Breaking the “Rules” Part 4 by Lin Robinson

Author Lin Robinson

[This article is part of a series by author Lin Robinson on the subject of so-called “rules” of writing. You can find the other articles here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3]

To continue some examples of “taboo” writing elements that are completely “legal” and useful, I also continue to refer to the ultimate “rule book” for writing: the published literature. Your favorite books are your best guide to what can be done.

Some examples of things that send “netRumor hags” into hysterics, but don’t seem to bother great authors or readers:

Avoid Prologues — If they’re so “wrong”, why are there so many of them? They exist, and are used, because they can be a useful tool in telling a story. Like anything else, they require thoughtful use. What doesn’t? I’m one of many writers who has experienced people flipping out over a “prologue”, but no resistance after just changing the name. In my case to “Guadalajara, 10 Years Ago”. It’s not readers who flip out, of course: it’s critters and editors. And if renaming it makes it okay, then is it a real problem?

One major sub-fetish on this one needs comment: “Prologue” doesn’t automatically mean “information dump”, though you get that impression from bloggers searching for a reason they are “wrong”. But let me just point out that the “Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” is packed with long, expository “dumps”. Apparently people don’t mind.

Eschew Ellipses — This is another one that people get hot about, but there is no real reason to avoid. Elliptophobes usually cite some style manual, but again: there is no official style manual for fiction.

And more authoritative usage indicates that ellipses can also be used to: “indicate a pause in speech, an unfinished thought, or, at the end of a sentence, a trailing off into silence (aposiopesis). When placed at the end of a sentence, the ellipsis can also inspire a feeling of melancholy longing. The ellipsis calls for a slight pause in speech.”

To broaden the focus, celebrated San Francisco columnist Herb Caen massively used them, called his work “three dot journalism”.

Which might be a good time to mention something. “They” will rant that if you defy them, agents and editors who loathe ellipses (or prologues or passive voice or whatever) will shred you work and blacklist you and your offspring. Thing is, that might be true. It’s also possible they might reject you because they don’t like BMW’s or kittens or Republicans. You can’t attempt to make an MS reject-proof in this way. If they like your story, they aren’t going to can it because of an ellipsis or semi-colon.

No Brand Names — Some people foam at the mouth over this one. Probably a reaction to “corporatism” or something. It’s very true in screenplays, but in fiction it’s ridiculous to say “a late model sedan” instead of “a shiny new Escalade”. It is, after all, showing-not-telling. It can go beyond that, be a major element of the story. Brett Easton Ellis is all about brand names, and they pave the slick, consumed world he portrays. William Gibson revels in them. And they are an important part of the story. When he says a Burmese girl cuts hair with a Braun lazer pencil, it means something about his world. A brand name like “Daimler -Hodaka” is in itself a major milepost to the reality his people inhabit.

No Real People — I never understood the why of this one. It’s very common. Here’s the first sentence of Norman Mailer’s “An American Dream”: “I met Jack Kennedy in November, 1946…. We went out on a double date and it turned out to be a fair evening for me. I seduced a girl who would have been bored by a diamond as big as the Ritz.”

Don’t Use Unknown Words — This one seems to make sense, especially if one buys into the whole “you have to pamper readers” concept. But in fact neologisms are an accepted part of writing. And beyond that, you don’t need to define things. Even if people never know what the word means, they read on.

William Burroughs uses the words “candiru” and “spla” often in “Naked Lunch”, didn’t explain what they mean until very late in the book. Gibson use chilango in two books and never explains that it means people from Mexico City. Why should he? What does it matter?

I just finished two Irish novels in which some speeches use Galway slang for every other word. I didn’t look them up (where?) just read through them. It was obvious what was being said and the words were fun and colorful. One thing to keep in mind is “obvious what was said”. There’s where your writer’s touch comes in. Who really goes bonkers over this is editors. It goes against their very nature not to define and explain everything. Tough. You’re the author and it’s between you and your readers.

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.

24 thoughts on “Breaking the “Rules” Part 4 by Lin Robinson

  1. Authors that make up new words never succeed. Creating a new vocabulary confuses the reader and is a guarantee not only of failure, but that your efforts will be quickly forgotten by anyone foolish enough to read it.

    Why, the very idea makes my borogoves go all mimsy.

    (Dangit, why does my tongue insist on spending so much time in my cheek? It must be genetic.)

    1. I would say the exception is making up an alien language. Although, I have, I do tend to make sure it's translated (usually by the main character).

      As Schmuff would say: "Ga, set dak frook chobrig."

      "Yes, it will take courage," Dar replied.

      All in how you do it. But I think the goal is an enjoyable read. Only what we writers can hope for.

      1. Classic counter-example here: "A Clockwork Orange", in which most of the main characters speak "Nadsat" a youth jive of the future, heavily influenced by Russian from propoganda broadcasts. Thus "horrorshow" for "good", from the Russian "horosho".

        Burgess handled it with a glossary at the back. Several other writers have done the same thing. The cool thing is, by the time you finish the book, you know the language. A lot of those nadsat words entered American youth slang in the seventies, such as "droog" and "viddy".

        1. So it's not too ungood to newspeak–yes, I was thinking of Clockwork Orange, too, Linton. And all that beautiful elfen- and rohirrim-speak. And. . .

  2. My book, Interview With a Jewish Vampire is chock full of Yiddish expressions that I don't translate because there's no way to do that without slowing down the narrative and sounding pedantic. Some readers who didn't know the words didn't mind and actually found they learned something from the book, others thought they were a bit too much. Either way, I think Yiddish is so evocative it's almost self-explanatory, or at least I hope it is.

