There is no limit to the lunacy of men when they think themselves superior both to laughter and humility.
G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936)
There is no limit to the lunacy of men when they think themselves superior both to laughter and humility.
G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936)
Anyone who’s a fan of the Old West is familiar with the Colt .45 and the Buntline Special. Like most old & new revolvers, both of these have a rotating 6-chamber cylinder. But did you know there was also a gun with six rotating barrels?
That’s right. Ethan Allen (no relation to the Revolutionary War hero) & his partner Charles Thurber created the revolving multi-shot pistol in the 1830s and for two decades, it enjoyed much popularity. Known as the pepper-box or pepper-pot for its resemblance to a kitchen pepper grinder, these firearms came in 4, 5, and 6 barrel styles, with barrel lengths available from 3” to 6”.
The pepper-pot was not the world’s most reliable pistol. In his book Roughing It (1872), Mark Twain describes his experience with it:
George Bemis was our fellow traveler… He wore in his belt an old original “Allen” revolver, such as irreverent people called a “pepper-box”. Simply drawing the trigger back, cocked and fired the pistol. As the trigger came back, the hammer would begin to rise and the barrel to turn over, and presently down would drop the hammer, and away would speed the ball. To aim along the turning barrel and hit the thing aimed at was a feat which was probably never done with an “Allen” in the world. But George’s was a reliable weapon, nevertheless, because, as one of the stage-drivers afterward said, “If she didn’t get what she went after, she would fetch something else.” And so she did. She went after a deuce of spades nailed against a tree, once, and fetched a mule standing about thirty yards to the left of it. Bemis did not want the mule; but the owner came out with a double-barreled shotgun, and persuaded him to buy it, anyhow. It was a cheerful weapon―the “Allen”. Sometimes all its six barrels would go off at once, and then there was no safe place in all the region round about, but behind it.
It’s really no wonder the pepper-pot pistol was known as “the gun that won the East.”
We’ve all heard about the RULES we need to follow in order to be “good” writers. No adverbs, no passive voice, no split infinitives, show don’t tell, limit dialogue tags to “said” & “asked”, use only one POV per chapter―these are just a few of the absolutes we’re faced with every day.
I’ve heard some RULES that are downright silly, such as: only one comma per sentence; no more than 4 sentences per paragraph; no conjunctions. The latest one to make the make the rounds is “no gerunds”, where most proponents of the RULE think a gerund is any word ending in “ing”. (It’s not. In fact, the only two gerunds in this article are “writing” and “painting”. For more info, read this post.)
The problem, it seems to me, is taking the style choice an author has made and proclaiming it a universal RULE.
Yes, I said “style choice”. You can decide that adverbs are not for you, that you always want to show and not tell, or to use no dialogue tags at all. A thriller writer may make some choices that a literary writer might denounce. But imagine if everyone took their favorite style choice and pronounced it a RULE for all to follow. That would almost surely lead to a cookie-cutter approach to writing, and individual creativity would suffer.
What would the state of literature today be if Faulkner followed Hemingway’s choices? if Fitzgerald was ruled by Cervantes? if Cain followed Chaucer’s? Cormac McCarthy consistently uses only the period and comma as punctuation. Should we all, as modern writers, follow his example?
Don’t be so blinded by the authority behind a RULE that the choice you make hurts instead of helping. Focus on the rhythm of your work first―do you want staccato or lyrical? are you chasing a serial killer or relating a love story? or maybe both in one novel? There is no RULE that says you can’t have it all as you craft your manuscript.
The rhythm you seek will give you the choices that best benefit your story. Then you can join the ranks of these esteemed authors who know all the RULES and when to break them:
Truman Capote: Writing has laws of perspective, of light and shade just as painting does, or music. If you are born knowing them, fine. If not, learn them. Then rearrange the RULES to suit yourself.
Henry David Thoreau: Any fool can make a RULE, And any fool will mind it.
Scott Turow: I think that you must be aware of the existing conventions. …That does not mean that you cannot reinvent them in your own way.
Anne Rice: …any RULE you hear from one writer [that] doesn’t work for you, disregard it completely.
Neil Gaiman: The main RULE of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a RULE for life as well as for writing. But it’s definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it honestly, and tell it as best you can. I’m not sure that there are any other RULES. Not ones that matter.
G. K. Chesterton: I owe my success to having listened respectfully to the very best advice, and then going away and doing the exact opposite.
Joyce Carol Oates: Best tip for writers: not to listen to any silly tips for writers.
Mark Twain, whose real name was Samuel Langhorne Clemens, is an American icon. But in his time, he wasn’t the only one in his family with name recognition.
Twain’s older brother, Orion Clemens, was a newspaper publisher and had studied law under Edward Bates, who later became President Abraham Lincoln’s Attorney General. Orion was appointed the first (and only) Secretary of the Nevada Territory by Lincoln, and was second-in-command to the Territorial Governor, James Nye. A popular figure in Nevada politics Orion, acting as temporary Governor in Nye’s absence, deftly avoided the “Sagebrush War”, a boundary dispute between Nevada and California.
Orion was accompanied by his brother Sam as he traveled by stage from Iowa to his new post in 1861, and their journey is memorialized in the book Roughing It by Mark Twain.
The capacity of the human mind for swallowing nonsense and spewing it forth in violent and repressive action has never yet been plumbed.
Robert Heinlein (1907-1998)
The test of a democracy is not the magnificence of buildings or the speed of automobiles or the efficiency of air transportation, but rather the care given to the welfare of all the people.
