Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Rule The Roost—What Writing Rules Do You Always Get Wrong?

By Bonnie Randall 

Part of the How They Do It Series (Monthly Contributor)

Discussion time! Today’s all about those rules that elude you. You know them, but they just don’t sink in. They’re a lot like those words you consistently spell wrong (which, for me, are: calendar, receive, and judgement—and yep, I just watched my program correct them automatically because all three were wrong when I wrote ‘em).

So…writing rules you always get wrong. What are they? The top three on my list are:

Past Perfect, aka Pluperfect, Tense: This one confounds me on a consistent basis; I always end up making every sentence of the segment past tense even though it clearly reads clunkily, and I know I’m doing it wrong. So what’s up with that? Is it that I don’t trust that my readers ‘get it’? How ridiculous. If readers are into the story, and ingrained into my character’s head, they understand. They only need one reference that anchors the scene to the past, and yet…. Maybe it’s me who doesn’t get it. (A distinct possibility).

The only remedy I’ve come upon for this is a self-styled mnemonic I ripped off from the old flick Jerry McGuire. It goes like this: “You HAD me at ‘Hello’.” Meaning: say it once, and you truly don’t need to say it again. Your piece will naturally make sense to the reader, and it will, also naturally, transition back into present tense when it needs to. Trust. All ya gotta do is trust. That said, if any of you have a way that makes Past Perfect/Pluperfect easier, please share!

Then there’s—

Deep POV: This one I know how to do but it scares me. We’ve been schooled, scolded, and shushed into keeping our back-stories back until we’re at least 100 pages in. (In novels I read I always count—when I see the backstory, I automatically look to see what page I’m on in the book, and when it’s before 100 I always blush a little and say “Oooh! You rebel!”). Yet if we create characters who relay their stories and personalities via Deep POV (which is part of the style and substance for virtually all of my fiction), this is difficult and sometimes impossible. To define, though, Deep POV is third-person subjective taken a step farther than the normal—ie, Deep POV takes readers into the head and heart of a character, allowing the story to be seen and felt through the characters experiences and history and thoughts and feelings.

But…’history’ bad—right? Yes. And no. History, if delivered in a way that pushes the plot forward, either via telling the story or telling us how the character will participate in the unfolding story (ie, what drives him or her) is okay. But using history as a part of Deep POV simply randomly…? Nope. No matter how clever, witty, or insightful it is, if it doesn’t move the story it’s gotta go. Sigh. I lose some of my best stuff that way.


The Wicked White Box:
My characters fall into this No-Man’s Land on the regular. I get so caught up in their dialogue (which is my favorite thing, ergo my favorite crutch. Ugh) that they, I, and, most importantly, and alarmingly, the reader forgets where they are. I always need to yank them out with a shepherd’s hook of scenery—which sometimes works, but most times feels and looks clunky and as though it were inserted too purposefully to read smoothly.

Solution: I don’t have one. But (flirty wink) I bet YOU do—and that you want to teach me. Right? Right?(I’ll send you cookies).

Now—what are your perplexities? Share both problems and solutions and let’s see if we can collate in a hive-mind of suggestions and solutions. Cheers, all! Happy (end of) April!

Bonnie Randall is a Canadian writer who lives between her two favorite places—the Jasper Rocky Mountains and the City of Champions: Edmonton, Alberta. A clinical counselor who scribbles fiction in notebooks whenever her day job allows, Bonnie is fascinated by the relationships people develop—or covet—with both the known and unknown, the romantic and the arcane.

Her novel Divinity & The Python, a paranormal romantic thriller, was inspired by a cold day in Edmonton when the exhaust rising in the downtown core appeared to be the buildings, releasing their souls.

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About No Vacancy

There’s always room…

When therapist Lucas Stephen’s sister returns from a legendary Los Angeles hotel, she’s a shell of the artist she once was. Nearly catatonic, deteriorating rapidly, Michelle alarms Lucas by painting the same old-style straight razor over and over.

Heartbroken and frightened, Lucas resolves to find out what happened to her. With his beautiful—and psychic—colleague Della, Lucas travels to L.A., booking a room in the hotel Michelle stayed at.

