Re: Novel Ninja's Four Maxims of Writing

Over the years, I've found myself repeating a few phrases over and over to clients, students, and lecture attendees. I've never actually written them all down in detail in one place, but I thought it might help now. 

Writing is an art, not a science.

No matter how much you study the craft, it will remain something that isn't completely bound by even the broadest rules. In our mutual quest to find our own methods of entertaining others, we will come across ways to break those rules and make them work for us. It's often said that you need to know the rules in order to know when to break them; I maintain that the real reason to know the rules is to know when the rules don't apply in the first place.

Every few years a new story -- book, movie, TV show, play, whatever -- comes along that breaks previous conventions and succeeds despite all previous wisdom saying it was impossible. There's always a reason why, even if it's something you don't like. You might hate the story yourself, but its success proves there was something you could learn from it. I can't stand Twilight myself, but there's no doubt it was a successful work of fiction.

But this particular piece of wisdom goes both ways. When you find those exceptions, they don't become new laws of writing-physics. There's a reason why they worked, and duplicating the exact reason isn't going to be easy. In fact, it's likely impossible for most writers. Therefore, you have to understand the art as art, and not as anything you can always quantify. The success of your writing depends too much on emotional impact to make it work by copying others without understanding them first.

If it helps, think of it this way: There are no rules; there are only techniques. 

(And yes, this applies to everything in this post, and anything I might say in a future post, comment, or review -- even if I use the word "rule." But if you find someone who's the exception to the last entry on this list, I want to know what you've been smoking.)

Real life has an advantage over fiction: fiction has to make sense.

It is absolutely essential to be realistic to some degree. That degree depends not only on your genre but also your tone, your style, and the reaction you want to provoke in your audience. The point I wish to make is that while it is important to draw on real life, reality does not always help you. 

I always talk about this one really bad story when I give my character talk at conventions (you know, back in the old days when those happened). It was a fantasy war story about how the good guys have finally beat back the armies of a demigod, the son of the sun god. All that remains is to conquer his island, populated entirely by people so slavishly devoted to him that they will fight to the death for him down to the last man, woman, and child. The writers have pumped up this impenetrable island fortress so much that they're backed into a corner, and produce a magical superweapon from out of nowhere that harnesses the power of the sun. The demigod surrenders, and his people immediately lay down their arms with no appreciable resistance.

Bad writing, right? Except this wasn't a fantasy war story, and it wasn't a magical weapon. I just described the end of World War II, and the use of previously-secret nuclear weapons that convinced the Emperor of Japan to surrender. (Despite an assassination attempt from his own generals, I'll add.) The rest of it really was like that in real life, though; every single Purple Heart issued today was struck during World War II in anticipation of the truly massive casualties the US would face during the invasion that the Emperor prevented. Despite Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq, we're still a long way off from minting new Purple Heart medals.

This is of course an extreme example; but do you see the weakness of saying “It makes sense because I based it on real life”? We expect stories to live up to a higher standard. If you write a war story based on World War II, then at the very least you must include characters working on the equivalent of the Manhattan Project, or else it's not set up. Even then, you have to explain how the weapon works within your worldbuilding, because while in real life we just accept that nuclear bombs work, in fiction we need to know what makes The Super Weapon so special.

This means that your protagonist cannot advance through coincidence; it must be explained. It must have a reason sufficient to prevent a deus ex machina. You have to explain how your protagonist, or someone aiding your protagonist, happens to be in the right place at the right time. However, your antagonist (or other opposing force, if you're writing a My Side of the Mountain kind of story with no antagonist) can cause further problems through coincidence as long as it is merely plausible. In the first Harry Potter, Draco Malfoy causes problems for Harry, Ron, and Hermione because he catches them out of bed after hours, but we don't need an explanation for how he happened to be in the right place at the right time; it's merely enough that it's plausible that it happened. Meanwhile, any time that Harry and his friends catch someone doing something suspicious, we have to have an explanation as to why they were there and able to see or hear it.

English isn't a programming language.

Because most of us grew up with the kind of English used for school, with exact grammar rules (many of which were invented by Victorian schools precisely to mimic the complexities of Latin and Greek), it's easy to fall into the trap of thinking that there is only one type of English. It's even easier for anyone who learned English entirely in a classroom as a second language, such as immigrants and academics, because odds are good that their original language only has one variety, enforced by a language academy.

