How To Write Magical Words: A Writer’s Companion

If you write genre fiction, slap yourself hard if you don't read MagicalWords. The blog is jointly produced by a number of top fantasy authors including Faith Hunter, David B. Coe, Misty Massey, A.J. Hartley, Stuart Jaffe, and C.E. Murphy, and features the authors' distinctive views on both the craft and business of fantasy writing.

Now comes How To Write Magical Words: A Writer’s Companion, a compilation of how-to writing advice from the blog. Edited by Edmund Schubert of Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show, the book covers all aspects of fiction writing, from getting started to word choice to the business side of the craft.

Edmund has been kind enough to let me reprint the first essay from the book. It's pasted below. After you read it, be sure to check out the rest of How To Write Magical Words: A Writer’s Companion.


They’re Not Rules, They’re Price Tags

by Edmund R. Schubert

Never write in second person.

Always start with a powerful first line.

Never change POVs in the middle of a scene.

Eschew adjectives. And adverbs.

Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah . . .

How To Write Magical Words is devoted to helping people write better, and there’s a lot of great advice to be found here.

And it’s all negotiable.

Seriously. There isn’t a bit of writing advice here that someone, somewhere (probably multiple someones and multitudinous somewheres) hasn’t broken, and broken really damn well.

So should you listen to what Faith and David and A.J. and Misty and Stuart and Catie have to say about writing? Of course you should. They’ve been doing this for a long time; they know what they’re talking about.

Well, then what the heck are you talking about, Edmund?

That would be a logical question.

What I’m talking about is this: I’m replying to a certain question before it’s even asked, a question I hear all the time. The minute any writing conversation turns in the direction of “rules” or “guidelines” or even just plain old “advice,” it inevitably crops up.

That question is: “Yeah, but what about ____x____?”

Because yes, there are exceptions to every rule. In fact, those exceptions are usually exceptional. People hold them up as shining examples of why the rules don’t apply. They do so wrongly, but that doesn’t stop them from doing it.

That’s why I want you to stop thinking of them as “rules” and start thinking of them as “price tags.” Even the rules of grammar and punctuation. They are all price tags.

Why price tags? Because there is a price to be paid for breaking the rules. If the gain outweighs the loss, then it’s worth doing. If not . . .

Let’s start with the rules of grammar and punctuation; they seem to be the most immutable. You want to break those rules? Generally, the price you pay is a lack of clarity and, as a result, a lack understanding. There’s a great book that came out several years ago called Eats Shoots and Leaves that talked about the importance of punctuation. Just punctuation. That subject alone filled an entire book. But look at the difference one little comma (or the lack thereof) makes in the title. If you say “eats shoots and leaves” without the comma, you’re talking about a panda’s diet. What do they eat? Bamboo shoots and leaves. But add one little comma so that it reads, “eats, shoots and leaves,” now you’re talking about a mafia hit-man who sits down in a restaurant, eats his dinner, kills the guy at the next table, and then walks out. A panda bear and a mafia hit man—and all that differentiates the two is one single comma.

There simply aren’t a lot of good reasons to mess with punctuation. Period. But grammar is a little more flexible. Look at the second sentence in this paragraph, the paragraph you’re reading right now. That’s really not a sentence, is it? “Period.” There’s no verb, there are no independent or dependent clauses; it’s just one word, sitting there, all alone. It’s—gasp—a sentence fragment. And doggone it, it’s not the first one that’s been used in this piece.

What price did I pay? Not much of one, because there was no loss of clarity. I knew when, where, and how to use them. What benefit did I gain? That fragment carries extra emphasis. It makes it perfectly clear that I think there are very, very, very few reasons to mess with punctuation. And that’s what fragments do best: narrow the focus down so as to emphasize a point. But you still have to be careful to construct. Them properly. Because the sloppy. Unintentional use of sentence fragments only causes confusion (see my previous sentence-fragment mess, right before this sentence; yes, that was intentional. But it was still ugly.).

Here’s a different example, one that comes up frequently when we’re talking about writing: don’t write in the present tense, or, heaven forbid, the future tense. Has it been done? Of course. Should it be done? Well, that’s really up to you. As always, there’s a price to pay.

In this case, because past tense is the tense used in the vast majority of writing today (especially if you disregard “literary writing,” which accounts for two-thirds of the uses of other tenses), unless present or future tenses are used seamlessly, it’s going to jump out at the reader. Look at me, it screams. I am writing in the present tense. I am going to be writing in the future tense. If that’s the effect you want—if it serves your story somehow—then by all means, go for it. Some writers can do so in a way that’s unobtrusive, so you hardly notice it’s being done. But here’s the thing: most readers want to be swept up in a story and carried away by it. They want to be immersed in the world they’re reading about to such a degree that they forget about the real one they’re living in. That can not happen if the writing is calling attention to itself. Using tenses that scream “look at me” are not going to allow that to happen. Again: “Can it be done” is not the question you should be asking yourself. “Should it be done” is the question.

I could go on about this at length, but I’m sure by now you see my point. The bottom line is that the rules are there for a reason. And it’s not to say you can never, ever, ever do ____x____. It’s to say that if you do _____x_____, make sure you know why you’re not supposed to do it. Make sure you understand the price tag that comes with doing it. Make sure that you understand that even though great writing breaks a lot of rules, no one breaks the rules effectively without thoroughly understanding them.

Once you really, truly understand the rules, then by all means, go ahead and break them. Break them into a million shining pieces that people will hold up and bask in the glory of.

Break them so well that you’re the one that people are talking about when they come up to me at my next convention or workshop and say, “Yeah, but what about ____x____?”