They barely cross the threshold when Della senses evil. She sees bodies falling out of the sky. Broken dreams. Imprisoned nightmares. She begs Lucas to leave, but the hotel makes both time and truth shift, and when Lucas looks into the mirror in his sister’s room, he sees the straight razor—and is drawn to the bright, scarlet stain of fresh blood…


  1. The best writing advice I've read in months!
    Lois G, Hamilton ON

  2. Hm... I let my people *interact* with the scenery, even if it's just picking at their food or noticing a bad smell or that really hot pink tie the guy is wearing at the next table...

    I mean when was the last time that you had the uninterrupted attention of your conversation partner? People are fiddling with something all the time (nowadays mostly smartphones...)

    1. Gads is *that* not a fact! Wish *I* could see a hot guy in a tie at the next table. Er...or was that a hot pink tie at the next table? ;)
      Thanks for this. Awesome!

    2. Ah yes... if I had a hot guy sitting at the next table, I'd even put up with his pink tie... *g*

    3. ...he had me at 'hello'. Heh heh

  3. My solution for the dread White Box is to let it run to get my dialogue, then go back, picture my setting and my characters moving around in it, and add those details in. It's sort of like the difference between reading a play and watching one staged. The only problem is that you have to make sure you don't add so much between the dialogue that you loose your transitions (and your readers forget what they're talking about).

    As for pre-hundred-page backstory, In `Nightlife', the first of Rob Thurman's Cal Leandros series, she gave Cal's backstory in either chapter two or chapter three. (Sorry. Don't have the book in front of me.)It really worked well because a) it was fascinating, b) it was vital to understanding the story and c) she'd already managed to hook you into the characters. A rule of backstory that I really like, which I believe comes from K. M. Weiland is that backstory should go right before you need it for the story to make sense. That way it doesn't seem distracting, or irrelevant, the way it could if you add it too early, but you're not so bound by a certain page-count that you confuse the reader.

    1. Love this. All of this. Thank you!

    2. Ps: I love backstory. When delivered properly I feel it adds a richness that is unparalleled.

  4. Thank you for these! I'd been wondering about Deep POV, having heard the term for the first time yesterday :) I found the following definition interesting:
    As the first-person narrator doesn’t have to identify his own feelings and thoughts as being his own, so the third-person viewpoint character doesn’t have to repeatedly tell his readers that he’s thinking or hoping or seeing or feeling. Readers understand that the thoughts and hopes and visions and feelings belong to the viewpoint character.

    The writer who uses deep POV for his viewpoint character doesn’t have to use markers to tell readers what a character feels—

    Melissa reluctantly stuck her hand into the pouch. She thought that there was no way she could back gracefully out of the dare. She wiggled her fingers around. She felt slime ooze between them.

    Melissa reluctantly stuck her hand into the pouch. There was no way she could back gracefully out of the dare. She wiggled her fingers around, wincing when slime oozed between them.

    Using deep POV rather than traditional third-person subjective can cut the word count and keep the intensity high. It can also keep readers deep in the fiction of the moment rather than reminding them that they are reading a story.
    (from http://theeditorsblog.net/2011/11/16/deep-pov-whats-so-deep-about-it/ )

    1. I love Deep POV for its richness and intensity. The characters literally breathe when Deep POV is employed!

  5. I understand completely- I have a huge comma problem. They go in when they shouldn't and are missing where they're supposed to go. Thank God for good grammar checking programs and my critique partners. I also struggle with variety of sentence openers. Which then tends to send me down the path of "ing" words. Strong verbs, strong verbs, strong verbs! With commas. It's a running commentary inside my head.

  6. Commas!! They're from the Devil, never doubt it.
    And opening lines are their own special sort of Hell....

  7. I think I struggle with body language quite a bit. Trying to avoid clichés and yet not pull the reader out of the story with something too original/strange.

    1. That IS A tricky balance beam to dance on, no question

  8. Do you have any more articles on Past Perfect. I didn't get what you were talking about, which alarms me, because that probably means I'm having issues on the problem without being aware of my ignorance

  9. Subjunctive! Still trying to get the hang of that one without it sounding wrong, especially when my POV character is a street kid who would never say "if he were..."