Rules, broken

“Any halfway decent artist can outline,” she sneered.

You can’t sneer a statement.

She raised her eyes to his.

What’d she do, pick them up off the floor?

Long ago and far away, when I first had this thing called a critique group, a thing that was foreign to me, I was taught these “rules.” I had never heard of these “rules.” I didn’t know what was wrong with raising one’s eyes or sneering one’s reply. I found such phrasings helpful and I read lots of books that had such things in it, lots of books by famed (and good) authors.

They were “rules,” I was told, lectured upon at workshops and conferences at RWA by editors and agents and teachers of writing classes. Ah, well, if it came from editors, it must be true.

(Never mind it was third- or fourth- or twelfth-hand. And never mind I was in my senior year of a creative writing degree and none of my professors had ever said any such thing. But that was LITERARY, and this was ROMANCE. Clearly, they had different rules.)

Then there was the head-hopping. I can’t find the last manuscript I did that in, so I’ll skip the example. I didn’t know what was wrong with that, either, because it was the way many popular books I read when I was a child and teenager were written. Hell, Hemingway did it. I never noticed it much less knew there was a name for it. Furthermore, I’d gotten two literary agents with books whose characters hop-scotched all the way through 300 pages, and I was the only person in my critique group to have gotten that close to getting The Call.

But the more it was pointed out to me, the more it irritated me. I don’t know if it irritated me because it was a “rule” that was being broken, because it was a “rule” I was not allowed to break, because I acquired a taste against the technique, or because it was just pointed out so often I avoided it like a puppy getting its nose smacked with a rolled-up newspaper.

I still don’t do it and now I will notice it but if I see it I chalk it up to artistic choice and go with it.


Oh, lastly.

Lastly, there are the “be” verbs, and the blanket admonition to use them as sparingly as possible because using a “be” verb is weak and is passive voice.

It was this that gave her the upper hand with Fen.

Her outfit was utterly ridiculous.

(Do we see the difference in “be” usage between these two sentences? No? Then this post is for you.)

One of the reasons I decided to revise The Proviso was because I had adhered to all of these admonitions (and at least a dozen more). It’d been a long time since I’d written anything at all, much less tried to find an agent or publisher, and I was a little weak in the knees about doing anything “wrong.” So while I was writing, I was adhering to these rules because they were the only solid thing I had to depend on at that time.

And I would find creative ways to delete any “be” verbs, because by that point I didn’t remember WHY I was supposed to do that. A sign of a bad or unimaginative writer or something. And none of my characters raised their eyes; their attention went to that spot. Many attentions went to many spots. None of my characters sneered any words, but they did say things with a sneer, which added very many words. All those rules-followings, and I told myself I was making good art.


I knew I was wrong while I was writing it. It didn’t flow. It was making me crazy, trying to come up with sentence structure that was simple and effective and rhythmic while avoiding “be” verbs. It wasn’t my voice. The language was overwrought, and I knew it. I didn’t like it. But dammit, I was following the rules!

I didn’t trust myself, you see. I didn’t trust my voice, but my voice was rusty and the rules were a long time ago and the internet was crawling with contradictory advice…

So a while after I released The Proviso and gotten a bit of good feedback, a literary type person whose work I highly respect (koff**DannyNelson**koff) said to me:

“I am enjoying your creative use of verbs.”

I died.

Withered up.

Blew away.

He’d noticed. Since he wasn’t a genre writer, I wasn’t sure if he’d know why I did that, but did it matter? I had followed the rules and I had done the exact wrong thing.

It became a thing with me, The Proviso being not quite right because I had done something deliberately I knew was bad for the story but I was following the rules. It was like putting up sheetrock and getting it all mudded and sanded and painted and trimmed—only to realize that even though you followed the instructions given to you by someone you trusted, you didn’t get the outlets wired correctly. But oh well. Since you weren’t going to use them that much anyway, you could work around it.

But every time you look at those outlets or have to run an extension cord, you know. And your brain picks at it. When are you going to open up that wall and do it right? You need to get that done right. I have so many other things to do though! But you know that’s not wired right and it’s getting more annoying every time you have to move an extension cord. You can still live with it until—

Wait, are you telling me we’re avoiding “be” verbs because you think AAAAALLLLLL “be” verbs make a sentence passive? What the hell?!

Everywhere around the web I was seeing this. I was seeing this from n00b authors telling other n00b authors, the way it was told to me by n00b authors I assumed knew more than I did (they didn’t), who said they got it from some workshop or writing article and who knows where all else they got it, and it’s been spreading like syphilis through a crackwhorehouse for the last 20 years.


I’m still seeing that advice everywhere. I had to tell a n00b a couple of weeks ago that “be” DOES NOT EQUAL passive voice. It just means the sentence is arranged passively.

And so I took the sledgehammer to the wall because I couldn’t stand Nelson’s voice in my head anymore.

I am enjoying your creative use of verbs.

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