Wednesday, April 6, 2011

When all you have is a hammer

You know the line about not having the right tool: when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

This came to me during a discussion with a writer friend. The discussion started with passive voice and ended with tools. The tools we have as writers. Words, grammar, rules of writing.

This is the place I wanted to arrive. Rules. Rules of writing.

The rules of writing are not "rules" at all, but suggestions. Some of these suggestions are strong, some not so strong, but all are suggestions. We follow them for one reason only: to make it easy for the readers, our readers, to understand what we mean to say to them. A common set of rules is a great leveler.

However, some critics use their idea of rules in an attempt to have us give up some of our tools. Never use passive voice! Adverbs must die! The pluperfect has no place in fiction! You get the idea; if you've written, someone has made similar suggestions to you.

Don't be confused. The only tool we have that cannot be overused is the standard past tense, third person VP, at least in fiction. But overuse of the other tools has, I believe, made some overly sensitive to any examples.

The message is, as it always should be: tell the story you want to tell the way you want to tell it. Don't be put off from using passive voice, or mixed viewpoints, if one of those fills the hole in your story. We have all these tools. Some are common; some are unconventional, perhaps unfamiliar. Use the correct one for the effect you want to achieve. Don't overuse them; with familiarity comes contempt. Don't use them to avoid wrestling with the tool you should be using. But, do use them to make your readers feel your message.

Don't give up any of your tools. Don't allow someone else to take them away from you.


  1. Those who would blindy follow rules, or in their righteous piety create them, have neither a mind to think with nor an imagination to see with.

    Cheers mate...

  2. I wonder if you thought about this because of our little project? :)


  3. @Shiy Not a bit. This came from a whole other place. Our project has brought about different thoughts. :P

  4. I think that writers do things the "right way" too often. There are times to follow rules, and times to bend the shit out of them until they almost break. That is not to say that your story should read like an incomprehensible pile of trash, but just take a look at groundbreaking novels like Clockwork Orange or to a lesser degree pretty much anything by Cormac McCarthy. Both of these authors play with the rules of writing, and the preconceptions we have, and monkey with them.

    To varying degrees of success. I personally can't get into McCarthy's work. I loved Burgess' Clockwork Orange though.

    Attempting anything truly groundbreaking is a risk. You'll either fly, or you'll fall on your face -- and, to quote Adam Sandler, "They're all gonna laugh at you."

    But you have to take that risk and do what you have to do. Be true to the story you're writing.

    Easier said than done, I know, but most bits of advice are . . .

    One More Day

  5. Nick, I think you've captured it perfectly.

    Thanks for commenting.