    1. Anyone complaining about Yiddish expressions written (I assume) in their English spelling, is meshugga. I would think most people would want to know shiksa from Shinola.

  3. Lin – as an author, I love your "feeling of melancholy longing", and have used the ellipsis and strange words with good effect. If the word doesn't exist, I create it – try finding "spalancated" in a dictionary… ain't there, because I made it up. The editor just took my word for it. Wonderful if you have an editor you cannot flap.

    As an editor, I have to remind myself in the interest of sanity and legibility that some things are beyond the pale… but not many.

    People froth at the mouth about prologues… very little said about epilogues, probably because they often don't make it that far.

    1. I froth favorably for prologues–well-written ones, that is. I used prologues in my first four novels as ways both to engage readers and set context out-of-context by plunging them deep into the back-story. When Steven Cherry wrote the screenplay for Bashert (my first novel), he liked the prologue so much that he used it as the opening scene.

      I've only used one epilogue, and not in the traditional and much-maligned manner, either (tying up loose ends). In The Rosen Singularity, I used it as a kind of short-short story of what happens next, after the curtain closes, a kind of pa-dum-ching to the narrative.

  4. Amen!

    Now, if people in writing critique groups, who think they speak for God when they shred the psyche of an eager writer could only grasp this!

  5. Obviously I love this post. I started with poetry and now with my manuscript I'm feeling slightly(OMG an adverb)spurned, for my prologue, so I canned it. Now I've got name brand disease with ellipsis damage as well. It's like they want a technical journal that sounds like the back of an oatmeal container and tastes like it too….

  6. I use prologues, ellipses and make up words. ("He quirked an eyebrow")I've been taken to task for all three but they work and my readers love my books – so there!

    Thanks Lin.

  7. I don't claim to be an expert, but I've done some research. There seems to be a lot of confusion over the use of brand names, especially when some brand names are synonymous with the product: Kleenex instead of tissue, Band-Aid, Jello, …

    I asked a legal expert who assured me that use of trademarked product names is acceptable. That will help with my Yoo-Hoo and Twinkie addiction. With company names like Sears and Wal-Mart, you're getting into a gray area. Is it part of a product name? I talk about a Sears brand Kit Home in my book.

    1. There are a couple of real-world factors here.

      The first gets confused because many brand-owners go out of their way (including buying ads in Writers Digest) to try to convince writers not to use their names as generic references. That "Caterpillar" or "RollerBlade" should not be use without a trademark symbol.

      The reason is that if somebody can convince a judge that

      "Kleenex" has become the word people use for that product, they can lose their rights to their own brand. Aspirin was once a brand name owned by Bayer: no longer.

      But in fact, there is no legal or artistic reason for you not to do this.

      I once wrote an article for a national magazine about trendy sports. I was personally contacted by WindSurfer asking me not to use their name as a generic or a verb. Obligingly, I used the term "sailboard" instead. The editors not only changed it back, but changed my title to "Windsurfing and Other Hot New Sports".

      The second problem is a grey area, legally. Meaning, an area in which the only firm fact is a court decision, and God know which way they will go. It involves names that have been trademarked as properties, like "Star Wars." It's actually hard to tell where infringement starts in such cases.

      A third problem is rare, but exists. Some companies, most notably Southland Corporations very jealously guard their names and will sue you for using them in any way they can conceivably construe as damaging. You will never, ever see robbers hold up a 7-11 store in a film or TV show. Ever. If you do, expensive lawyers will descend on you in battalions. This becomes a case of it not really making a difference what the law is: you can be destroyed by the legal action itself.

  8. I once wrote a column (reprinted in The Peopleware Papers, Prentice-Hall, 2001) consisting almost entirely of trademarked/servicemarked phrases. The Way to Go!(tm)

    One way to deal with this is with a disclaimer at the front (seen in many mainstream pubs these days): "All trademarks and servicemarks are the properties of their respective owners." Unless you or your publisher are deep pockets and you do something that really ticks off somebody, this will protect you from all comers. Oh, and capitalize your brand names both to tip off the reader and to appease the eagle-eyed legals.

    In some cases, using tradenames or material without permission can work to the author's advantage. I could not reach Steve Jobs directly to get permission to quote from one of his speeches (he would have approved and even probably liked my novel) and Apple Corporate told me I couldn't use the quote. I did anyway. In a sense, the plot of The Rosen Singularity turns on Jobs' statement about Death being Life's best invention. I am waiting for Apple to try to sue, because then everybody will want to find out what the flap is about and my book will be justifiably catapulted onto the NYT Best Sellers list. (Okay, I'm a daydream believer.)

    1. I think the real danger comes only if you are making big money and have become famous. They don't care about us because we haven't made it big enough for it to affect them. Making a big stink about a small time writer would give them a bad name and gains them nothing. So unless we are already being noticed 'out there' they will leave us alone. It's just not worth it to them. Unless, possibly, you are campaigning against their brand and it becomes a political issue.

  9. In my view there's no harm in using new words provided their meaning is also given in bracket for a better understanding for the reader.


    1. Rajeev – in most cases the meaning can be grasped from the context. In fiction stopping the flow to add a definition would be counterproductive. If the word is that obscure it might be best not to use it. Now that may be different in non-fiction, eg. a new scientific term, which will then likely become part of the language in time.

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