Monday, March 6, 2017

Writing Advice Examined: Should you pay attention to writing rules?



Stephanie Morrill is the creator of GoTeenWriters.com and the author of several young adult novels, including the historical mystery, The Lost Girl of Astor Street (Blink/HarperCollins). Despite loving cloche hats and drop-waist dresses, Stephanie would have been a terrible flapper because she can’t do the Charleston and looks awful with bobbed hair. She and her near-constant ponytail live in Kansas City with her husband and three kids. You can connect with her on FacebookTwitterPinterest, Instagram, and sign up for monthly updates on her author website.



I have listened to a lot of different writing podcasts in the last month, trying to find new ones that I like as much as Writing Excuses and Helping Writers Become Authors.

Binge-listening to so many interviews has driven home to me yet again how confusing all the writing advice can be. One bestselling author will encourage new writers to learn the rules of the craft and study genre tropes. Another bestselling author will say to forget the rules and that readers don’t really care about genre tropes so much as they do a good story.

Even with how long I’ve been writing and studying writing, all the conflicting advice can really mess with my head.

So, should you care about the rules of writing? Or about the traditions of your chosen genre? If so, how much should you care?




Writing rules are about clarity.


When it comes to the idea of writing rules, I’ve observed two general camps of writers (And, of course, there are those who fall in a healthy between place.)

Rule lovers: For some writers, the idea of writing having rules is exciting. They want to learn all the rules so they can grow in their craft and become better writers. The drawback of being this type of writer is you can get so caught up in the rules that you lose sight of the art.

Rule snubbers: The other extreme is writers who groan about rules and resist them at every opportunity. Three act structure? No way, man. You should only write with nouns and verbs? Forget it—they’re going to write their book with only adjectives and adverbs. In second person. Take that, world.

The drawback to snubbing all the rules is the potential for losing clarity. If you think about most the rules we’re taught as writers, the purpose of those rules is to communicate the story clearly. Sure, a little pushing, testing, and tweaking of rules is healthy for an artist, but if you decide to ignore most or all of the rules, you’re potentially sacrificing the clarity of your story.

That's because storytelling existed before the rules, and the rules are drawn from observations of existing stories. Meaning, the art of storytelling didn’t begin with someone saying, “I’ve invented this thing called three-act story structure, and we are going to tell all our stories using it.” Stories already existed, and the three-act structure was born out of observing patterns in stories that resonated. Someone put language to what already existed and said, “People sure like stories when they have a beginning, middle, and end!”

If you have rule snubber tendencies, consider substituting the word guidelines. Guidelines are more about, “Yeah, there are exceptions, but in general these are things that have worked well over time.”


Discerning writing rules versus personal writing preferences


My daughter is in third grade, and sometimes she comes home with worksheets about facts and opinions. She has to read a sentence and then decide which one it is. Writing rules (or guidelines, if you prefer) should go through a similar filter to discern if this is something you probably should do, or if it’s something that’s just a personal preference.

Let’s take a couple statements and consider them:

If you write a novel, you should separate your book into chapters.

This is a rule that’s so ingrained in us, you maybe have never even considered that it’s a rule. If you've written a 75,000 word book, chapters are a smart idea.

Let’s try another:

You shouldn’t use chapter titles in young adult books, just middle grade and early reader.

This one rings more like a preference. If I wanted chapter titles in my YA book, I might just shrug this one off. Here are more examples of writing advice that leans toward preference rather than rules:

You shouldn’t have a prologue.
Your main character should be likable.
Start in the middle of action.
Your book needs to be fast paced to keep readers interested.

Even though these are preferences, it would be foolish to completely ignore these pieces of advice without questioning why they exist. Even if you don’t want to write a fast-paced book, there’s value in considering why that’s so often suggested, and thinking through why your moderately or slow-paced book will still intrigue readers.

When I'm faced with advice that contradicts the choices I've made about telling my story, I have a tendency to think, “It works fine in my book. They just don’t get it.”

This happened to me once in my early 20s when I had a young adult book that I was shopping. The first scene was two high school girls having coffee together. Though it wasn't action packed, I thought it worked because the conversation had lots of conflict.

Even when another writer read the book and told me she thought I wasn’t opening in the right place, that it was slow and boring to start the book with two characters sitting and having a long conversation, I thought, “She just doesn’t read much YA. This works great.”

Simultaneously, I was reading a book that had been recommended to me, but I couldn’t make it past the first chapter without looking for something else to do. Eventually I pushed through what felt like a slow opening and enjoyed the rest of the book very much. Later, I realized the opening of that book was three friends meeting up at a pub and having a long conversation. Even with all the conflict in their conversation, I had felt really bored.

I knew then that I should revise my opening as well. That it was a darling I needed to kill.

