The Basics from Dear Gentle Writer

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This week, since I’ve received a lot of questions about “the basics” of writing, I thought I would lump a few together.

Our first question comes from Lily in Ohio: I’m constantly seeing writing ‘rules’ posted on various  loops. Some totally contradict  each other and it’s confusing. Hooks, adverbs and gerunds. Grammar, subtext and POV, oh, my! My head is swirling and  I’m finding it more difficult to write for worrying I’m  going about this all wrong.  Help me,  Gentle Writer!

Dear Lily…don’t fret over those nasty old rules of writing.  They’re not really rules–except for the stuff about periods. You have to use periods, okay? Editors and agents will not buy you drinks at conferences if they realize you are the girl who uses no periods.

Ok … no …  seriously, take a deep breath and step away from the internet. There is so little about this writing business that we can control that sometimes newer writers tend to hyper-focus on the stuff we can.  Namely the rules.  But the low down dirty ugly truth is that while knowing the basics of grammar and storytelling are important, mastering “the rules” won’t get you published any faster.  And obsessing over the rules and which one is right or which one is wrong will only give you a migraine and a messed up liver from too much booze.  I’ll be honest and tell you that I have no idea what subtext or gerunds are.

Oh, I probably would know them if you gave me examples, but if you said, “What’s a gerund?” I’d probably refer you to a doctor.

While I think it’s probably in the best interest of every writer to at least be on hand-shaking terms with Mr. Rules, eventually you will reach a point in your writing journey where you have enough confidence in your abilities to say, “Hey this rule just isn’t working for me.  See ya later!”  And you’ll kick it to the curb.

Instead of worrying about the rules, and whether you’re wrong or right, try to focus more on your own writing, on honing your craft, digging deeper with your characters, and ultimately, mastering the best way to write a book–for you!  I know this might sound a bit blasphemous, but there is no right way to write a book.  Some writers plot, some don’t (or it ruins the story for them),  some *gasp* even write out of order or don’t type their manuscripts in Courier 12/TNR 14.

All most editors or agents want is a clean manuscript.  They probably don’t care what font it’s in as long as they can read it.  They don’t care about how perfect your story is; they’re looking to get sucked into your story the way you look forward to getting sucked into a book.  Let me give you an example: my agent signed me on a manuscript written in multiple first person POVs when normally that’s not her thing.  I rest my case.

And since this ended up being a longer answer than I’d intended, I’ll save the rest of the questions for another friday.

So, Dear Gentle Readers…what writing myths do you ignore?  Cuz I KNOW I’m not the only rule-breaker out there in writerland, ya’ll!

14 thoughts on “The Basics from Dear Gentle Writer

  1. You’re telling newbie writers not to follow the rules???? :diebastard:

    I don’t wanna even get started on gerunds. They’ve been driving me crazy all week. 😡


    Yes I said ignore the rules. Learn the rules, then figure out which of them works for you and which you CAN IGNORE! I say that because I remember being a newbie and obsessing about shit like margins and lines per page. Of course now I’m anal about it but I dont obsess like I did 5+ years ago!

  3. Oh, I love this. Love it.

    I use fragments. Often. I capitalize random words in the middle of a sentence. Because sometimes Something needs to be emphasized and I’m not big on italics. If I want a character to bite off his words I put a period after every single word. Oh. Yes. I. Do.

    And guess what? Not following every rule is what sets my Voice apart from the rest and landed me a spot on my agent’s client list.

    There are helpful rules, of course. I don’t take Tylenol Cold before writing because OY VEY. And I rarely use exclamation points because a) they irritate me and b) I’m old enough to remember that smelly cheap drugstore perfume in the cutesy pink exclamation point bottle. No thank you.

  4. I use fragments. Often.

    SQUEAL!!!! :thumb: Me too but I LURVE LURVE LURVEEEEEE ITALICS! And first person, and abusing POV in ways God never intended. And starting sentences with words like ‘and’ and ‘but’–often! And oh EM DASHES! :wootrock:

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  6. Walking into the pile of trouble Amie left on her back porch…~ This sentence starts with a gerund. Basically any variation on an ‘ing’ verb. And, yes there is a rule out there somewhere that says to NEVER start your sentence with a gerund.