– Helen Keller (1880-1968)
This song was actually written in 1857 by H. D. Webster & J. P. Webster and, for obvious reasons, became popular with the men on both sides of the Civil War, after which it became a staple of the Old West. You can hear a traditional interpretation by John Hartford with excellent banjo accompaniment here. If the melody seems familiar, but the words don’t sound quite right, you’re not going crazy. In the 1960s, a more contemporary version made the rounds, and was recorded by such country luminaries as Johnny Cash and Bobby Bare. You can hear Bobby’s version of the song here.
The years creep slowly by, Lorena,
The snow is on the grass again.
The sun’s low down the sky, Lorena,
The frost gleams where the flow’rs have been.
But the heart throbs on as warmly now,
As when the summer days were nigh.
Oh, the sun can never dip so low
A-down affection’s cloudless sky.
A hundred months have passed, Lorena,
Since last I held that hand in mine,
And felt the pulse beat fast, Lorena,
Though mine beat faster far than thine.
A hundred months, ’twas flowery May,
When up the hilly slope we climbed,
To watch the dying of the day,
And hear the distant church bells chime.
We loved each other then, Lorena,
More than we ever dared to tell;
And what we might have been, Lorena,
Had but our lovings prospered well.
But then, ’tis past, the years are gone,
I’ll not call up their shadowy forms;
I’ll say to them, “Lost years, sleep on!
Sleep on! nor heed life’s pelting storms.”
The story of that past, Lorena,
Alas! I care not to repeat,
The hopes that could not last, Lorena,
They lived, but only lived to cheat.
I would not cause e’en one regret
To rankle in your bosom now;
For “if we try we may forget,”
Were words of thine long years ago.
Yes, these were words of thine, Lorena,
They burn within my memory yet;
They touched some tender chords, Lorena,
Which thrill and tremble with regret.
‘Twas not thy woman’s heart that spoke;
Thy heart was always true to me:
A duty, stern and pressing, broke
The tie which linked my soul with thee.
It matters little now, Lorena,
The past is in the eternal past;
Our heads will soon lie low, Lorena,
Life’s tide is ebbing out so fast.
There is a Future! O, thank God!
Of life this is so small a part!
‘Tis dust to dust beneath the sod;
But there, up there, ’tis heart to heart.
While doing research recently for an ESL student, I came across another “rule of writing”, to wit:
Don’t use gerunds; they make your writing weak.
To qualify as a gerund a word must be:
Take these sentences as examples:
I like hiking. (The gerund acts as the object of the sentence.)
Hiking is fun. (The gerund acts as the subject of the sentence.)
Now, I guess you could eliminate the gerund in the first sentence by saying “I like to hike”, but I don’t see much difference between the two statements. I think your choice would depend more on what your character’s natural speech patterns are than on any “rule”. (And if, like me, your manuscripts run over the recommended length for your genre, every little added “to” means you have to cut another word―a fate worse than death!)
Rewriting the second sentence as “To hike is fun” makes it sound formal. It gives me the feeling I’m reading a foreign translation rather than common American parlance.
And here’s the other, more important thing: in every article I read, the proponents of the “no gerund rule” were really objecting to sentences like this:
I was hiking in the woods.
But “hiking”, in this instance, fails to meet the qualifications for a gerund. It ends in “ing”, but it’s not acting as a noun. It’s part of the verb construction, specifically the past progressive tense.
So what the “no gerunds rule” proponents are trying to say is: there’s a “no progressive tenses rule”. By various examples, they also declare that there’s a “no conditional tenses rule”, and/or a “no perfect/pluperfect tenses rule”. In other words, write only in simple present, simple past, or imperfect tense.
The reasoning, from what I gather, is that all these other tenses fall into a subset of the “active/passive rule”. For a “more active” sentence, they’d encouraged you to write it this way:
I hiked in the woods.
However, the rewrite doesn’t give me the same anticipation factor. If you start a dialogue with “I was hiking in the woods…”, I’m immediately looking for a story to follow. “I hiked in the woods” is more self-contained, an answer to the question, “What did you do today?” It doesn’t give me a sense of more to come. So for me, it’s a less appealing choice, and even less so if you’re creating a scene of rising tension.
(See what I did there? In the last sentence, I used three words that end in “ing” and not one of them is a gerund. Don’t fall into the same trap the “no gerunds rule” folks did!)
In my opinion, most of the “rules of writing” we see today have nothing to do with writing correctly. Instead, they are style choices that individuals make and choose to follow in their own works. They are, in effect, guidelines for that writer, not rules for all writers.
In particular, the “no gerunds rule” is one that seems to have a limited practical application. And I’d say the same for the “no (whatever) tense rules”. They’re like the Oxford comma; if you don’t want to use them, then don’t. But there are going to be times when clarity (or word count) depends upon it.
When it comes to writing, my philosophy is always:
Choose the best word for the job.
It applies whether you use a noun, verb, gerund, adverb, adjective, dialogue tag, or a word you made up to bring your story’s world to life. Choose the best word and your readers will be so bowled over by your writing, they won’t stop to wonder whether that word qualifies as a gerund or past progressive tense.
So, what style guidelines do you prefer? What’s your writing philosophy?
There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.
-Edith Wharton (1862-1937)
Excellent advice for first- or any-time authors!
BY AUDREY WICK
Like many new and debut authors, I was eager to sign with a traditional publisher. After the hard work of completing a novel, signing on the dotted line with a publishing house was exactly the reward I envisioned would make it all worthwhile.
Any contract for publishing can, at first, seem like an offer too good to refuse—but that doesn’t mean you should take anything that comes your way.
Publishing contracts are as varied as book genres. It’s easy for an author hungry to be published to be blinded by any contract’s lure, to the potential detriment of their career and their hard-fought creative work.
When I was submitting my debut novel for publication, the first book contract offer I received included bad terms—I’m grateful my agent and a close traditionally published friend helped me know what to look for. They helped me spot the three red…
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