Friday, 14 October 2011

EVERYTHING IN THE BOX

Hello, Dear Readers! It's Friday already, and time for me to bring out that impassioned post on grammar that I meant to share on Monday (before I started ranting on a completely different topic. Yes, my name is Zolah, and I am a rantaholic).

On Sunday I started work on Book Two of Big Secret Project. Within a few pages I'd introduced and killed a couple of new characters and had given myself a regulation case of the shivers. Satisfied with my work, I retired to my sofa with ham sandwiches and re-runs of Friends on the Comedy Channel. And Twitter, of course.

Not long afterwards I was very glad I had, as that was where I came across this brilliant article about the misuse of the term 'the passive voice'.

Basically: when writing in English, you will come across passive constructions, where the object within the sentence is being acted upon rather than being active, eg. rats are often eaten by cats, vs. cats often eat rats. These constructions are neither inherantly bad nor good (with thanks to my friend Pembe!).

Yes, it's generally a positive thing to try and keep your constructions active, especially if you are writing about action. And yes, over using passive construction can definitely weaken your writing. But there are times when you will inevitably need to use a passive construction, as the writer of the article points out, in order to vary sentence structure, or to impart important information. That is why the passive voice exists in our language.

However, anywhere you go on the internet for writing advice, you will find people talking about the grammatical passive voice as if it was the same thing as bad writing.

The people who pass on this advice are normally well-meaning - but the problem is that a lot of them honestly do not understand what 'the passive voice' IS. Because 'passive' is a word writers don't really want applied to their work, they believe that 'passive voice' means 'bad' and 'active voice' means 'good' without exception. Grammatical passive voice becomes synonymous with something that they call 'passive writing' - flat, boring, unexciting writing - even though they're not the same thing at all.

Attempts to universally enforce this idea, teaching writers to avoid the passive voice as it if were a smelly, creepy uncle lurking in the corner at the family Christmas get-together, can result in prose which reads as if it was written by a non-native English speaker who hasn't quite grasped the rhythm or syntax of written English. It obscures the very information you are trying to convey.

This got me thinking about the reams of writing advice that I trip over online every single day and how I, personally, ignore pretty much all of it. In fact, the second that I see a list with a title like 'Eight Things that Make Editors Stop Reading' or 'Five Secrets for a Great Opening Scene' or 'Ten Common Mistakes First Time Writers Make' I hear a faint booming noise - my attention breaking the sound barrier as it flees from yet another samey list of boring old dos and don'ts.

What really gets my goat is that almost any list like this starts with an admission from the list writer that one-hundred-and-eleventy-thousand writers have broken their rules and still been rewarded with bestsellers and private jets and unicorn rainbow sprinkles. But despite this admission, they go ahead and post those good old rules anyway, usually with an assurance that following them will (despite all evidence to the contrary!) increase your chances of getting you your very own bestsellers, private jets and unicorn rainbow sprinkles.

If you know that your rules don't work, why bother sharing them?

Don't let me wrong! I think it's wonderful that there's a thriving online community which supports and encourages young or beginner writers! I think places like Absolute Write and QueryChecker have a lot to offer a learning writer and I think that a lot of the principles they commonly espouse are excellent! And let's not forget that I love to discuss the craft of writing and offer advice myself!

But I also think that anyone who tries to tell you the 'rules' of writing is full of bullcr*p.

I have first hand experience of this, because back before my first book came out (when it was under contract, and edited, and just waiting for its publication slot) I became a member of a writer's forum. I got into some furious fights with other members who honestly did think that they knew 'the rules', and who insisted on repeating them to any newish writer who asked for advice. No matter how many times I pointed out that telling other writers never, ever, ever to use first person, or prologues, or dream sequences, was restrictive and inaccurate and a bit boring, they were convinced that those were The Rules, and breaking them would result in death or, worse, rejection.

This old video lists a few of the topics that I got into heated debates about over and over and OVER:


Just to make it clear? This video is pure sarcasm. I've broken every one of these so-called rules in my published work. Show, don't tell? Broke it. No prologues? Broke it. Don't have characters look in mirrors or at their reflection? Broke it. Dream sequences? BROKEN IN EVERY SINGLE BOOK I'VE EVER WRITTEN.

And I believe that my books are stronger, better, more unique and more moving because of it.

Writing is a craft, and it's a very good idea to learn the underlying principles - grammar, spelling, pacing, plotting, characterisation. But it's also art, which means that once you understand those principles, you're allowed to play around with them as you please.

The only thing that matters is that your use of language conveys the ideas or emotion you wanted. That's it. That's all. If you made someone see or feel what you wanted them to see or feel, you did your job. 

People may be outraged by this idea, but then, people were outraged by the work of Monet, and Picasso. If Monet and Picasso had allowed themselves to be frightened into complying with the 'rules' of painting, the world would have been deprived of some of the greatest art ever.

As a writer in the English language (which I'm assuming most of my blog readers are) you have an astonishing, wonderful array of tools in your toolbox. You have basic, everyday tools and fine precision instruments and big heavy mallets. You have whole layers of tools which you can fiddle and experiment with, which can be used alone or in conjuction with other tools to achieve a rich, ever evolving series of affects. Some tools may not be for you. There might be sections down there at the bottom that gather dust because they don't suit you. But that's for you, the craftsman and artist, to decide. 

Don't let anyone else steal tools away from that box by telling you that they're too difficult, or that editors won't like them, or that you're not old enough or talented enough or bestselling enough to use them. And if someone tries to take away the keys to the box? Punch 'em in the mouth.

Everything is in the box for a reason. And the box is yours. Use it wisely, use it well. And for the love of sweet bippy, Dear Readers...have fun with it.

15 comments:

Luisa Plaja said...

Yes! Yes! This! Thank you for a wonderful post.

Zoë Marriott said...

Luisa: Thank you - it's nice to get support from others in the writing trenches! And you are very welcome.

Jenni (Juniper's Jungle) said...

Brilliant post, I completely agree with you as both a reader and a wannabe writer.

Rosie Lane said...

I love this post. Yes! Let's have creative writing which mixes everything up and makes it new, not cookie cutter prose.

Shelby said...

Okay, I'm writing a book and I've broken every rule except for the mirror one, and I'm not even half-way done writing it. I was all "OMG, what!!!!! But I've broken those all...and a lot of authors have to..." so I was SO glad at the end:)

Zoë Marriott said...

Jenni: Excellent. I'm getting the message out!

Rosie: Cookie cutter prose is just right. How is anyone supposed to produce something amazing if they're terrified of half of their tools? Break free of the cookie cutter!

Shelby: Clearly I'm not nearly as sarcastic sounding as everyone is always telling me in real life!

Hannah said...

This kinda reminds me of the rants I used to have about poetry. Did you know that if it doesn't rhyme it's not a poem? *rage* Some poets are great with rhyme, some are terrible, some don't bother. So long as the rhythm works, the poem works. Bloody pompous idiots.. *grumble*

Zoë Marriott said...

Hannah: oh, I used to get into that argument at school ALL THE TIME! That's a really quick way to drive me up the wall. *Mutter, grumble*

Megha said...

This is such a great post! So true.

Isabel said...

Love this!! And I love that video too, it's so hilarious. ^.^

Zoë Marriott said...

Thank you Megha and Isabel :)

A.J. Mullarky said...

Yay! :) I missed this blog the past couple of weeks!

Zoë Marriott said...

Alex: Yes, I've noticed you've been AWOL - welcome back! :)

Isabel said...

My dad finished Shadows on the Moon and he loved it!! =D

Zoë Marriott said...

Isabel: Hurray! Thanks for letting me know :D

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