    How do I know this? ‘Cause like this poor newbie I used to follow every rule. I read about 20-30 how to books in my first two years of writing. I became a member of The Cherries, their writing forum. Around year three I don’t think I could craft one sentence because no matter what there was a rule against whatever I decided to put down.

    Screw every single rule in the first draft. No, really screw them, every last one. Now, here’s the kick when you revise and you find the writing/prose isn’t flowing, the character is just off, or the particular scene is meh pull out those rules and see which one you broke. If following the rule would make the whatever better, then follow it. Never limit your first drafts, that should be the only rule you follow until it’s time to revise.

    • And on the subject of no two writers writing alike….

      Screw every single rule in the first draft.

      I cant. I JUST CANT! I try to write the cleanest first draft that I can so that when I edit, I have fewer things to fix. It’s not a perfect system but it works for me just like your system works for you :thumb: . I tend to lightly edit as I write, correcting misspelled words etc. Then stop at the 1/3, 2/3 points to edit again and make sure it’s all working. :wootrock:

  7. Walking into the pile of trouble Amie left on her back porch…~ This sentence starts with a gerund.

    See I TOLD YOU if you showed me, I’d know and I do LOL

    I think the reason that it’s a “Rule” (haha) to not start sentences with gerunds is that most newbie writers (MYSELF INCLUDED once upon a time) don’t use them correctly. I rarely use them, but if there’s no other way, then you do what you gotta do!

    • Snort. By no means did I mean for you to follow that rule. I remember your comment from yesterday where you practical started to hyperventilate at the thought of NaNo. I was advising this gentle writer ’cause from the sound of it she couldn’t write, because of all the damn rules out there. Plus, I think there is a big difference between rules of storytelling and grammar/punctuation. That’s where I was coming from i.e. never start your book with weather, the character sleeping/drinking coffee/thinking, your h/h must meet on the first page if not the first chapter, yada, yada.

      Strangely enough even in books about how to/how not to storytell there is a gerund rule. ALWAYS.

  8. I am a rule follower, much to the dismay of people who know me 🙂 except when it comes to writing–to a degree. I write to make it sound good to my ears. I will start sentences with conjunctions–I LIKE starting sentences with conjunctions. I like CJ’s examples too…

    I am a stickler for some things though–like if you don’t know how to NOT put 4 or 5 spaces between sentences (yes, I’ve seen this recently ) it drives me insane! (If I can tell an editor damn well sure can… ).

    If you can tell a complelling story the rest can be learned/fixed in edits. I don’t think you can learn to be a good story teller.

  9. Actually, the introductory phrase in Melissa’s example is most likely participal, not gerund. :badgirl: In order for it to be a gerund, the -ing phrase has to be used as a noun, and it’d be really hard to use this particular phrase as a noun.

    Walking into the pile of trouble Amie left on her back porch, so-and-so reconsidered her poor choice of shoes. (participial phrase, used as a modifier)

    Walking into the pile of trouble Amie left on her back porch was one of so-and-so’s favorite activities. (gerund phrase, used as a noun, but makes no freaking sense)

    Aaaaaaand I’m gonna stop here. I was about to explain why it’s not a good idea to begin a sentence with a gerund. LOL

  10. I’m going to keep my mouth shut.

    Gerunds and participles and infinitives and absolutes can be your friend. I love em dashes and cumulative sentences.

    Rules bug me when they arbitrary, which many of the writing “rules” are.

  11. My mom used to make these kick ass meals out of left-overs buy adding a little bit of this a little bit of that, throw it in the oven or sautee on the stove and bam! Dinner. I cook that way from scratch. I know just enough of a basic recipe to dangerous when it comes to improvising. lol. In a way, that’s how I write: whatever works to give me the results I want (emotional punch, characterization, pacing, plot-twist, emphasis on tone/author-vice, whatever). Like a basic recipe you should be aware of the so-calls rules because you need that knowledge if you’re going to start breaking and twisting them.