or as a fabric starch <The skipper and four men dealt with the Malay boat-builder—by night chiefly; it was no time to haggle over the price of sago and dried fish. p. 184>
donkey-engine — a small engine used to power a windlass (usually, on a ship) <The others stayed aboard and replaced piston-rod, cylinder-cover, cross-head, and bolts, with the aid of the faithful donkey-engine. p. 184>
ropy — viscous; capable of being drawn into a rope or thread <The skipper unearthed some stale ropy paint of the loathsome green that they used for the galleys of sailing-ships, and Mr. Wardrop spread it abroad lavishly to give the engines self-respect. p. 185>
“William the Conqueror”
dog-cart — a light, one-horse carriage <A dog-cart drove up in the dusk, and a man entered, mopping his head. p. 195>
efface — withdraw from attention <Life among men who had a great deal of work to do, and very little time to do it in, had taught her the wisdom of effacing, as well as of fending for, herself. p. 206>
argot — the special vocabulary of a particular social group; slang <They were too busy to do more than nod at Scott and Martyn, and stare curiously at William, who could do nothing except make tea, and watch how her men staved off the rush of wailing, walking skeletons, putting them down three at a time in heaps, with their own hands uncoupling the marked trucks, or taking receipts from the hollow-eyed, weary white men, who spoke another argot than theirs. p. 208>
plash — cause to splash <The Rains fell at last, late, but heavily; and the dry, gashed earth was red mud, and servants killed snakes in the camp, where every one was weather-bound for a fortnight—all except Hawkins, who took horse and plashed about in the wed, rejoicing. p. 229>
milch — of an animal bred to be milked <William skipped from brick to brick laid down on the trampled mud, and dosed her charges with warming medicines that made them rub their little round stomachs; and the milch goats throve on the rank grass. p. 229>
outrecuidance — self-conceit; presumption <“But, with my constitution and temperament—my work lies in Boston—I find your outrecuidance—” “Outer which?” said the Mogul freight. “Simple cylinders are good enough for me.” pp. 246-7>
“The Maltese Cat”
clothes-horse — a drying rack [also used, euphemistically, of one who is known for one’s clothes, but not in this case] <He was supposed to have Australian blood in his veins, but he looked like a clothes-horse, and you could whack his legs with an iron crow-bar without hurting him. p. 281>
“An Error in the Fourth Dimension”
shibboleth — a word, action, pronunciation, or other sign, that gives one away as being a member of a different group <He did not gesticulate with his hands; he sat down on most of his enthusiasms, but he could not rid himself of The Shibboleth. He would ask for the Worcestershire sauce: even Howard, his immaculate butler, could not break him of this. p. 341>
creaseless — [no suitable definition found; A slang use of the word crease means to amuse. I can only assume from the context that it means unamusing, but this doesn’t satisfy me, as the usage seems more in the line of tasteless, or crass.] <Wilton had more than once asked me to Holt Hangars, for the purpose of showing how well the new life fitted him, and each time I had declared it creaseless. p. 341>
“My Sunday at Home”
paroxysm — a sudden spasm or convulsion <His right hand was upon the doctor’s collar, so that the two shook to one paroxysm, pendulums vibrating together, while I, apart, shook with them. p. 371>
caryatid — an architectural column in the form of a draped female figure; [in this case, probably used to mean ornate] <French only, the caryatid French of Victor Hugo, would have described it; so I mourned while I laughed, hastily shuffling and discarding inadequate adjectives. p. 371>
alienably — in the manner of something that can be transferred from one owner to another <And the joy was that it was all mine alinably—groomed hedgerow, spotless road, decent greystone cottage, serried spinney, tasselled copse, apple-bellied hawthorn, and well-grown tree. p. 373>
serry — crowd together (in ranks); mark by serrations <And the joy was that it was all mine alinably—groomed hedgerow, spotless road, decent greystone cottage, serried spinney, tasselled copse, apple-bellied hawthorn, and well-grown tree. p. 373>
“The Brushwood Boy”
bâtman — a personal military servant of an officer in the British forces <He never told his experiences, but the men spoke enthusiastically, and fragments of it leaked back to the colonel through sergeants, bâtmen, and the like. p. 396>
malinger — to pretend to be incapacitated in order to avoid work <There was very little getting round him, for he seemed to know by instinct exactly when and where to head off a malingerer; but he did not forget that the difference between a dazed and sulky junior of the upper school and a bewildered, browbeaten lump of a private fresh from the depot was very small indeed. p. 396>
redoubt — a small enclosed defensive earthwork <Then they turned to made roads, most often under fire, and dismantled some inconvenient mud redoubts. p. 407>
Well, how many did you know. Doubtless, more than me, but try to hide your outrecuidance about it.
