Learning about The Rules, Donna’s Addendum

Meg’s post about learning the rules has sparked quite a bit of conversation amongst the Purple Ink Writers and friends.

She posted that at around the same time a friend of mine expressed interested in the backstory of one of my characters. As it turned out, I had written that backstory into a novella length piece of fiction some six years ago. I dug out that story, opened it up just to look it over, and I was horrified! It was awful! I was humiliated that I ever let anyone read it. Ever.

*Important side note: something in the neighborhood of 100 people read that story when I first wrote it and not a one of them said “This is horrible!” Most of them seemed to quite like it. I mention this not to brag, but to add some perspective.

So, why did I think it was so bad? Because in six years I’ve learned so much not just about the basics like grammar, but more serious things like Point of View, show-don’t-tell, and use of dialogue tags. Stuff about avoiding prologues and flashbacks and dream sequences. Using adverbs sparingly, avoiding passive voice and weak sentence construction.

In other words: The Rules. I’ve been learning The Rules. (Originally I typed that I had learned The Rules, but no… I’m still learning them. Check out that ellipsis right there. Also, don’t even talk to me about m-dash and n-dash, I don’t want to hear it!)

But, do you know what was in that horrible piece of fiction? A solid story with engaging characters – if I say so myself. I had real dialogue, well-constructed action scenes, and more than one reader said that I made them cry.

I said all this not to trash my own writing, nor to brag about it. I said it because The Rules can be learned.

Let me repeat:

The Rules can be learned.

You can learn what passive voice is and how to avoid it. And you can learn when it’s just fine and to leave it alone. You can learn how to avoid an adverb by using a better verb, or when to just go ahead and use that adverb. You can learn dialogue tags, and Point of View, and even that whole show-don’t-tell thing, and when to consider any of The Rules to be mere guidelines.

If you’ve got that innate spark of creativity, that ability to imagine a “what if?” and follow it through… then The Rules are just the difference between going out in sweatpants and dirty t-shirt or a nice outfit with tastefully applied make up and maybe a spritz  of perfume.


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