Breaking the Rules (Part 3) – by Lin Robinson

Author Lin Robinson

[This is part 3 of a series of articles by Lin Robinson featured on Indies Unlimited. For part 1, click here. For part 2, click here.]

I mentioned last time that many of the rules are actually fads. And if you are around for awhile you see them come along, build to hot intensity, then lapse as another takes the center stage of absolute conviction. The tropes below have all been hot buttons for a year or so over the past five years, and still linger around in the blogs and discussions and “12 Things That Will Damn Your Writing Career For Eternity” videos that people link to on social media. In addition to the recommended practice of checking with published books, I’m offering some quickie MythSmashers here.

Adverbs. There are actually people who will tell you to avoid them entirely. They are “lazy writing”, Avoid them with “strong” verbs. Balderdash, say I. Apart from the general, “There are no wrong words” concept, adverbs are extremely useful and do much more than switching verbs around. That’s why we have them. Same reason painters don’t stick to primary colors. Try rewriting this to use a strong verb that eliminates the need for an adverb.

“She remained doggedly, even perversely, small time.”

Passive voice. This was a huge writing rumor demon a few years ago. Again, why should any one “legal” voice or part of speech be bad?

Some of the arguments against it are asinine, usually confusing the purely technical “passive” term with being emotionally weak. Many who speak against it aren’t even sure what it really means. If you are troubled by the issue, look it up.

It’s a question of style, can add elegance, wryness, a period feel, a character voice, mystery. Here’s another sentence to trash, see if you can do it better by changing the voice.

“It was generally thought in the village that she was a witch, and it was even believed that she was a familiar of the indecently eccentric.”

But don’t stick to my sentences: how about these? “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.” Sir Winston again, but there’s elegance of expression on this side of The Pond, as well: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.”

One of the worst things about the passive voice witchhunt is that it spreads out to cover construction that isn’t passive, just looks like it. “I was living in the dorm”, is progressive past tense. Make it “I was housed in dorm” and it’s still not passive. I have seen, as perhaps you have, too, people suggesting going through your MS searching out helper verbs to get rid of passive voice. Eliminating, notice, the verb “to be” in order to improve writing English.

“Head-Hopping” What replaced passive tense as the most villager-torched use of English was multiple point of view. The term “head-hopping” was invented. There is no real source of it, it’s just another rumor. The central idea here is not just stupid, not just ignorant of the body of existing writing, it’s downright insulting. Because it works off a premise you often see writing hags promoting–that readers are just to stupid to follow you unless you keep everything very simple and dumbed-down.

As always, the ultimate answer isn’t what they say or what I say, but the published work. Among many, many, many books that use multiple viewpoints (Wilder’s “The Bridge of San Luis Rey”, John D. McDonald’s “Slam the Big Door” to mention two best-sellers) there’s a really egregious example in Ken Kesey’s “Sometimes A Great Notion”. We come into a chapter being told about a guy sitting on the bottom of the river with a huge log in his lap, drowning as the river rises. We have no clue that the narrator is, for the first and only time in the story, Joe Ben. It takes pages to figure that out. Readers loved it, mentioned it to each other admiringly. They did not toss the book away and flee screaming into the night. Because they are not idiots. Do you really want to write for idiots?

A maddening feature of the “head-hopping” crusade is that when you press people on it, they’ll admit that you can change POV in a book. Just not in the same chapter. You show them different and it’s not in the same scene or section of paragraph or sentence or word or letter or something.

In fact, it’s simple. Use as many POV’s as you want and change them as often as you can while not making it too confusing to follow. How you determine if it’s too confusing depends on how you work, but almost any test is better than taking the word of some knucklehead on the net with no credits.

Author: Lin Robinson

Linton Robinson was born in occupied Japan, schooled in Asia, and is now a 20 year resident of Latin America. Robinson is an award-winning journalist and noted photographer, with credits in top markets. His syndicated columns were cult favorites in the nineties. Learn more at his blog and his Amazon author page.

26 thoughts on “Breaking the Rules (Part 3) – by Lin Robinson”

  1. Thanks, Lin. I enjoyed your post. This is how I have felt at times when I hear that kind of criticism. Some things just have "to be" and can't "be" anything else. We do need to use some adverbs because without them the reader may not get a clear picture of what's happening, or at the least would get bored. The "ing" as well as the "ly" words are judged as trouble-makers and we are supposed to go on a witch-hunt to execute them all. Sometimes it's impossible. You just have to leave some of them there to make any sense, or at least to keep it from being stilted. As with anything, what makes the difference is in the number of times you repeat these things. Anything that is overdone should be trashed.

    1. I've seen the "ing" one a little bit. I remember some chucklehead critting on of my scripts saying that it was "weaker" than other endings.

      I asked him more and it turned out he did know the difference between a gerund and and a participle. Just decided or heard somewhere that it was taboo.

  2. My objection to using "was" everywhere is that the writing can feel a bit like an English class essay. Just like overuse of any word can get irritating. Head hopping? I don't see that as the same as multiple POVs. The problem lies in switching POVs, say, every other paragraph to the point of total reader confusion. If it works, it works.

    1. If the readers get confused, you messed up. It doesn't mean it's not okay to do whatever you want with POV.

      And you're right, repetition of any word can be a problem…which is why it's funny people zero in on certain ones.

