Table of Contents
Ever experienced an author claiming their character's dialogue is a particular dialect, not thoughtlessly constructed, culturally insensitive, bad grammar?
Ever had a beta reader's feedback consist only of a missing comma on page eighty-nine, the first sentence of the fourth paragraph in your one-hundred-fifty-thousand-word novel?
Such examples reveal how authors camouflage a lack of editing skills in creative writing and how editors devolve into a pedantic, creativity-limiting practice. Balancing redrafting with artistry always mires in difficulty but complicates more today because of internet-proliferated opinions by the unknowledgeable and so-called experts.
From chapter lengths limited by word counts to forbidding adverbs, editors enforce grammar and punctuation rules with the severity of Hammurabi's Code, chaining authors in Plato's Literary Cave to banally scribble on the walls.
Freeing oneself is not an easy task, requiring the understanding of grammar, punctuation, construction, and other linguistic elements to break the rules and escape in a unique style.
The Rules of Fiction Writing Are Bullshit
Actual Rules, Best Practices, & Opinion
Fiction writing websites and online groups, most notably Facebook, habitually proliferate erroneous information often gleaned from other forums or websites, citing “rules” as if quoting from fiction’s holy tome. Unlike academic, legal, and other writing, fiction follows no set of standards and often-quoted “rules” mishmash style guides, opinion, and generalized industry best practices into advice damaging to your storytelling.
The Actual Rules
Fiction’s actual rules form from mechanics the same as all types of writing. Sentences start with capital letters and end with periods. Mechanical rules are not open for debate in customary use, and new writers lacking punctuation and grammar understanding write poorly and without clarity. Here is an example from a beta read (changed from original),
Shiva brought her long, oak spear, iron, sword, small, heavy, copper breastplate, and helm.
If this writer understood punctuation, she would use semicolons in a list containing commas to avoid confusion.
Shiva brought her long, oak spear; iron sword; small, heavy, copper breastplate; and helm.
While mechanical rules govern all writing, fiction writers can break them more than nonfiction authors, seen in the sentence fragment used for emphasis.
“You will die a terrible death. Violent, bloody! This end, I foresee.”
Skilled authors break mechanical rules to achieve their writing goals, such as not using apostrophes, which some academics and authors claim useless, adding difficulty to reading, most notably George Bernard Shaw. More often, breaking the rules serves a specific purpose within a piece, like providing fluency, clarity, or effect. Sparingly breaking mechanical rules for the effect might be the only absolute standard in fiction writing.
Writing’s best practices developed over time from industry professionals, academics, and publishers. Identifying best practices in fiction writing holds importance since these practices challenge your ability to self-publish or publish traditionally, such as not following Amazon’s KDP self-publishing guide or a traditional publisher’s submission requirements. Ignoring these methods impacts book quality, reduces sellability, and increases the risk of bad reviews. However, identifying industry practices confounds in a grotesque subjectivity conflated with erroneous, outdated, and often ridiculous advice posing as rules.
Publishers and agents follow many standard practices not limited to book promotions and book printing, but people claiming some specific method or rule gains the publisher or agent’s eye, much less approval, either lie or speak delusionally. There is no consistency in publisher or agent standards, and believing otherwise forms a costly, time-intensive marketing trap. Authors waste thousands of dollars on multiple editing services, developmental editors, and book covers, thinking they need these things to submit to agents and publishers. Worse than marketing or formatting myths, many people fall prey to erroneous advice regarding style and writing methods. Schools have for a long time taught passive voice weakens writing and thereby might cause publisher rejection. Nothing could be further from the truth. Just start opening books represented by large publishers, and you readily find passive voice springs from the pages, often sounding just as terrible as academics foretold.
Publishers and agents reading manuscripts and judging books is a subjective practice. If someone starts a conversation with “Publishers are looking for,” you can discount everything after as erroneous. Publishers choose books by marketability, author popularity, and other elements often having little to do with quality, but in their defense, subjectivity provides them a competitive advantage. No ironclad standard governs publishing because standards make the business more formulaic than its current practice by stifling creativity and uniquely marketable material. With this industry practice in mind, other so-called “rules” should now appear moronic.
The internet provides fertile ground for stupidity to flourish, and the frequency of people claiming chapters require specific word counts is astounding. They state various ranges with 2000–2500 as one the most commonly cited, and though many claim this true, the advice is beyond dumb. No chapter-length standard exists because writing a chapter develops a particular aspect of the story and functions to shift or break the story without regard for word counts. This stupidity is born out of meaningless averages applied to writing by some knucklehead who counted chapter words from an unknown number of fiction books to create this number.
