What are all these "author rules" we're supposedly breaking?
It happens at least once a week. I receive a newsletter in my inbox telling me about the top 10 rules I’m accidentally breaking as an author or the top 5 rules I should NEVER break as an author. . .
First of all, I haven’t published a book in 4 years, so I KNOW that I haven’t broken any of these rules recently, but I can’t help but wonder where all these rules are coming from and what’s going to happen if I’ve broken one of them. Is my college professor who ruled over her grammar class like a dictator going to show up and lock me in grammar prison?
Based on all these articles that I continue to receive on a weekly basis and read because I just can’t help myself, I have determined that these rules are nothing more than grammar, punctuation, and plot development suggestions to make publications feel important and needed.
Does that mean that these suggestions are bad? Not at all! In fact, if you find that they help you improve your writing, then that’s fantastic! But let’s not pretend like someone is going to lock away your book for all of eternity if you break one of these “rules.”
All of this being said, Riley and I thought we would review some of these rules and what we think about them as indie authors, and then we would go over a different kind of advice, one that is absolutely important for this day and age.
So let’s get started!
Always be consistent with point of view
Riley: Why is this a rule? I could never understand that. What better way to show two different points of view for differing characters. After all, what your narrator sees is different than your protagonist or antagonist.
Ann: I think this rule is more a reminder to the author to be conscious of how you’re speaking to your readers. Jumping around from first person to second person to even third person can be very jarring. That being said, if you have a creative reason for changing up your point of view, go with it! Let those creative juices flow and have fun with it.
Never start a story with the character waking up
Riley: This is just ridiculous. Our jobs as authors is to connect our characters with our readers. A simple way to do this is to use little actions we all use, like waking up.
Ann: Who are we (or who is anyone really) to tell you how to start your story? Each day we wake up is potentially a new start to something exciting, something traumatic, or something completely life changing. We have no idea. If that’s how you want to begin your work, you have every right to do so. There are a lot of books out there. To say that you have to be fully original in the way you begin you work is a tad ridiculous. Start it the way you want to start it. Be you. Don’t worry about whether or not it’s been “overdone.” Your work is unique to you. As long as you’re not plagiarizing, we won’t judge.
Never use adverbs, and especially not with speech tags
Riley: I get it, too many people use "like" all the time. That doesn't mean you should restrict creative juices. A few are fine, and I believe they enhance your work, as long as you don't carry them too far.
Ann: I think anything in moderation is fine. Honestly, the only reason to consider looking this in depth at your individual sentences and paragraphs is to intensify the action your characters are taking. If your work feel disjointed and a bit passive, then maybe you should look to this as a recommendation. But really, let’s all just calm down, shall we?
Never give main characters names that begin with the same letter
Ann: Sigh...So many of us authors feel the same way about our characters. They name themselves. We’re merely transcribing the story. It’s possible that some people who aren’t carefully reading your work will become confused, but the people who really care will be able to keep track of your characters as long as they’re memorable. I don’t even remember a time when I confused Eowyn with Arwen, even though they’re pretty similar. . .but my husband doesn’t even remember that there were two main female characters in Lord of the Rings. The people who are invested in your work will know the difference.
Riley: I really can't add anything to this. Besides, you should be striving to make your characters individual enough that you could almost name them all the same thing.
Never info dump
Ann: Info dumps can be beneficial. I think it’s important to keep it entertaining and make it pertinent to the plot, but when done well, I fully enjoy being caught up on what I need to know about the world an author has worked so hard to create.
Riley: Aye, exposition used in the correct way can really further your books. Look at how George RR Martin uses sex in his books. There are a ton of plot points dropped in between all the genitalia.
Kill your darlings (crutch phrases)
Riley: Actually I would tell you to do what your story tells you to. You never know when you'll suddenly be struck by an idea. Besides, if you really don't like it, take it out at editing time.
Ann: I think this is from Stephen King’s advice about the written work, but you can look at it from a variety of perspectives. If we’re talking about characters, you’re allowed to kill off any character you like - just have some good reasoning for it if it’s a particular fan favorite. (Looking at you George R.R. Martin) If we’re talking about crutch phrases, I think this is something to keep in mind just to ensure you’re not overusing a phrase. I recently listened to a podcast in which the interviewer used the phrase “100%” at least 30 times. Just be aware of the words you’re using. I don’t think there’s any set limit. Maybe your character has a favorite phrase that she or he uses consistently. Maybe it’s for comedic purposes. Regardless, do what works for your book.
Riley: And thus we see the joy of English. I took that rule literally!
Don’t use passive phrases
Riley: Passive phrasing has been a weakness of mine since I started writing. I don't think I'll ever be able to get over it, as I believe it offers versatility. I could be wrong, but I don't believe I am.
Ann: Why are suggestions often confused with rules? Don’t people realize that authors see the word “Don’t” as a challenge? Should we overuse passive phrases? Probably not as it makes for weak paragraphs and tends to make our readers feel left out of the action. But should we NEVER use it? That seems extreme. An occasional passive phrase isn’t going to sabotage your work.
Never open a book with weather
Riley: Again with the inane rules about how to start your book. Whatever the first words are that get you started and fit the story, they're the correct ones.
Ann: *rolls up sleeves* Is that a challenge? Seriously. DO. WHAT. YOU. WANT. Maybe your character is watching the incoming storm and thinking about how cliche it is that a storm would happen on THIS of ALL nights. As long as you’ve got a good hook, roll with it. A plot device can be used poorly or incredibly well. Just because some people have used it poorly doesn’t mean that you can’t use it to your advantage. I imagine that a lot of real life stories have begun with a turn in the weather.
Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue
& then Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”
Ann: To quote John Locke, “DON’T TELL ME WHAT I CAN’T DO!” Seriously, let’s find a happy medium, shall we? I feel like I’m just repeating myself with each of these. An argument can be made either way. I try to use a variety of phrases and words and I’ve never felt that my work has suffered as a result of it.
Riley: Besides, I read somewhere that readers skip 90% of your dialogue tags. So what does it matter? Use what you want!
Ann: Do you know how many cliches there are out there? And do you know how often we identify with cliches because they are so common? One of my college professors would mark down our grades for any cliches used. She and I did not get along very well. Can cliches be used to your advantage? Yes, yes, absolutely, 100%, yes. Should you attempt to use every single cliche in one work? …. Again, that seems like a challenge...
Riley: Just look at a hero's journey. How many books are based off of this "cliche" idea. Remember, it's all in the eyes of the beholder.
Don’t attempt to use semicolons
Ann: We have so many resources at our disposal. Do your research. Learn to understand, love, and utilize the semicolon. The internet is vast. If my husband can learn to install a toilet via YouTube, you can learn to use the semicolon and have a very successful relationship with it.
Riley: Yes! Use Google, use YouTube, use the resources afforded to us in these modern ages, and work that language.
Show don’t tell
Riley: Why shouldn't I show? What's wrong with painting a clear line that's easy for readers to follow? Not every story has to have a mystery or a twist. Some can be straightforward.
Ann: Sometimes you should show and sometimes you should tell. Only you can decide which is the right course in your particular work. Listen to your beta readers. Listen to your own instincts. Use what feels right to you and what feels right to the words you’re writing. I think that both can be an effective means of communicating to your readers.
Never start your book at the end of the story
Riley: What better way to get the tone for the rest of the book? I mean, there's a lot that can happen between the start and the finish, and some stories change over time. What better way to prepare your readers for the insane ride ahead?
Ann: “The end is only the beginning.” From The Mummy, right? But still true. If you have a reason for doing it, then by all means, stride boldly forward. Be confident in your decision.
Turn off the TV
Riley: Some of my best writing is done with a TV on! The sound of the voices in the background offer just enough of a distraction for my ADD addled brain. It helps me focus in the long run, and inspires me to do better than what I hear and see.
Ann: No, there is no singular right way to write a book. If you’re distracted by the television, radio, etc, then change your setting up. Find what works best for you and stick with that. I listen to music or have movies playing in the background as I work. Sometimes I need distractions because I get lost in my own thoughts and can’t force my fingers to type with all the conflicting plot points. A distraction helps me zone out and move forward. I can edit the dust bunnies out later.
Stay away from sentences that start with the words “there are” or “there is"
Riley: There is something wrong with this rule. There are people who truly believe this, and that makes me sad. English is a flexible language, use it.
Ann: A truly masterful answer, Riley. Enough said.
Write what you know
Riley: How do I expand my point of view then? I have never once done heroin, but people have told me Everyone Dies At The End did a great job of explaining heroin addiction and the demons it causes. Research, and write what you don't know.
Ann: Does no one know how to use the internet? Or a library? Or even discussing with your friends who know about the subject when you don’t? We have some pretty powerful brains. Use the opportunity to learn something new. If you’re determined to write about a topic you know very little about, then you’ll do your due diligence and learn about it in order to write about it. And you’ll be a better person for it in the end. We should all be attempting to expand our horizons with a little research every now and then.
Treat writing as a job
Riley: Maybe you’re lucky, maybe you're in the minority of people and you love your job. Most people don't. I love to write, I wish I had more time to devote to it. I love the freedom it gives me, especially in our modern age where I can literally pick up my phone at any time and start writing. Don't treat writing like a job, treat it like something you love to do.
Ann: Why, so I can hate it? You know what I did when I worked? I wrote. You know what I do now that I’m a stay at home mom who home schools her kiddos and designs websites? I don’t write because I feel like I SHOULD be writing. Find the joy it in it and stick with that. If sitting down at your computer from 9-5 with the sole purpose of writing brings you joy, then do it. But that doesn’t work for me and I refuse to adhere to that.
Focus on quality over quantity
Ann: What are we talking about here? Word count? Published book count? Pseudonym count? It’s so vague. If you’re capable of publishing a book a month and you feel passionate about that, then you go! Should we be working to put our best foot forward? Yes. But only you can decide when you’re ready to publish your book. Don’t let someone tell you that you shouldn’t just because you published a book a mere six months ago and you can’t possibly have completed another book since then that’s worth anyone’s time. Do what you feel led to do. And don’t let anyone shame you for that.
Riley: The most prolific author of our times has an entire religion based around some of his writings. Love him or hate him, L. Ron Hubbard has shown me that less isn't necessarily better. The man wrote in the golden age of pulp fiction, and had grammatical errors throughout his works. And yet, there are millions of people that follow his words to a point of reverence. This is not an endorsement or a chastisement of Scientology. Just something I always think about when people mention quality over quantity.
If you’ve read through all of our answers above, you’ve seen a common theme. A confusion over “rules” versus suggestions given to make us really examine our work prior to publishing. Don’t confuse the two or you’ll end up driving yourself (and everyone around you) completely insane with your constant recitation of grammar and writing rules.
I personally believe that any suggestion that makes you take a second look or a fresh look at your current WIP is helpful. But that doesn’t mean that you should lose sleep over the idea that one might have slipped by you during your editing process.
Sleep well. Write on. And Support Indie Authors!
-Ann Livi Andrews and Riley Amos Westbrook
Looking for more?
Our moderator, Dwayne Fry recently published his thoughts on Self Publishing in a book titled: Things I’ve Learned as an Indie Author. Some of the above rules are addressed as well as a multitude of others. If you’re looking for a fresh perspective on your work, I highly recommend giving it a read. You may see your work in an entirely new light.