2+2 Never Equals Five, but Adverbs are Okay

I have a degree in Mechanical Engineering. More specifically, in Controls & Dynamics (i.e., Robotics). Given an initial state and a set of variables, you could drive your desired system to a desired state in a predictable, controlled manner.

I think that’s what I most like about Engineering, Math, Physics, etc. Everything’s set in stone (okay, maybe not the theories, but everything else). There’s one correct answer, which you’ll get to if you follow the rules. Don’t follow the rules and $%&^ goes haywire.

Writing’s got rules, too. Don’t start a story w/ somebody waking up  or somebody looking in a mirror. Avoid adverbs like the plague. Avoid similes/metaphors like the plague. Avoid repetition like the plague. Avoid cliched phrases ‘like the plague’ like the… chickenpox. Dialogue tags other than said? Fogheda ‘bout it. Oh, don’t make up words phonetically. Do not boldly go (i.e., no split infinitives). Don’t infodump…

The list goes on and on and on. Can turn your brain to mush. Never mind all that other stuff outside of writing you’re supposed to consider. Blog tours, website evolution, twitter evolution, Facebook evolution, writerly evolution, book promotion, obsessing about book 2, deciding launch party logistics (Cookies!)…. Plus, you know, kids and/or jobs and life. Lots of Brain Jumble Noise.

There’s a list of rules for sequels, too, which is heavy on my mind as I churn through mine. Don’t infodump in the beginning. However, don’t launch in without providing at least some backstory. Don’t introduce another love interest on page one. Maybe not at all. Don’t have your MC seduce somebody and kill him with makeshift razor blades.

Wait, what?

Okay, threw that last one in there just to make sure you were reading along.

Here’s the thing, though, something I often have to remind myself: writing’s not math or science. If you break the rules, #$^& might go haywire, but sometimes haywire’s a damn good thing in books. In fact, there are no rules, only guidelines that others deem important and then the masses adopt (sometimes with a fervor). Lots of writers espouse the brilliance of Blake Snyder’s SAVE THE CAT, a book that outlines the classic 3-act structure seen in books and screenplays (STC’s initial intended audience was screenwriters). I sometimes feel bad that I’m not one of them. I don’t know where my beginning, middle, and end actually begin or end. I don’t have 3 acts. I grew up on epic fantasy and 3 acts doesn’t do it for me.

It’s important to know the ‘rules,’ but don’t let the ‘rules’ defined by others confine your creativity. You’ve got to deal with enough Brain Jumble outside of writing. God only knows that my twitter feed is seriously under-tweeting. 

Hell, successful books start by breaking the rules. Off the very quick top of my head. Waking up: THE HUNGER GAMES/THE ROAD. Mirror looking: DIVERGENT (waking up: INSURGENT). And you want adverbs? Pick up anything written by the late, great David Eddings.

Yes, you’ve gotta be brilliant about it. Don’t wake up and go make eggs. Go to the Reaping. Go with adverbs if you want. Go jauntily and kick some ass!

Note: If you have a strong desire to adhere to rules, become an accountant.

Note 2: I don’t use many adverbs. I loved David Eddings.

Note 3: I stick to ‘said’ ‘say’ most of the time. I have a hidden (not so much anymore) desire to stick in an ‘aver’ every once in awhile.

Note 4:  In my sequel, I’ve got a new love interest on page one. And that razor blade scene? It’s there, too (Editor approval pending :)).

Note 5: I have never used ‘like the plague’ before. I avoid it like the plague.

Note 6: Seriously, what’s with all the notes? Rule breaking, meta style!

Note 7: In true seriousness, I am sickened by Monday’s events in Boston. Still pissed at such hateful nonsense. Yet anger has never been a balm to any wound. So I went and reread Jeannie Mobley’s brilliant post, written only four months ago after the Newtown shootings. If you need a pick me up of any kind, I suggest you read or reread it.


JM AP Close_Straight

Joshua McCune is the author of the Talker 25 trilogy (Greenwillow). Dragons, war, romance (though not with dragons – I don’t do bestiality). First one drops in early 2014.


Filed under Advice, Anti-Advice, Writing

13 responses to “2+2 Never Equals Five, but Adverbs are Okay

  1. Bravo! (And I envy you your confidence in numbers. Numbers can often do things to your brain that aren’t cool.)


  2. Thinks for the pingback to my post. Sad that we have to reread it so soon!
    But in regards to your other comments, Josh, I gotta say, this is such important stuff. FInding the right ways to break the rules is what moves adequate writing into the realm of great writing.
    As for your note #3, I sometimes loved, sometimes hated the way Jack Gantos constantly broke the dialog tag rule in his Newbery winning “Dead End in Norvelt.” Some outrageous dialog tags in that book–just goes to show that daring rule breakers can take it all!


    • Joshua McCune

      Way too soon.

      I was a wizard of dialogue tag magic at one point. I’ve managed to quell it, but those fun, exciting variations of said do still tempt me 🙂


  3. OMG, you named my worst nightmare job: ACCOUNTANT. I will hold firmly to breaking the rules. Heck, I’m even in the book BREAK THESE RULES! Do I get a gold star, Josh? (Can I call you Josh?) LOL


  4. Wait–avoid similes and metaphors? I hadn’t heard that one. Pretty sure I’m breaking most of these rules anyway on a regular basis…


  5. Carrie Gordon

    Fantastic stuff, Joshua!


  6. Yeah! What you said! I knew you were brilliant, Josh, I just knew it. (A caution to newer writers: you will want to know the “dont’s” and understand why they came about before you stray from them. Trust me.)


  7. Joshua McCune

    Yes, know the basics before you break them! Know why you’re breaking them. But don’t be afraid to…


  8. Thanks for a great post Joshua. I was a math major for exactly two months and the chemistry labs did me in – talk about things going haywire. Much more fun making things go haywire in books. 🙂


  9. Love this post. But I guess this means I need to change my first chapter. My MC wakes up, looks in the mirror, and considers killing someone with razor blades. Anyway, like you, I like to bend the rules. I also like meaningless repetition. I also like meaningless repetition. 😉


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