I’ve been hearing a lot of debates about “rules” of writing lately. Hasn’t anyone seen Pirates of the Caribbean? Remember the “code?” Or, rather, the “guidelines?” I really believe most writing rules are “more like guidelines.”
A couple of days ago, I was engaged in a lively discussion about point of view (POV). One contributor to the discussion thrust a firm stake in the ground: NEVER change POV unless you’re starting a new chapter, she said.
Whew! I so wish Nora Roberts could have chimed in on that one. But, oh well, she is probably too busy meeting with her investment banker on what to do with all her money. I’ve read some of Nora’s books where she has not only changed POV within a chapter, but within a scene, even – gasp – head-hopped from one character to another. No, it didn’t pull me out of the story or ruin it for me. And it didn’t confuse me. That’s the key. The basic principle of this “rule” is to avoid confusing your reader. If there is a sound reason for switching POV, and the switch is clear to the reader, does it necessarily signal “bad” writing? It seems to be one of those “rules” that’s become like a writing lifeline – one solid thing in a slippery sea that a new writer can grab hold of to try and make sense of how to accomplish this thing called writing.
So, what prompted this post is that yesterday I picked up “The Cuckoo’s Calling” by Robert Galbraith, aka bazillionaire J.K. Rowling. I didn’t dive into it because it’s not something I chose to read. It’s for my book club, and I’m really not that interested in it. So I flipped a few pages, and had to laugh. “Avoid prologues,” a New York Times columnist says in an article I read recently. Yep, “The Cuckoo’s Calling” begins with . . . a prologue.
In flipping the pages of this book, something else caught my eye. Here I quote from the book: “said the nurse gently.” And “ said Lady Bristow vaguely.” And “she said evasively.” Oh, yes, also “said Wardle irritably.” You get the idea, right? Yet, here’s the “rule” that has made its way into today’s list of writerly sins (again, quoting from a NYT columnist): “Never use an adverb to modify the verb ''said'' . . .” Apparently Ms. Rowling didn’t get the memo.
I do believe there are punctuation and grammar rules that should be followed. But even in that, some excellent writers get away with breaking those rules. Kent Haruf, author of the bestseller “Plain Song,” doesn’t even bother to use quotation marks.
I think it’s that word ‘never’ that causes the trouble. Bottom line for me? When it comes to writing, the “rules” are more like guidelines.