You’ve Got that Write

I have read scores of books on writing.  They are great for teaching the new writer how to use active voice or correctly punctuate a sentence.  I have likewise listened to hundreds if not thousands of hours of writers and editors talking about the craft of writing as it applies to fiction (and nonfiction — I’ve taken my share of journalism classes).  All of this self-imposed education has benefited me greatly.  I feel indebted to those authors and editors, agents and teachers who gave back after becoming professionals.

Funny thing is, after so many years reading and studying and writing, I’ve come to the conclusion that for every rule I’ve ever encountered, there’s at least one highly successful exception.

Take exposition for example.  I have read in many a style book that extensive exposition is to be avoided.  It is anathema to reader interest and leaves the writer’s prose stale.  But then there is Terry Pratchett.  The man is a wizard.  I have read or listened to every book he has on the market with maybe one or two exceptions.  He mesmerizes me (and much of the sci-fi/fantasy reading public if I’m not  mistaken) with seemingly effortless prose that is, nonetheless, replete with long sections of exposition punctuated with the kind of wry whit that I can only dream of conjuring some day.  I have never once gotten bored reading Pratchett.

What about that sinister reprobate, Mr. Passive Voice?  Have you seen him lurking about in your fiction?  I used to spend precious hours tracking down this rapscallion, murdering him with some of that extreme prejudice they always tout in military movies.   It sounds a little anti-PC (Bill Gates beware), and it is.   Orson Scott Card, one of the best SF writers in the last fifty years, readily acknowledges the utility of passive voice.  Like maggots or spiders or that oozy pus that leaks from an open wound, passive voice has its purposes.  Sure, it can be overdone, but so can ice cream.

How about frame stories?  Those are WAY out of style, right?  Tell that to Patrick Rothfuss and his Name of the Wind — a book I just picked up at the behest of my book club.  It’s quite good so far, and the frame story construction hasn’t bothered me.

My point here is that writing advice is just like any other advice someone passes off on you.  It may be good, it may be bad, but it can never take the place of your own decisions.  You may choose to follow some advice.  For instance, I no longer place a period after quotes like I did when I was about seventeen (dummy!)  But neither do I kill every passive voice sentence in my stories simply because the style book said I should.   Style comes from mastering the rules and then learning when to bend or even break them.

— david j.

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