Paulette Callen, author of the amazing historical novels Charity and Fervent Charity (the later one being a GCLS Finalist) has been visiting us a few times already to talk about tips for writers. Today she shares her take on rules with us:
I’m old school. I admit it. Are there modern novels I have enjoyed? Of course, and I will mention a few as we go along. I can’t quote from them, however, because of copyright restraints. So, as we progress in these musings of mine, you may notice I only use examples from classics in the public domain.
Since I’ll be ruminating about what writers should and should not do, let me say something here about the rules of writing.
You can break the rules. You cannot break the rules to good effect unless you know what they are. You cannot be ignorant of them or disregard them on a whim, not if you want to be taken seriously as a writer. If you turn out sloppy writing and think it’s modern prose because you are too lazy to learn proper grammar, syntax, and punctuation, then don’t waste the bandwidth or the paper. No one will thank you, and the trees will cry.
Great writers can get by with breaking a few rules. It’s all in how they do it and for what reason. Some writers are known for it: Faulkner and e e cummings come immediately to mind. A mediocre, or even a good writer, should probably color inside the lines. In The Orchardist, for example, a book that has garnered attention and good reviews, the author has chosen not to use quotation marks to indicate dialogue. This choice, to disregard a convention of literature, adds nothing of interest to this novel except to confuse the reader and to ignite in me a little burn of annoyance at the author’s presumption and arrogance. (Not to mention that she uses two double negatives—not in dialogue, but in the narrative. Authors do make mistakes. That’s what editors are for. Where was her editor?)
In Moby Dick, Melville plays a bit loose with point of view (not everything he tells us could be known by Ishmael). Hawthorne uses evocative, rather than descriptive (I’ll talk about this at a later point) adjectives in Scarlet Letter, and a multitude of writers put a period at the end of a clause that isn’t a complete sentence. The great writers do it for a reason, the bad—because they don’t know any better.
So, rules are made to be broken but only by people who know how to do it without causing the language to squeal in pain.