      I saw a post where this ninny picked "wases" out of paragraph to show how much better it was, never realizing the original paragraph had "she" more often than "was". And of course those commas just get so overbearing.

  3. Lin,

    Very nice – I have thought that passive voice had been maligned mightily. 😉

    Yours, Cyn

    PS Plus I have used technical passive for – get this, technical writing. It works really well if you need to write in that voice.

  4. Thanks,everybody, it's great hearing from you.

    That's funny, Cyn. But you're right, "passive" can also mean "depersonalized" as is useful for that.

    Human Resources has developed an odd way of speaking/writing that I refer to as "passive aggressive voice". Example, "This is not what we are going to have you do."

  5. My grammar check and I have a love-hate relationship when it comes to passive voice…and what, exactly, IS, passive voice.

    Perhaps I shouldn't actually argue with my grammar check, but at least it's some form of conversation, right?

    Thanks for the post, Lin. *grin*

  6. Knuckleheads enjoy driving people nuts because they're also selling self-help books with titles like: "I'm OK and You're Not."

    Great post Lin.

  7. I'm loving these posts. I remember once being on a science fiction message board, and one of the posters going on a tirade that Frank Herbert dared switch POV within scenes among other "grammar no, nos".

    Thanks for the refreshing take on things Lin!

    1. And now he's dead. See?

      It's amazing to me how people just keep saying you can't do what any reader can plainly see that people do, and succeed with it.

      1. Yeah, my response was: "Hey, his editor and publisher didn't seem to mind. Why does it bug you so much?"

        Though, I've since learned Frank Herbert had some arguments with his editor about his inversion of the hero arc for Paul. building him up, to only rip him down. That sent the guy into anaplastic shock. Herbert stood his ground and the story is better for it.

        1. And now he's dead. See?

          The sad thing here is that people buy into cookie-cutter formulae like "hero's journey" or "character arc summit" and think it's the only way to go.

          Whereas the idea of a hero rising, then falling is central to MUCH great literature: All The King's Men, The Comet, Citizen Caine, etc.

  8. Go Lin!

    These posts remind me of the good old days on the LI thread when I was learning so much from you, Rosanne and Kevin. Glad I can find you again.

    I don't like writing rules. If the sentence sounds good and the reader understands the point I'm trying to get across, then I feel I've achieved my purpose. And I like adverbs, too. They make things prettier, if properly chosen.

    1. I'm with you. I look at writing as an art just as painting, sculpture, music, etc. are forms of art. There are, of course, a few basic rules without which we couldn't write, or paint, or notate music. But we are sharing part of ourselves when we write, and every one of us is different, has something different to share and a different way of sharing it. I may like a painting by Correggio while you may like Salvador Dali. But I don't hear any "critiquers" of those paintings saying the artist can't do this or that. I may like classical music while others like rock. I've heard no dissertations on why the composer should not have done one thing or another. So why in writing? As you said, Lois, "If the sentence sounds good and the reader understands the point I’m trying to get across, then I feel I’ve achieved my purpose." It's a lot to do with personal taste. The problem is that today it's mostly to do with the publisher's taste.

  9. Wonderful post, Lin. What bothers me about the so-called rules is now readers are hearing them and reviewing based on these rules. They review books saying there was too much head-hopping that you couldn't keep up with the story or with what was happening and giving low stars because of the rules.

  10. Another great post, Lin. Some of these "rules" do occasionally bear a nugget of something useful. For example, regarding head-hopping: I had a bad habit of switching POV every few paragraphs. It wasn't confusing (so it wasn't head-hopping per se, which I think of as poorly executed POV switches), but the constant switching was getting in the way of building tension in some scenes (because the reader knew what everyone felt at pretty much every moment) and it interfered with building reader empathy with my characters, because the reader was never in anyone's head for long.

    My critique partner suggested I try to stick in one POV per scene and try to dive deeper into that POV. After trying it, I realized that the change did make for a stronger scene in many cases. That said, I will sometimes switch POV in the middle of a scene if there's a good reason to do so. But now I'm conscious of making a switch for an effect. So while I think the "no head hopping rule" is wrong, there is a kernel of something worthwhile in there. Same with the "don't use adverbs rule" or the "don't use 'to be' verbs rule"–both of those "rules" are actually meant to encourage you to look at your word choices and make sure you are using precise, strong verbs–when possible. For example, "tugged" instead of "pulled strongly." Sometimes "was" is the best–or only–choice for a sentence. Sometimes it's not. Same with passive voice. And don't get me started on fragments. Or starting sentences with conjunctions. 😉

    A good rule of thumb though: if ordinary readers (not fellow writers or editors) are picking apart your writing, you've either got some clunkers or you've bored them to the point where they're not lost in the story. And that's the cardinal sin right there. If they love what you're doing and it's flowing along beautifully, they don't notice the writing because the reading has becoming effortless. When you've made the right choices for your story and your content, all the readers will "see" is the picture you've painted, not the words you used to color it in.

    1. Dana, I don't want to make you blush, but this comment is freaking awesome. It's the kind of thing I always *hoped* to encounter in these comment sections, but was generally disappointed.

  11. CAUTION:

    This series could lead to news articles such as "Witch-hunt on in USA. Lin R. accused of promoting common sense", followed by "Lin R. spirited from Tokyo jail by disciples. Police way too late", and "Lin R. knighted after successfully championing world-wide use of common sense".

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