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Monday, August 23, 2010

To Thine Own Self Be True ~ Mary Ellis

Mary Ellis is the author of A Widow's Hope, Never Far from Home, The Way to a Man's Heart, and Sarah's Christmas Miracle. She and her husband live in central Ohio, where they try to live a simpler style of life.


I’ve been thinking about the famous quote by William Shakespeare lately. There’s been much talk in the writers’ loops about rules that new writers must follow if they hope ever to be published. I jotted some of the rules down, but I still have my original list from my early days as a beginning writer: Reduce adverbs; never use –ly words. Never use passive verbs. Eliminate multiple prepositions in a row. Remove dialogue tags. And of course, let’s have no redundancies, euphemisms, petty modifiers, clichés, or hyperbole. I won’t even get into the rules regarding punctuation. Many writers of various levels can benefit from looking over the list prior to a final edit of their work. I, myself, was once guilty of walking slowly instead of staggering and eating hungrily instead of devouring my fried chicken. Now I use stronger verbs to convey my meaning, and I wouldn’t think to writing something like whispered softly. But let’s be honest, sometimes a good old –ly word is just the ticket. Fellow writer, Mary Johnson, offered this marvelous example from Dick Francis’ best-selling novel, Hot Money: “I intensely disliked my father’s fifth wife, but not to the point of murder.” A lovely sentence…ly word and all, don’t you agree? To leave out the dastardly adverb would have sacrificed much. Does anyone remember the first line of Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield? “I was born” is the epitome of passivity. Now I don’t put myself in Dick Francis’ league, and certainly not in Mr. Dickens’, but Ms. Johnson said it well, “In the end, the craft is there to serve the art, not vice versa.”

Another rule I read on the loop is “never use more than two POV’s in a romance.” I was midway through a short romance containing one main plot, advanced by four POV characters. I sat up straight and asked, “huh?” and then called my editor. She replied that she’d never heard of such a rule and wondered who made these things up. Before you fire off an email to me, insisting that fledging novelists need guidelines to hone their skills…I agree with you. But the list of rules should be guidelines to improve a manuscript; not laws never to be broken.

Writers who rely too much on critique partners’ or contest judges’ suggestion also scare me. I once read the comments from a contest I had entered with confusion. One judge felt “I should have better developed my hero/heroine to create empathy,” while another judge felt that “I’d spent too much time sketching characters to the detriment of the plot.” What did I learn from the two opposing viewpoints? Not too much. After I dried my tears that I hadn’t finaled in the contest, I learned that judges have subjective opinions.

I also read in the loop about one writer who presents her work to her critique group at the end of each chapter. Her fellow writers probably offer good advice on how to improve the pacing, etc., but when she finishes the manuscript, will the book still have her voice? I’m not so sure. A writer’s voice is the only thing that sets her/him apart from the thousands of other writers in the same genre. A writer gets an idea, creates a story in her mind, and sits down to tell the tale. Any advice on how to improve should come after the first draft in finished. The book might have the same theme or plot twists that have already been rehashed to death. But in a new voice, this story can come alive for a reader. Contest judges, critique partners, editors who are kind enough to offer suggestions—these people can offer great advice for improvement. But remember, they have subjective opinions. You’ll never please everyone, so you should first please yourself with the work you create.

4 comments:

Edwina said...

Mary,
Thanks for such a great post. You address issues that have bothered me ever since I joined ACFW.

"But the list of rules should be guidelines to improve a manuscript; not laws never to be broken." AMEN!!

Karen said...

Amen! In the end, it's all about how good it reads-ly's or not.

Nicole said...

Indeed!

Yvonne Anderson said...

Bravo!

One of my self-made rules is, Never say 'never' (where passives, -ly adverbs, etc., are concerned). Mary, you illustrated this concept clearly and with good common sense.

The "rules" give us excellent parameters to work within, but understanding the concept you describe gives us the freedom to create, rather than merely trace around stencils.

Thanks so much for this, Mary! And thanks to Sandra for posting it.