Language academies are important institutions across the world. Every major international language, and many less-significant languages has either a central authority to regulate how the language is used, or it has a collection of authorities that work together. Every major language, that is, except English.

(Note: I went on a tangent here that I moved to a separate post below. I think it's relevant to the topic, but it was a lot of information. Refer to it if you want, or just ignore it.)

In every English-speaking country, everyone is aware of the differences between US and UK English, that Canadian English is often a mix of the two, and that Australian English is somewhere off getting drunk. Within UK English alone, you have Received Pronunciation, Cockney, Black Country English, Scots English (not actually related to Scottish), and a whole host of other little regional dialects, many of which have grammar that hasn't changed since the days when Beowulf was the hot new story. This experience with a wide diversity of English means that English readers can accept not just characters with different dialects within the same language, but also understand the idea (and the dialog) of characters not fluent in a new language speaking a broken version of it. That's simply something not accepted in many major languages.

The language we call “English” (regardless of its dialect) is regulated not by government but by custom, which means that trying to focus on the grammar you may have learned in school is limiting yourself. We don't speak a programming language that will break if you get one character out of place.  We're many different cultures, separated by a common language. Let that diversity work for you, not against you. Learn the difference between when to use who versus whom, if only so you can know when your character wouldn't know the difference.

And yes: unless you're writing an academic paper, it is perfectly acceptable to begin a sentence with a conjunction, and to boldly split your infinitives; and when writing prose, prepositions are excellent things to end a sentence with. 

(Hilariously, both my mother and my mother-in-law cringe when I say that. One's a former English teacher, the other's a former programmer. I'll leave you to decide which one's which.) 

Even editors need editors.

I can't tell you how many times it's happened to me. Someone who just found out I'm an editor, or just got initial feedback on their manuscript, becomes utterly mortified at the thought that I'm judging them on their grammar. 

It doesn't matter how good you are: you will make mistakes. Not only is English not a programming language, we're also not AIs. We're fallible. We misspeak. We edit a sentence and forget to remove (or add) a crucial word. We think this means we're idiots.

No. Even the best editor needs an editor. If I were to ever publish a book, I'd get another editor to go over it, because I can't be objective about my book. I will always read what I meant to say, not what I actually wrote. There is no magical point at which you'll never make a mistake. Don't stress about it -- plan for it. Get your work looked at, and go over it in detail. Know the difference between developmental editing, line editing, copy editing, and proofreading. But above all, don't get hung up on the fear of someone saying you did it “wrong.” If you think they're right, fix it and move on.

Some people swear by editing a manuscript by reading it backward. That gives me a headache, but if it works for you, go right ahead. The one I recommend is reading it out loud, preferably from a paper printout if you can (there's something about the difference that really lets most people spot the errors). Among other things, it's the best way to grasp how a sentence actually sounds, as opposed to how it sounds in your head.

If you find yourself stressing over writing, keep these four statements in mind. I've never found them to be wrong in any way, and they usually help authors relax. 

Re: Novel Ninja's Four Maxims of Writing

(The following was cut from the above post because while the information is relevant to the comparison of non-English languages to English, it was distracting from the purpose of the post. I didn't want it to go to waste, and didn't want to completely rewrite the original point to go without the additional information, so I decided to split it into this post so you can ignore it if you wish, or read it in its entirety if you find it interesting. I, uh, might have written a couple more paragraphs knowing it would be a side-note. *hangs head in language-geek shame*

An English-language authority has been proposed many times. The last major push for one was in the early United States, during the Revolution, when a language academy was rejected by the Second Continental Congress because it would be an affront to personal liberty. That echoed the thoughts of Samuel Johnson (the guy who single-handedly wrote the most influential English dictionary in history, and the standard of the English language before the Oxford Dictionary was published a hundred years ago), who said that a true governmental language authority would only cause widespread disobedience among the English peoples. The culture of England, and therefore the culture of almost every country in the world that uses English as its primary language, is just not conducive to that kind of enforcement.  True to his prediction, Received Pronunciation (also called BBC English, and the closest the UK has ever had to an official version of English) is quietly being dropped from official media precisely because the common English people hate it.

