What Rules Do You Follow?

Man jumping through the gap.

Sometimes It’s Hard to Know
The wealth of advice available (including in this blog), may seem overwhelming at times to a new indie author.

Think about some of the things you’ve been told are literary no-nos. Prepositions at the end of sentences. Split infinitives. Double negatives. Sentence-beginning conjunctions. Sentence fragments. Run-on sentences. Poor dialogue attribution.

If you’re at all like me, you’ve already read Strunk & White’s Elements of Style, and the AP Stylebook. When you read them, the whole writing process often seems to boil down to a series of dos and don’ts that must be followed at all cost.

In a sense, all of what you’ve been told is true. The absolute worst thing you can do is scoff at the rules and decide they don’t apply to you … because no matter how amazing your writing is, you need to understand the basic guidelines for your craft.

The reason? The person reading your work expects you to.

Reader Expectations
All readers have certain expectations, and these expectations all tend to fall in line with the rules. Now, does that mean amazing, rule-bending things won’t happen or can’t be done?

Not at all.

One of the interesting things you discover, the more you read, are the many fabulous writers who choose to either ignore, or at least bend, the rules.

They’ve already made that great literary leap of faith. Elmore Leonard, the famous Michigan crime writer, once said: “I try to leave out the parts readers skip.”

You may also have heard of Cormac McCarthy. He’s a brilliant author who’s written some wonderful books like The Road and Blood Meridian. He’s also famous for using almost no punctuation, sometimes to the point his books become difficult to follow.

Yet his writing works.

That’s because there are two ways to break a rule: knowingly and unknowingly. Mere ignorance of a rule is not an adequate excuse for breaking it, and you can’t use an exception to the rule as a basis for how things should be done.

Not without a lot of practice and a thorough understanding of your craft. For that, you not only have to write … you have to read.

One of my favorite authors, Ray Bradbury, is famously quoted as saying “There are worse crimes than burning books; one of them is not reading them.”

I like to paraphrase that and say one of the worst sins an author can commit is not bad grammar or sloppy spelling … it’s failing to understand what might be done, before he/she writes at all.

Show; Don’t Tell
You’ve heard me spout about this before, because it’s the one writing rule I think you should keep. Stephen King advocates it, but he was far from the first to do so.

You’ll find the famous quote by Anton Chekhov (Russian playwright and master of the modern short story; 1860-1904) as the basis for my writing web site, Broken Glass: “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

Ernest Hemingway was also an advocate. He encouraged writers to create vivid scenes through action and dialogue, allowing the reader to interpret significant details.

If there is a proper caveat to any of that, it’s to be careful about becoming so consumed by “showing” that your characters lose all of their emotional nuance.

You most certainly want the reader to become involved with your characters; to believe in them as people. It’s hard for readers to do that when there’s no indication at all of what’s going on in the minds of those characters.

Write What You Know
Before I call a halt to my entry today, I thought I should mention this “rule” as one of those you most certainly can bend. The write-what-you-know adage does not mean you should limit your fiction to only your personal life experiences.

Read and research voraciously. Be open to the strange and unfamiliar. Then use your experiences, both real and visceral, as a springboard into another era, another moment in time or into the mind of your character.


Just received my Kirkus Review for REICHOLD STREET: Skillfully written and emotionally charged! Read the full review here.


You can find my books as eBooks or paperback on Amazon, or at Barnes & Noble. You’re also invited to visit my web site, BROKEN GLASS, or like my Book of Face page. You can also follow my shorter ramblings on The Twitter.


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5 Responses to “What Rules Do You Follow?”

  1. Ron Herron Says:

    benzeknees…thank you


  2. benzeknees Says:

    Very wise!


  3. Ron Herron Says:

    Erik –
    Your new friend, Feliciano, might appreciate my son’s photography. http://www.jeffherron.com 😉


  4. Ron Herron Says:

    Thank you, Erik.


  5. Erik Conover Says:

    Write what you know, show me that glint of light. Great post!


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