The eight Writers in Residence are devoted to sharing their experiences in everything from reviews and scriptwriting to short stories and novels. We encourage and educate, let you learn from our mistakes, and offer the insights of other writing professionals.
Once a month the Writers in Residence authors have lunch at
a restaurant in the Pasadena/Arcadia area[i],
and since this group of fellow authors now includes me, I try to make the trek
into the BIG city whenever I can. The last time I attended, and as always, I not
only ate a lot of great food, but also participated in several thoughtful and
energizing conversations with some very supportive, smart, and nice authors. This post
was inspired by that lunch, and a conversation about writing rules, writing booboos,
and things that stop a reader from enjoying a book.
Madeline (M.M.) Gornell
Disclaimer alert! (smile) It is my firm
belief every writer is different, but I also think it’s good to listen to a lot
of “stuff,” then pick and chose what fits.
So here are some thoughts
that started percolating over onion rings… (mixed metaphor?)
Though I’ve heard over and
over the word “rules” used when talking about writing, I think more are fads or
current conventions. One of those is, Prefaces.
Well, I love writing prefaces. The “love” part may sound a little over the top,
but for me, a preface really can set
the stage for the reader, giving a hint at what is driving an author to write a
particular story, and most importantly—pull the reader in. I’m also fond of
tying things up in prologue type sections at the end. Prefaces and Prologues, whether
in or not right now, can be useful. For me, they’re integral to my writing
Another “thing” I really like
are semi-colons and colons. Though, I think complex and compound ideas are not
that much in favor. Admittedly, I often have to look up which punctuation mark I
should be using; but expressing a complex idea, or a list of thoughts (or
things) well, is an ability I greatly admire and strive for. Many self-indulgent semi-colons have been
struck out of my drafts by my wonderful editors.
Here's a difficult one—I don’t
like describing characters in detail, prefer giving the reader only a vague
idea, and letting them draw the picture from their own background of friends,
family and acquaintances—think those character-pictures are consequently the
most memorable for the reader. (At least
until the movie is made!) For example, “Leiv liked the doctor, and was glad
he came back into town. In looks, Shiné’s doctor was the epitome of an
archetypical country doctor, with savvy old-time wisdom and experience,
combined with current day technical expertise.” I think it’s hard to do, but I
think I’m getting better at “inferring,” rather than describing because one of my
editors who is a stickler for making sure the reader can “see” the character (and early on), didn’t much ding-me this
This one I think, is probably a “rule,”—Don’t
use footnotes in fiction—haven’t broken this one in my books (though, oh so
tempted!), have done in other writings, e.g. this blog.
use long words. Ha! If I don’t have to go to the dictionary at least once—I
feel like something was missing. For sure, that probably comes from reading and admiring P.D.
James, who has sent me to the dictionary more than once. Here’s an example from
me, concatenation (a word I like and
maybe use too often)—a dearly beloved editor, and a book club member, both thought I might do well to find a better
word—i.e. a word most readers are familiar with. They’re probably right, but I
just keep channeling P.D.—smile. (Did you
get the e.g. and i.e. usage rule I slipped in?)
there’s “tie up loose ends”… hmm that one is tricky. Satisfy readers—but not a
fairy tale type ending. Once again, I love
leaving loose ends—because life is like that, and a book for me is peeking into
of your character’s world and experiencing with them a little slice of their lives.
Finally, following up on my
earlier disclaimer—someone told me, and I can’t remember who it was, or their
exact words, but I do still remember the idea—Take it all in, know the rules, so that when you break them, you know
why. So true, I think. An addendum to that thought is, if you tell a good
story where the reader is pulled in and doesn’t want to leave—all is forgiven—whether
knowledgeably breaking the rules, or just plain screwing-up.