Lunch, Rules, and Personal Preference

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 and thinking.
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 last go-around.
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.
Don’t 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?)
Then there’s “tie up loose ends”… hmm that one is tricky. Satisfy readers—but not a fairy tale type ending. Once again, I loveleaving 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.

[i]In Southern California LA area.

23 thoughts on “Lunch, Rules, and Personal Preference”

  1. Madeline and Marilyn, you are so right. One of my favorite English teachers told me exactly that: It's OK to break a rule if you KNOW you're breaking it. But if you don't know there's a rule, how can you know when you're breaking it?

    I love what you said about character descriptions, Mad. It's much more fun for me as a reader to have a general description and then fill in the details from my own imagination. Of course, then it's always a jolt when a film version comes out because the people NEVER look the way I imagined.


  2. I love the idea of “no rules.” Sometimes the story demands a rule to be broken and I do it without looking back. And I, too, find the need for a preface every now and then. It does set the stage. As for footnotes, my spy trilogy coming out later this year has them, but the book is as much historical as it is fiction, so again, if the rule needs to be broken, break it… gently.


  3. Excellent post, Madeline. The only thing I can disagree with is big words, because if I have to go look up something, it kind of throws me out of the story. Well, maybe a big word or two would work. : ) I love breaking the rules!

    Marja McGraw


  4. Patricia, so true about unique voices, which reminds me how important it is to have an editor who can 'hear' your voice, and consequently edit accordingly. Thanks for stopping by!



  5. Know what you mean, Bonnie, about the film coming out. The Aviator was one for me. I of course had a picture of Howard Hughes in my brain, was so wonderfully surprised at the great job(in my opinion) Leonardo DiCaprio did, even though my picture was so, so different.


  6. You're not alone, Marja, have had more than one person (well a lot actually), say they hate going to the dictionary! One of the things I like about my Kindle (and maybe all electronic readers?) you can look up a word right away. But you are right, takes you away from the story. Thanks for stopping by!


  7. I'm so happy to read this post because I'm really good at breaking some “rules”. Sometimes I don't even want to see the movie about certain books because I want the characters to look exactly how I picture them in my mind. Great post, Madeline.


  8. A fun post! I remember talking over a few of these rules while eating those yummy onion rings!! BTW, what in the world does concatenation mean? I confess, I sometimes skim through prefaces, but I always love epilogues.
    Other things that have gone out of style that I like are maps at the beginning that show the village, manor, or area in which the story is set (I always put these in my children's stories) and a cast list with a bit about who the person is – especially in stories when 10-15 characters are introduced in the first chapter.


  9. Me, too, Jackie, reluctant to see movies because I don't want to be disappointed. I'm a bit of an anglophile when it comes to mysteries and then the BBC adaptations. I must say David Suchet as Hercule Poirot and Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes were for the images in my mind – perfect! (and sending a hello through you to my special Raven!)


  10. Oh Jackie, so glad to hear you miss maps, and village pictures, and cast lists etc.! I do too!!! When first submitting my first book to publishers I included some drawings and a list of characters that were immediately thrown out. I found out early on, they're not in favor. If I were a famous writer, I'd try to bring them back in style.

    Oh yes, I also remember our conversation–triggered this blog! (for good or bad (smile)) As I've mentioned before, you've inspired me on more than one occasion.

    concatenation – a series of interconnected things or events. Not sure when or where I picked it up, someone's novel most probably…


  11. I did not have internet connection for 2 days, consequently I am late with this comment. Great post, Madeline! I admit to not knowing all the rules and most likely break many. I am happy to learn that you are a great P.D. James fan and so am I. Looking up big words is second nature to me as English is not my mother language. By the way, at the beginning of each book in my R. A. Huber Series, I list a “Cast of Characters”.


  12. Count me as one who prefers leaving something to the imagination when it comes to describing. I like to participate in the process when I read and try to offer that experience when I write. And I'll add commas to the punctuation list. So many writers have been told by their editors not to use commas unless they want the reader to pause at that point in the story even if it's grammatically incorrect and it leads to excessively long sentences. WHEW.

    So many wonderful points made here – terrific post!


  13. Yeah, Alice! For your Cast of Characters. Your stopping by reminded me I've intended to download your latest, A Bet Turned Deadly, but hadn't done it–but now I have! Looking forward. And sooooo glad we share P.D. James…


  14. Thanks for the thought on commas, so true, Miko. And I must confess, I can get lost in sentences and mis-understand without commas (or other punctuation). I also like your thought the reader is “participating” in the process–an excellent way to look at descriptions. And helpful too. Thanks!


  15. Your posts are always thought-provoking, Madeline. And, yes, once one knows the rules – the creativity is in how we break them. Pablo Picasso famously said: “It took me four years to learn to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.” And that's what we do with words: we paint pictures for our readers – each in our own individual way.


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