Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Exercising "The Rules" by Dina Sleiman

Our guest today is Dina Sleiman, and she's here to talk to us about the rules of fiction writing. Welcome, Dina!

Those of us who are fiction writers hear a lot about “the rules.” I recently heard a new one—that similes are unacceptable. Are you kidding me!!! I’m a poet. A well executed, well timed simile is like a feast for the senses. Of course, an ill executed, ill timed simile can make you want to gag up said feast. Hmm…maybe that’s the point. It’s all about how well you do it.

All of these so-called “rules of fiction writing” are just someone’s attempt to capture that elusive entity known “great writing” and put it in a bottle. To give you a concrete guideline. But the rules are a means and not an end unto themselves.

Here are Dina’s “Rules About the Rules.”

1) You can break any writing rule if you do it well.
2) Apply the 10% caveat: feel free to break any rule 10% of the time.
3) Over adherence to any single rule will result in breaking another.

I’ve seen too many friends run in circles by rule #3. And no wonder when critiquers and judges shoot out comments like sniper bullets. They often give vague advice with no real training on how to apply the advice. The writer thinks they’ve applied the advice and gets in trouble with another judge or critiquer who seems to tell her to change it back.

The real problem is, the writer misunderstood and misapplied “the rule.” Let me give you some examples.

Often writers are told they shouldn’t have backstory for the first 30 or even 50 pages. True and not true. We need to have a feel for who these people are after all. What we can’t have is long, boring backstory dump. But please, do weave in hints and quick targeted details. A mention of lingering tension between the character and her mother in the dialogue. A hint of her history with the hero linked to a sensory detail. Perhaps tell us her occupation in her internal monologue. You can give us backstory…if you do it well.

Here’s another one. A friend of mine was recently (oh no! adverb usage) told she had too much description. So she stripped it all out. What? Description is the basis for setting. And the reader couldn’t picture the scene at all. You need setting. What you don’t need is long, boring description in list-like fashion. But please, do weave setting into the action. Show the character interacting with the setting. Allow it to spark her inner monologue. Let us experience the sensory details along with her. You can give us description…if you do it well.

We all know clichés can never, ever be used in fiction. But, wait! What if you have one specific person in the story who clings to the safe and familiar never venturing out on their own. Clichés in their dialogue can actually strengthen characterization. I would argue that you can use clichés (say it with me everyone)…if you do it well.

Yes fellow writers, rule #1 is true. You can do anything. You just need to do it well. This reminds me of a corollary in the dance world (being very careful not to word this as a simile. Sheesh people!) Sometimes you’ll see a novice dancer who thinks that because she can kick her leg to head height, that she’s ready to be a professional.

Not true.

What she doesn’t understand is that her foot must be turned out, her hip properly fixed in place, her knee straight, her toes pointed into a lovely arch, her arms in the correct position. All at the same time.

And how do professional dancers learn a proper kick? By a judge or critiquer telling them once. No no no, my friends. By doing thousands of hours of exercises to strengthen, hone, and stretch their muscles. By starting with small kicks and slowly working up to big kicks to maintain proper technique.

Yes it takes training, ladies and gentlemen. Years and years of long, hard training. You don’t get to say, “I’ve watched plenty of dance recitals. I can do that.” You have to put in the work to develop the strength, skill, and technique yourself.

The “rules” are not a quick-fix to great writing. Writing, and writing, and writing creates great writing. Studying the craft, attending conferences, taking classes. These are the keys to great writing.

So, my fellow writers, as the next round of critiques comes along to bludgeon you in the head, don’t get discouraged. Get back out on the dance floor and exercise your fiction muscles (gracious me, did I just mix metaphors?!?!), understanding that it will take time, patience, and practice to become great.

Dina Sleiman writes lyrical stories that dance with light. Most of the time you will find this Virginia Beach resident reading, biking, dancing, or hanging out with her husband and three children, preferably at the oceanfront. Since finishing her Professional Writing MA in 1994, she has enjoyed many opportunities to teach literature, writing, and the arts. Join her as she discovers the unforced rhythms of grace.

Dance of the Dandelion

Love's quest leads her the world over.

Dandelion Dering was born a peasant in the English village of Arun, but her soul yearned for another life, another world. One filled with color and music, with adventure and passion  . . . with more. Haunted by childhood memories, Dandelion determines to find a better existence than the life every peasant in the village contents themselves with. Even if her sweetheart William’s predictions prove true, and her journey leads straight to heartache.From her sleepy hamlet to the intrigue of castle life, from the heart of London to the adventurous seas, Dandelion flees from the mistakes of her past, always seeking that something, that someone who will satisfy her longings. Will Dandelion ever find the rhythm to her life's dance . . . or did she leave her chance for true love at home in Arun village?


  1. Thank yo so much this helps me so much. I keep hearing "You can't do that. Do this. Don't do that" It's nice to have this post t clear that up. Thanks. (I liked the dance analogy. I was in Ballet and I totally understand where you are going.)

  2. This post reminded me of my best friend who happens to be a dancer, lol. Similies really? I guess it sort of makes sense in a way.

  3. "Oh no, adverb usage!" :D That made me laugh. Thank you for the advice!

  4. So much of this post made me laugh! Thanks for the encouragement ~ just what I needed. And I have had two friends read something I've written before and one say, "Oh, that sounds wierd," while another thought "that's brilliant!" :)

  5. Hi Alyson, glad you enjoyed the analogy and always happy to meet a fellow dancer.

  6. Alana, I think the problem with similes is using cliched and cheesy similes. Also mixing similes and metaphors. Just be careful how you use them.

  7. Ellyn, always happy to evoke a laugh, especially since the new book I'm working on has a good bit of humor. My own teenagers insist I'm not funny, although they laugh at a good half of my jokes.

  8. Rachelle, writing is so subjective. I tend to treat critiques and also judge's comments like an opinion poll. If you hear something once, don't worry too much. If you hear it again and again, then it needs work.

  9. By the way, everyone, that's my teenage daughter Christi on the cover of my book.

  10. Dina, I saw that last comment and suddenly saw the likeness!
    By the way, this has been really helpful. Now I get to put it into practice! :)

  11. A few people have thought it was me, Becki. I wish my body still bent like that. LOL.

  12. Haha. My body NEVER bent like that, and I'm only 16!!!! :D

  13. Thank you so much for this post! It made me smile but also gave me concrete advice about the ever allusive "rules" that always cling to the back of my head as I'm editing. :)

  14. Becki, mine probably never moved quite like that either, although I could have faked it at some point. LOL.

  15. You guys seriously have no idea how tickled I am that the "Teen" writers think I'm funny :) Might I have a YA novel in my future...