500 + 1200 + 3200 + 100 + 920= 5920
The average of this equals 1184; therefore, the average length of a chapter should be 1184. These falsely interpreted averages by armchair statisticians apply significance to randomly generated averages. When authors write chapters, there is no intention to reach a certain number, so the word counts are random. This logic likens to standing on a tiled floor, throwing a hundred pencils in the air, and averaging the number of pencils to tiles, claiming, “These tiles hold an average of three pencils.” You will get a different answer every time. Yet, faulty logic does not stop social media and websites from repeating this nonsense as factual.
Outdated information is another issue in fiction writing, focusing mainly on abandoned industry practices. In a Facebook writing group, one of the founders stated, “Chapters should always start on the right page of the book.” This claim held some sense of truth but felt incorrect, and after spending some time going through traditionally published books dating back fifty years, this claim found no support.
Many old books, but not all, like this 1959 printing of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass by Riverside Press start chapters on the right.
Later published books like Factotum by Charles Bukowski published by Black Sparrow Press in 1975, starts chapters left or right, showing the printing industry standards already in flux before Amazon, perhaps more so denoting printing a publisher preference.
Many practices, such as book formatting, are remnants of the old printing industry that mass production changed or technology eliminated, like eBook auto-formatting by screen size that ended most recto and verso standards by shifting page length with the text. Erroneously quoted book lengths also come from the printing industry’s need to create a spine to make the book visible on a shelf. On-demand printing and mass printing did away with many industry practices, not all but many such as books opening with the story on the right page.
Before you follow an industry best practice, you should investigate it to save time and avoid damaging your writing. In one writing group, a new writer had to rewrite many chapters of her book after listening to people claiming them substandard in length. If you blindly follow supposed industry methods, you risk adopting bad habits such as verboseness, detail-loss, or even worse possibilities.
Opinion vs. Rules
People quote rules that are not rules at all but instead values or opinions masquerading as rules. Cursing is the most obvious example of this problem.
“Cursing in writing sounds terrible.” “Writing should be clean.” “Cursing is a lack of imagination.”
These and many similar statements are not rules but value judgments. When experienced writers recommend toning down cursing, it is for the same reason they suggest using fewer exclamation points so as not to deaden the effect. Many people offended by swearing restate moderating cursing as a rule to push morality. Cursing is an individual choice based on the writer’s need. Curse words achieve realism when properly used, and writers drop the F-bomb often because they describe situations where one might expect cursing, like a setting in a blue-collar, masculinity-in-overdrive industry where cursing is abundant. There is no rule written anywhere barring an author from cursing, and even when used arbitrarily, cursing is still not “wrong” but rather a poor choice. If you think cursing is wrong for any reason other than arbitrary or incorrect use — that is your opinion.
You will hear many opinions stated online and in books such as “never start a book with the weather,” “never end a sentence with a preposition,” and “only use ‘said’ for dialogue tags.” Again, investigate these opinions no matter the source. Fiction writing’s need for creativity demands flexibility even in mechanics, assuming you understand the mechanics enough to flex them. If you follow “rules” suggested by novice writers without investigation, you will pattern writing without style and adopt bad practices sure to harm your story.
How Editing Induces the Desire to Kill Yourself
Why I Never Edit & Why You Should Learn
He calls, desiring editing services for an action and adventure novel based on his wannabe commando experiences that hold more reality than the writing skill he conjured from a lifetime of no literary education, reading, or practice. Still, having my number, my downfall, allowed him to hammer me with pleas I rejected until he struck the author’s Achilles’ heel — money. Succumbing to capitalism and lack of principle for knowing better, I received the manuscript and some starting cash — nowhere near the desired amount due to his lack of funding. With the masterpiece he claimed “needing only some minor corrections,” so began my dreaded editing job for he who never wrote anything beyond a refrigerator reminder to buy milk.
Calling his draft “a brainstorming session” overstates his many weeks of full-throttled effort that constructed a team of heroes with less literary intrigue than grammatically incorrect Facebook bios. I worked the character descriptions, interlacing them with a hastily-invented plot completely absent from the narrative. As satisfied as possible, having sculpted his mental excrement of protagonist biographies and Frankensteined that pile with my uncaring, idiom-filled, derivative plot, I send him the draft for reading.
He declares himself worthy of a Pulitzer as though the bulk of the book’s pages I added to his incoherent nonsense, now made readable, existed in his original scribbling all along.
