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When to break the rules in writing

The first time one of my Fiona Griffiths novels went to a copyeditor, no one had thought to check with me what I actually wanted from the process. (Which, ahem, is not absolutely unheard of in trad publishing.)

My FG novels are voiced by my heroine herself. She sounds like this:

We find signs to Porthgain, the village, but a small white sign points us further up the coast. ‘Porthgain Secure Hospital’.

A one way track, unhedged.

A pale sea rising on the horizon.

We drive for a mile or two. Then, at a turn in the road, a gleam of white buildings occupying their own narrow headland. A jut of rock.

Now, as you may notice, Fiona Griffiths doesn’t write the way you were taught to write at school. She uses sentence fragments, a lot. (A sentence fragment lacks a main verb, as for example, “A one way track, unhedged.”) She uses some extremely short paragraphs including plenty of one-worders. She never uses a semi-colon. She’ll often make a list where items are separated by full stops (= Brit-speak for period) instead of commas and so on.

In short, she offends the instinct of every good copyeditor everywhere in the world.

Now, it turned out that my friends at Orion had, in their goodness, decided to unfreeze a cryogenically preserved librarian from the 1950s. They’d thawed off the tweed, recurled the hair, and had her spectacles specially reframed to be extra scary. They then asked this fine lady to copy-edit the work of Detective Sergeant Fiona Griffiths.

And –

The result was not a happy one. Sentence fragments got resentenced. Those lists-with-full-stops got remade into regular comma-style lists. Semi-colons entered the manuscript in their swarms.

My nice clean prose turned from stuff like this:

A one way track, unhedged.

A pale sea rising on the horizon.

We drive for a mile or two. […]

To stuff like this:

The track is one way and unhedged. On the horizon, a pale sea rises up and we drive on for a mile or two. […]

And, you know, that kind of writing is really fine. Most people write with plenty of main verbs. I use em myself. I’ve got nothing against them.

But –

That’s not how Fiona Griffiths writes or sounds or is. So when I got the completed revised manuscript back again, I just said no.

No, that wasn’t how I wanted it. No, that wasn’t the voice of Fiona Griffiths that I’d so carefully contrived. And, in short, just no, no, no. (There was a swearier version too, but I kept that to myself.)

So Orion, bless em, said, “You’re quite right. We were wrong. We’ll put it all back.” And they did, except that they cleaned up any actual typos and the rest.

So good. That sounds like a win for common sense and late-blooming editorial tact.

But what I want to say is this:

There are no rules that matter except those of clarity and expressive force. If you are clear and expressive, your writing just is fine, and phooey to anyone who says different.

It’s fine to repeat yourself. There’s TS Eliot’s much-quoted repetition about “Time past and time present are both perhaps present in time future” and yes, that’s repetitive, but it’s also poetry, so maybe doesn’t count.

Except you don’t need to be one of the greatest poets of all time to get away with a spot of repetition. Here, in a rather humbler context, is Fiona Griffiths doing the exact same thing:

Is Jared Coad the man we snapped in that kebab shop?

I don’t know. Just going on the facial resemblance alone, I’d have to say definitely possible. Throw in Coad’s combat training and psychological profile, and you’d have to say definitely yes. But throw in the ‘oh, but he’s in a supermax secure psychiatric facility,’ and you’re left with – I don’t know. The definite yes and the definite no both seem emphatic.

That’s four versions of ‘definite’ in one short paragraph. But is the repetition annoying? I don’t think so. To my ear, that paragraph sounds fine and I’d happily defend it from any tweedy librarian.

You may note as well that that paragraph has plenty of contractions (“I’d” for “I would”, for example), which you’re not really meant to do. It also makes a noun of the entire phrase “oh, but he’s in a supermax secure psychiatric facility”, which is so wrong I don’t even know the name for what kind of wrong it is.

But so what?

Clarity, right? And expressive force. That paragraph has both.

You can even (sometimes, not often) make good use of outright clumsiness. In one of the books, Fiona’s dad gives her mother a giant silver trophy for the “World’s Best Mam”. It’s awful and her mother hates it, but her father, undeterred, fixes it over the kitchen door. Fiona says, “On the way through into the kitchen, we had to stop to admire the trophy, which now looms over the kitchen door like something about to collapse.”

And that last phrase “like something about to collapse” doesn’t offend against old-fashioned grammar exactly, but it does break good writing guidelines on specificity and elegance. “Like a tumbledown shed” is what you’re meant to say. Or “like a motorway carwreck.” Or something you can actually put a picture to.

Except that – the phrase itself is clumsy and somehow jury-rigged. Like the shelf which holds the trophy, the actual description feels like a thing on the point of collapse. In other words, I doubt if I could find a better phrase, no matter how long I thought about it.

So in short, in short, in short –

Do what you want.

Yes, you need to develop and good and sensitive ear and a keen sense of the kind of prose you want to hear yourself writing. But do all those good things, then write however the hell you want. Clarity and expressive force. Those two things, forever and always. You don’t need to worry about anything else.

Till soon

How about you? What are your examples of rule-breaking prose that you don't intend to give up on? Or what things are you plain unsure about. Leave a comment below and speak to The Librarian.

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Comments (11)
  • At last! Permission to write non-sentences! How about this: 'Silence, and then a radio, softly playing Chinese opera. A pair of cats’ eyes staring unblinking and then fading as their owner scuttled away. Uneven steps into the village proper—some wide, some narrow. Some high, some low. All wet and a bit slimy.'

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    • That's good writing, Eric. One of the things I notice there is that we think of verbs as words of doing, but your snippet has no main verb, but still feels fluid and mobile. Partly that cat moving, but more because your lens moves across the scene, bringing the reader with it. Nice.

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      • Thanks, Harry. Now to get 120,000 words to the same standard..

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      • Thanks for this, Harry.   I love writing that way, for example (referring to a telephone call):  

        It’s a regular occurrence, though not so regular that you can mark the day of the week or the month of the year by it.  A normal kind of call.  On a normal kind of day.

        I think it works because it's the way human's think - and often talk -  not in complete sentences but just snatches.


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        • Yep, exactly. Nice, easy, simple writing that just wouldn't be made better by any grammar-pimping. What's more, the movement between fragmented and properly constructed prose gives you a kind of additional rhythm to play. Not just long sentence vs short sentence, for example, but something else again. Good stuff.

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        • Just want to add: I revere all (living) librarians. It's just the newly thawed 1950s ones that I have issues with ...

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          • Thanks, Harry. A great post. I think short sentence fragments are similar to the directions you might find in a film script. They can set the scene for something to come, building up tension and drawing the reader in so they feel as if they are there.

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            • Another thought, Harry - When you really need a verb, what are your thoughts on "borrowing" a noun? --

              The haymaker swing of my rigid forearm clotheslined the man in the throat and he went down flat on his back, clutching at his throat and gasping for breath.

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              • There's nothing wrong with the idea in principle - Shakespeare did the same thing all the time. But that particular example, I'm not keen on. There's just too much imagery to grapple with in there. "Haymaker swing" - OK, I get that, but I think of a fist. Then I have to adapt my mental picture to take in that rigid forearm. Then I think "clotheslined"? What the hell is that? I can figure it out, but you're making me do a lot of work - and the sentence isn't even finished. That's why I had clarity as one half of my duo. Your first job as a writer is to convey clearly and precisely what you want to convey. For me at least, that particular sentence feels a bit too hard to grasp.

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