This pair of quotes comes from Captains Courageous, a novel published in 1897. The book tells the story of fifteen-year-old Harvey Cheyne, the spoiled son of an American railroad magnate. Harvey is plucked from his idle life when he is washed off the deck of a luxury liner. When he is rescued by a fishing boat, fate thrusts him into the hard-working world of the Gloucester fishing fleet. This is one of my favorite books, not only because the story is such a classic coming-of-age tale, but because Kipling was, at this point, at the top of his game in writing gorgeous prose.
On page 244, Mr. Cheyne has just received word that his son is alive, and on the other side of the continent. The “secretary” (one Mr. Milsom) and the “typewriter” (a Miss Kinzey) are two very minor characters, who play an important role at the climax of the story:
“Milsom, we’re going right across. Private car—straight through—Boston. Fix the connections,” shouted Cheyne down the staircase.
“I thought so.”
The secretary turned to the typewriter, and their eyes met (out of that was born a story—nothing to do with this story). She looked inquiringly, doubtful of his resources. He signed to her to move to the Morse as a general brings brigades into action. Then he swept his hand musician-wise through his hair, regarded the ceiling, and set to work, while Miss Kinzey’s white fingers called up the Continent of America.
I love the way Kipling gives these two minor characters a life of their own—acknowledging that they have their own story to tell, but not stopping to dwell on it. All the best sources tell me that this type of direct narration is jarring to the modern reader, popping the fictive bubble, as it were, but for me, it only enhances my enjoyment of the story.
Kipling loved to re-use, re-work, or just make up sayings and colloquialisms. He was so good at this, that it’s often impossible to tell whether a particular phrase was part of the local dialect, or something he cut from whole cloth.
One example occurs on page 260 of Captains Courageous, at the reunion of Cheyne and his son, Harvey. Harvey is going on and on about what he has learned under the tutelage of Captain Disko Troop. This prompts Cheyne to reminisce about his own start in life from meager beginnings:
“I began with eight and a half, my son,” said Cheyne.
“That so? You never told me, sir.”
“You never asked, Harve. I’ll tell you about it some day, if you care to listen. Try a stuffed olive.”
“Troop says the most interesting thing in the world is to find out how the next man gets his vittles.”
Kipling was a journalist by training, and his idea of research was to spend as much time as possible with the people he wrote about. It’s highly likely that “how the next man gets his vittles” is a direct quote from some anonymous Gloucester fisherman; it’s equally likely that Kipling simply made up the phrase as something an old salt might say. I lean toward the latter, since a common theme of Kipling’s stories is work, along with the men, women, animals, and machines who do it.
I got serious about writing as a hobby back in 2008. I had dabbled with writing on and off for a decade or so, but now seemed like the opportune time to pursue the craft more faithfully: I had been married for two years, and we were fairly settled into our new home. My business was doing OK, and I had some free time to pursue something totally unrelated to the rest of my life.
I turned to the Internet to get started. You can learn almost anything on the Internet, and writing is no exception. In fact, without the Internet, I would probably have never become involved in writing in the first place. I read all the free resources I could find, but it was tough going. Eventually, I stumbled across the online writing community, CritiqueCircle.com.
It took me a long time to decide to sign up at Critique Circle. Did I really want others viewing my writing? Did I want to put my name out there for all to see? I finally decided to sign up using a pseudonym, S. Paul Bryan. I didn’t want friends, family, colleagues, or clients exposed to my imaginative side. After all, writing fiction is a silly sport. (What would the neighbors say!) I also reasoned that, by using a nom de plume, if I didn’t like the outcome, I could just disappear.
As I became more comfortable being involved with other writers online, I found it advantageous to use my pen name with other forums and social media sites I created a whole persona that only existed on the other side of the computer screen. I had reserved different parts of my personality for different media. It wasn’t difficult to manage, but it did leave me feeling a little wistful. I realized I couldn’t share what had become a big part of my life, with others, and that I couldn’t share the majority of my life with those I had recently come to know and trust.
The biggest challenge came when I began interacting with people, who were previously only online acquaintances, in real life. I’m not schizophrenic enough to carry on, in person, as someone I’m not. It was time to make a decision
When we speak of someone with good character, we often use the word integrity. The root of the word is integrate, meaning the coming together of parts to become a whole. My integrity was at stake. I was becoming dis-integrated, and the schism was affecting all parts of my life. That’s why I’ve decided to hang up the avatar, and use my real name as my writing name.
Will there be repercussions? Perhaps there will. I’ve become serious enough, though, about writing, to tell that this isn’t just a passing fancy. It is as much a part of my life now as any other, and I don’t imagine I’ll give it up soon. In the long run, I’m sure that more good, than harm, will come from this decision.
What do you think? A lot of writers use pseudonyms for various reasons. Is it a better choice to reduce one’s exposure? Is it inherently wrong? I want to know your thoughts.