This is part of the reason why English is a poor language for exact specifications (such as in philosophy, and why medicine has so many unusual terms invented to provide extra detail), but it's also a source of strength for storytelling. The inherent variability of the English language allows for nuance and detail that simply isn't possible in many other written languages. When this topic came up during a conversation with one famous sci-fi author who was translated into multiple languages, he mentioned how the Spanish language translator for his books once expressed frustration. His books made references to many different accents, and often used spelling constructions and grammar quirks to get that across. You can't do that in Spanish; it simply doesn't work. People in the United States may be familiar with the idea of there being four distinct types of Spanish typically spoken within its borders (Castilian, Mexican, Cuban, and Texan Spanish, though others exist as well), but you can't mix and match, especially in Spain itself. The only way that this Spanish translator had to indicate anything like “country bumpkin” was to use 19th century Spanish, which would be like writing The Dukes of Hazzard using vocabulary more appropriate to Victorian England.

This is not to say that there aren't immense dialectal differences within one language. I have an author friend who's an immigrant from Portugal. She freely shares stories of how she grew up in their equivalent of the sticks to anyone who asks, including how she figured out she was one of the rich kids in the village because she had not one but two pairs of shoes that fit. That's how poor that village was. And when she went to school, she also discovered she had to learn a foreign language. She'd never known she didn't speak Portuguese until her teacher told her she couldn't ask anything, even to go to the bathroom, until she learned how to say it in “real” Portuguese. You might be thinking of stereotypes of Black English (note: not to be confused with Black Country English in the UK) not being “real” English, but from her description the difference between her native dialect and “official Portuguese” was more like the difference between academic English and Gullah or Louisiana Creole. In many ways, having a central official version of your language actually accelerates linguistic drift rather than freezes it.

There are other problems with the difference between “street” language (spoken every day by normal people) and “blackboard” language (dissected in the classroom by academics). You know the stereotype of how the French think Americans speaking French is painful? If you've ever seen or heard (or experienced) it despite the speaker being technically fluent in French, you might assume it's just because the French are snobbish. You might also wonder why they treat the American speaker as snobbish. Actually, the French we learn in classrooms here, with no real way to practice it in the real world like the British often do, sounds stilted and stuffy to the native speaker's ear. We teach official French in our classrooms, and the difference between that and what the ordinary Frenchman speaks is like someone speaking Received Pronunciation (oh-so-proper British English) at a sports bar in the Bronx. At minimum, they'll look at you funny.

Re: Novel Ninja's Four Maxims of Writing


NovelNinja Wrote: Real life has an advantage over fiction: fiction has to make sense.

Boy howdy, you got that right. And ooh... it picks me off. Going both ways on the matter. 

NovelNinja Wrote: Even editors need editors.

Another boy howdy on that. I am an awesome-sauce editor, but I can't write a story worth snit.

Well I can nowadays, but it takes me about a million words to find a few thou worth a snit. 
But editing someone else's story? 
That is easy-peasy, because I don't have to care about the arc or the plot or the character.
All I have to care about are the words. 😃

Re: Novel Ninja's Four Maxims of Writing

Hi NovelNinja.

Thank you for so many great advices. They will come in handy in my writing as a beginner writer. I’m so happy that you decided to lurk the forums more proactively (I read your introduction a while ago)! Feel free to check out my fiction if you find the spare time. It’s in its beginning stage, so you might want to hang on until I have at least 10 chapters out.

On a side note, I’m guessing your mother is the teacher and your mother-in-law is the programmer. As a young teacher myself, during my academic studies, starting a sentence with a conjunction was a definite ‘no-go’ move. It gives me a sense of relief when you write saying that starting with a conjunction and ending with a preposition is tolerable for creative writing.

I will try my best to break the laws of writing without breaking the message I want to convey to readers.


Re: Novel Ninja's Four Maxims of Writing

Aw man, I wrote out a whole reply and my internet glitched and ate the whole thing instead of posting.

NovelNinja Wrote: I can't tell you how many times it's happened to me. Someone who just found out I'm an editor, or just got initial feedback on their manuscript, becomes utterly mortified at the thought that I'm judging them on their grammar. I'm not in the 

 Was that intentional?

NovelNinja Wrote: Some people swear by editing a manuscript by reading it backward.

I was curious about this so I looked it up to find out more. The suggested method I found was to read the words in each line backwards, while still reading from the top to the bottom of each page.  Though I suppose other variations may work for some people too.  I could even write a script to display the words in reverse order if I want to try that out.  (I write in Markdown format with syntax highlighting, and have a complex Python script to automatically convert to html pages for my website every time I save.)