After correcting his assumption of the current work being a final draft and informing him of the revision process needed, I received his culturally biased rewriting of the strong Japanese female lead I novelized from his finger-painted anime. He diligently applies his art and challenges me to make new edits, stereotyping,
Like all Japanese women she appears docile but weeds a katana like a man with samaria sword.
Written just that archaically incorrect, line after line of sexism develops the characters in ways that would make a fundamentalist Christian man from the nineteen-twenties disapprove and march for women’s suffrage.
She romantically winked her cute, slanted eye like Sailor Moon. “Me is horny.”
Written just that way, what appears as poor mechanics built on voluminous entertainment references conflated with misspelled misogyny-infused racism reveals as literary genius when this same ability yields Black vernacular constructed solely on barbarized punctuation in later revisions, tokenizing,
Darrin’s Morgan Freeman-like voice echoed in the violently tossed room, “Yo, someone be perpatratin in da house, mudder fuckers.”
Weeks of rewrites emailed back and forth illuminate his uncanny inability to learn from Word’s spell check, my vehemently requested use of Grammarly, or the corrections I digitally volley from my desktop.
We have went to the South America again to stop the drug cartells and that was where we found our newest team member. Juan, call sign, “The Greacer.”
My solemn word to complete the job, coupled with already having spent his money, fuels months of editing misappropriations, misunderstandings, and mistakes slurring race, culture, and language. As broke as the first day cracking his novel and now far more suicidal, I proclaim the book finished, a seminal work, despite being far from anything remotely acceptable for publishing. Relying on his lack of skill to reinforce belief in my declaration, I convince him of his readiness to gift this magical story to a publisher. So begins my hard-fought freedom and his journey into rejection. Yet unsatisfied to just take his text and leave, he instead turns the injurious pittance I earned editing this novel into a final insult presented to me in his joyous-filled, approval-seeking question,
I thought writing a book would be a lot harder and more expensive, I guess I’m a natural, don’t you think?
Mistress Sandy’s Novel Editing Guide
You can learn joyfully or painfully. The choice is yours.
I. The Rules of Novel Writing
II. Concise Language
— Words Used Unnecessarily or Too Often
— Words used in passive voice or too often in past tense.
III. Comma Usage
— Commas with Conjunctions
— Commas WITHOUT Conjunctions
— Complex Sentences
— Compound Complex Sentences
— Dialogue Tags
— Action Tags
— No Tags
The Rules of Novel Writing
- You are not a novelist until Mistress Sandy says you’re a novelist.
- Good grammar earns rewards, while bad grammar incurs severe punishment.
- Proper punctuation will bring pleasure; be sure you punctuate correctly.
- Be creative or be flogged!
- Listening to the naysayers and incompetents will cause you to suffer the penalty of violation by household objects.
- The Mistress demands service, and that service is editing.
- You will finish your novel, or you will be paddled and humiliated.
- Consistency is the swing of the paddle as the Mistress beats the writing’s craft into your bare, amateurish ass.
- You’re unworthy of the Mistress, but showing her divine mercy, she leads you to a literary masterpiece, providing you work hard.
- You will pray to the divine craft of writing and kneel before its enforcer, Mistress Sandy, but to all readers, you shall reign supreme.
II. Concise LanguageWords Used Unnecessarily or Too Often
Absolutely, Actually, Asked, Basically, Began, Begin, Begun, Breath, Breathe, Certainly, Completely, Definitely, Down, Exhale, Feel, Felt, He, I, Inhale, It, Just, Literally, Nod, Ponder, Probably, Quite, Rather, Reach, Realize, Really, Replied, Said, She, Shrug, Somehow, Somewhat, Start, That, Than, Then, Think, Thought, Totally, Understand, Up, Very, Virtually, When, While, Wonder, AND ANY OTHER DIALOGUE TAG.
Mistress Sandy probed Vince with the dildo.
Mistress Sandy anally and orally probed Vince with the dildo.
Words used in passive voice or too often in past tense.
Has been, have been, is, was, were, would, having, would have, would have been.
Mistress Sandy’s ass was tempting me, but I absolutely knew that if I touched her ass without permission, I would have received a beating of such intensity that it would make me cry.
Mistress Sandy’s ass tempted me, but touching her ass without permission meant agony from an intense beating.
Listen, slave! Redundancy adds verbiage to writing and detracts from smooth reading. This problem can be difficult to detect so pay attention.
Don’t be a fool! These obvious redundancies generally occur when describing direction, motion, sound, or things emphasized in speech.
Redundant: Vince sat down on the dildo when commanded by Mistress Sandy.
