First off, it has been brought to my attention (thanks, John!) that I need to tell my regular readers that The Far West is now out and available in hardcover. The e-book will be out in October, they tell me. On to the post.
Back in the day, one of my earliest beta-readers took me to task, at some length, for using the sentence “It was going to take her twice as long as usual” on the first page of Daughter of Witches. (“What was?” said the beta reader. “This pronoun has no antecedent!”) As you may guess from the fact that, thirty years later, I still remember this so clearly, I was not amused (and that person didn’t remain a beta reader for long).
At the time, I was quite clear that the comment was wrong-headed, but I couldn’t explain why, or figure out why the beta-reader got something so obvious so very wrong. Now, I can. That particular beta-reader had taken a basic college-level composition course, designed to pound the fundamental rules of formal standard English into the heads of freshmen, and internalized all of them without really understanding them. She’d also never heard of the expletive pronoun usage “when a clause or sentence lacks a plausible subject.” (Thank you, Karen Elizabeth Gordon.)
Basically, that particular beta-reader was applying rules and advice for formal writing to what was, at most, semi-formal. It was a bit like making a big fuss about using the proper fork at a barbecue.
Formal English is the standard we learn in school – all the rules of usage and syntax and grammar, and some of the less hard-and-fast rules for good style. The grammar-and-syntax rules are things like “The subject of the sentence must agree with the verb” (“He am” is incorrect, as is “I is”) and verb conjugations (“had went” is wrong, no matter how many words intervene between the two parts of the verb form). The stylistic rules are things like “Do not use contractions in writing” and “Sentences always have to be complete.”
These are the rules of basic English; these are the rules for writing an A-grade essay or college paper; these are the rules that most people in the adult world, from business to science to politics, are expected to have at least some grasp of (though judging from some of the business memos I’ve seen, there are an awful lot of people who don’t have a clue about apostrophes, much less proper sentence construction).
These are also the rules that people mean when they say “You have to know the rules before you can break them.” (And all that training in importance of those basic rules of English, I think, is what gives so many of us such enormous respect for and fear of Da Rulez of Writting, as promulgated by so many workshops, web sites, and wannabes. But that’s another rant for another day.)
The thing about all these rules is, there is a continuum for applying them. Different kinds of writing require different spots on the continuum from formal to informal. If you are writing a legal document, a science article, or a paper for your English class, the Chicago Manual of Style, current edition, is your best friend. If you are texting your sister about that movie you both want to see tonight, you can let proper sentence structure, punctuation, and even spelling go hang, as long as you’re sure your sister will understand the message.
I bet a lot of you are waiting for me to say that fiction falls more toward the informal end of the continuum, and therefore fiction writers can get away with not paying attention to a lot of those rules. Not quite.
Fiction does not fall on a point on the continuum at all. Fiction makes use of the whole range, depending on exactly what it is the writer is doing.
An analogy: English and all the various rules for using it, from “Keep it simple” to “Never open a book with the weather,” are tools in the writer’s toolbox. If you wish to build a wooden deck, you use a saw and a hammer and nails; if you wish to build a concrete block wall, you use a trowel and a mason’s hammer and chisel; if you wish to make a ladder-back chair, you need a lathe and a wood chisel and some sandpaper. The trowel won’t help you build the deck or the chair; the saw and the sandpaper won’t be much good for building the concrete block wall.
Most fiction is, indeed, somewhere in the middle of the formal-to-informal range. Dialog is usually less formal than narration (unless the book is in first person or the character who’s speaking is intended to be a prolix stuffed shirt). But every novelist gets to decide, at the start of every book, exactly where on the continuum that story needs to be…and the decision will be different from writer to writer and book to book.
This is where knowing the rules comes in. If you don’t know the rules for formal English, your writing is perforce limited to the more informal end of the range. It’s not so much a matter of “when to break the rules” as it is knowing what tools you want to apply – knowing whether you need a hammer and saw or a trowel and chisel.