You know it’s funny. Everybody has writing advice these days. Most of us learned the basics in school while some of us took it a step further in creative writing, poetry and journalism courses. I fully immersed myself in all of those classes back in the day. But today it’s blogs. In order to get their names out there, many authors will post about writing rules because it’s the thing to do, and what the heck else are they going to blog about?
The trouble is, the more rules you read, the more they conflict with one another, leaving you in a state of panic and wondering what’s right, what’s wrong, and what does it matter. My foundation is strong enough to combat those nerves. Everybody has an opinion, but I know what I’m doing, thank you very much. That’s not to say I’m done learning because even bestselling authors and supposed experts never stop improving and evolving. It’s just that I won’t be shaken by others whose sole purpose in life is to develop new rules which have little to no bearing on the entertainment value of a book.
Some people are sticklers. A friend of mine, for example, told me she hates popular fiction because it breaks the rules. Sentence fragments mainly. (You see what I did there?)
My friend prefers classic literature because the broken rules drive her nuts. I happen to enjoy the broken rules if it’s done in a way that makes sense. An intelligent reader knows when the writer inadvertently or purposely breaks those rules everyone babbles on about.
If it flows, it works. Period. But you have to understand language in order to know how to do it. Yes, you can start a sentence with a conjunction. You can end a sentence with a preposition, but if there’s a way to avoid it, do so. You can use adverbs, exclamation points and those dreaded words “very” and “feel”, and if the editors don’t like it, they can have their coronaries but that’s their problem.
Hemingway, the man himself, didn’t put commas everywhere they were supposed to go, and as a matter of fact, I’ve seen many following suit. Hey, if it’s good enough for Hemingway, right?
But the oddest rule I’ve ever seen broken was in a book by Kent Haruf. In case you don’t know, Haruf was a bestselling, award-winning American novelist, whose final work was published posthumously in 2015. It was called Our Souls at Night and was somewhat slow and reminiscent of Richard Yates in the way he depicted real life and eased the reader into the story, gradually inviting you to trust and understand the characters, empathize with them and their plight. By the end, you have chills but aren’t really sure how that happened. It sneaks up on you. (This book was made into a movie starring Robert Redford and Jane Fonda in September 2017. I haven’t yet seen it, but it may be worth checking out.)
Needless to say, Haruf knew what he was doing and did it well, so I guess he gave himself permission to be daring and do something that would make all the bloggers and editors and writing teachers of today drop dead from the horror of it.
So what was this rule he broke?
He didn’t use quotation marks. No quotation marks in dialog. It’s all just slapped together along with the narrative, and the reader has to figure it out, which isn’t difficult since the writing is so simplistic.
Why did the man eliminate quotation marks? Apparently, he wanted to declutter the page. Personally, I find it a bit odd, but that was his style and he could get away with it. If an unknown author were to attempt something as “wild” as this, look out! You can be sure many one-star reviews would be posted on Amazon.
But it’s okay. Something told Haruf to do this. If you believe in what you’re doing and are confident in your choices, don’t let the critics shut you down.
Just one thing: If you’re going to break the rules, make sure you do it well.
D.M. Miller is the author of the interfaith “Heart” series as well as the poetry collection, Dandelion Fuzz and the memoir, Half-Jew: Searching for Identity. The product of an interfaith marriage herself, Miller’s work explores the difficult themes of religion, politics, ethnicity, culture, family, ancestry and love. See her books on Amazon.