Correct: Vince sat on the dildo when commanded by Mistress Sandy.
(“Down” is unnecessary since the only way to sit is downward.)
Terry Trueman quickly ran across the room to escape the whip.
(“Quickly” is unnecessary since “ran” implies speed.)
Terry Trueman screamed loud, piercing the dungeon walls.
(“Loud” is unnecessary since “loud” is part of the definition of “screaming”)
Don’t be stupid! Here’s your takeaway.
Don’t say the same thing twice, or I’ll beat you!
III. Comma Usage
USE A COMMA TO CONNECT TWO INDEPENDENT CLAUSES USING A CONJUNCTION, such as for, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so with a comma before the conjunction.
I begged Mistress Sandy, for she demanded groveling.
I begged Mistress Sandy, and I kissed her feet.
I didn’t beg Mistress Sandy enough, nor did I please her.
I begged Mistress Sandy, but she continued spanking me.
You can be flogged, or you can be paddled.
Mistress Sandy ground her stiletto in my crotch, yet I felt pleasure.
Mistress Sandy laughed at my pain, so I cried harder.
Here is your takeaway, you piece of shit!
Linking two or more independent clauses with a conjunction is known as a COMPOUND SENTENCE. E.g., Mistress Sandy beats me, and she causes me pleasure, but I learn.
DO NOT USE A COMMA TO CONNECT AN INDEPENDENT CLAUSE WITH A DEPENDENT CLAUSE USING A CONJUNCTION, such as for, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so.
I begged for Mistress Sandy to end the spanking.
I begged and kissed Mistress Sandy’s feet.
Mistress Sandy has neither compassion nor mercy.
I masturbated vigorously but forgot to ask for permission.
You will be flogged or paddled for your indiscretion.
Mistress Sandy buried her heel in my ass yet painlessly.
Mistress Sandy twisted her heel in my ass so screaming would begin.
Stop whining, bitch! Here is your takeaway.
Commas create pauses in speech and reading. If you use a comma where you’re not supposed to, people have a hard time reading your crappy writing.
USE A COMMA TO CONNECT A DEPENDENT CLAUSE WITH AN INDEPENDENT CLAUSE when the dependent clause appears first in the sentence.
When Betty arrived, I became excited.
After Betty stripped, I touched myself.
Once Mistress Sandy noticed my self-play, she flogged me with her cat o’ nine tails.
Realizing she forgot to ask permission to strip, Betty fell to her knees and begged for mercy.
During the flogging, Betty kissed Mistress Sandy’s feet.
Despite begging for forgiveness, Betty was shown no mercy by the Mistress.
Pay attention, slave! Here is your takeaway.
If an independent clause appears after the dependent clause, the comma appears after the dependent clause.
DO NOT USE A COMMA to connect an INDEPENDENT CLAUSE WITH A DEPENDENT CLAUSE when the independent clause appears first in the sentence.
Betty knew she errored when Mistress Sandy cracked her whip.
Mistress Sandy ordered Betty to service her divine vagina while I serviced her godlike ass.
Mistress Sandy granted us mercy despite our impudence.
Terry Trueman arrived and patiently waited while Mistress Sandy allowed us the privilege of servicing her.
Mistress Sandy will inflict you with pleasure if you are obedient and use proper grammar.
Listen and learn, slave! Here is your takeaway.
A COMPLEX SENTENCE links an independent clause with one or more dependent clauses.
USE COMMAS TO SEPARATE a dependent clause when it appears between two independent clauses.
Terry Trueman rolled his eyes at Mistress Sandy, and when she noticed his disobedience, she furiously spanked his ass.
Obey and learn! Here’s your takeaway.
Compound-complex sentences contain two independent clauses and one or more dependent clauses.
Mistress Sandy ordered, “Vince, service Betty!”
Vince responded, “By your command, Mistress.”
Betty moaned, “Yes, Yes.”
Terry Trueman mumbled, “So hot! So hot!”
Mistress Sandy pointed her whip. “Vince, service Betty!”
Vince knelt in subservience. “By your command, Mistress.”
Betty rolled her eyes. “Yes, Yes.”
Terry Trueman gazed. “So hot! So hot!”
“Vince, service Betty!”
“By your command, Mistress.”
Here’s your takeaway, beast of pleasure.
Dialogue tags help identify the speaker and help describe the scene.
End of Lesson
That concludes today’s lesson. Next time Mistress Sandy will teach the pleasure and agony of colons and semicolons.
Grovel for being blessed with Mistress Sandy’s Knowledge.