Intention counts for more than you might think.


Thanks to Go Teen Writers and being a contest judge multiple times, I've read a lot of manuscripts by new writers. One of the biggest surprises to me was that as a reader, I could tell the difference between ignorance and intention. Particularly with POV. I wouldn't have thought it, but it's easy to spot a writer who doesn't understand POV rules and is head-hopping out of not knowing better versus someone who has chosen to tell their story with an omniscient narrator.

Roseanna White and I have had lots of talks about this before because she’s a “gut” kind of writer who doesn’t plot out ahead of time or pay much attention to writing rules. (She will be here on Wednesday to expand on thisyay!)

Roseanna talks about this in her 5 Tips to Self-Publishing article, but the first time she released a book, she didn't understand POV and head-hopped frequently. When she figured out the rules, she was able to fix a piece of the story that she had instinctively known wasn’t quite working, but hadn't known how to correct.

That’s when writing rules are their most powerful: When they help you give language to the problem you can sense, but don’t yet know how to fix.

Do you tend to be a writing rule follower, or the type to snub your nose at them? What’s a writing rule that you’ve learned that’s helped you?


49 comments:

  1. A rule that I have is making words more rich. I like polishing each one (thesauruses really help). I have a problem with chapters. I'm starting doing chapters, but I want the name of them to have to do with the whole chapter (not just part of it).
    You know, I really don't want to do chapters, but I know it's easier for me (as a reader) to now the chapter names and what scene is in what chapter. Separating things onto chapters is just stressful to me. Ugh
    What do you think I should do (chapter wise)?

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    1. I used chapter titles in my first book but not in consequential books because I found they were too difficult to align with chapter content. Does your question regard chapter names or where to separate the story into chapters? I may be able to assist with the latter.

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    2. I've been having trouble with separating the story into chapters, and knowing how to keep the chapter into one subject. My chapters would be pretty short if I separated them by subject.

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    3. I see. Well, I don't know if this will help you, but I usually start by having a general idea of how long I want my chapters to be (something I have to establish when I toy with the first chapters of a new project). I usually have a set range of pages in mind, though word count would be more concise. I keep track of my pages as I go and look for a place where I can close with a good hook. Sometimes this is at the end of the scene and sometimes in the middle of a long one. Because of my method, my chapters frequently lack common themes and thus don't need titles. They are there simply to make the story easier to digest and highlight moments of tension. I don't know if this will work for you or not, but I hope it will give you some ideas.
      If anybody else has a different method to help LHE, please join the conversation!

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    4. Thank you SO much, Olivia. I think your method is the best. I guess get so engrossed in my writing that when I want to start a new chapter, it doesn't fit right in that place. It gets so annoying. A lot of times, I know what I want to write in the chapter, but I keep getting ideas of what to write, and I don't want to break the flow. What's your opinion on chapters?
      I'm sorry if I'm bothering you with questions, Olivia. :|

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    5. I mean: What's your opinion on putting chapters in your writing or not?

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    6. No problem. :)
      I'm not sure I can relate to your problem enough to be very helpful, but it sounds like you might be overly concerned about your chapter endings. For me, if my page count is getting too long, I find a quick close to the chapter, start a new page, and keep going with the scene. Your chapter close doesn't have to be anything super profound to effectively complete the final thought of that passage. If you want to know more about how and where to close chapters, I know there are some articles on this site that will explain it better than I could.
      To keep your thoughts on a chapter organized, you might try typing out a brief summary of events before you start writing a scene so you don't get stuck in the middle trying to decide which path to take.
      I hope that answers your question! I apologize if I somehow missed the heart of your struggle with chapters. As I mentioned, it's never really been a problem for me, so I may not understand your dilemma fully enough to be of help.

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    7. Oh! Sorry, I didn't see your last post 'til just now. :) I think chapters are important for the writer because it helps them keep track of their progress and so remain uplifted. It helps readers by giving them pauses in which to take a break from the story so they don't get overwhelmed. ;) That's my opinion. Do you have a different one?

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    8. LHE, here's a comprehensive post on chapters:

      http://goteenwriters.blogspot.com/2016/05/wewritebooks-post-16-dividing-your-book.html

      I know some writers don't put them in until after they're done with the book, so if it's something that stresses you out, don't let it weigh you down during your draft!

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    9. Hey, mind if I hop in with my opinion? Hope not. :) I personally don't split my stories into chapters until I finish the whole thing like Mrs. Morrill said. I only split it with some stars (**) when I switch who's head I'm in since my WIP has two people I flip back and forth between. When I do split them into chapters I tend to limit the page count to 9 pages (I use Word) per chapter so it doesn't end up being to long or short. I don't do that all the time (for example, my first novel has a chapter that's like 12 pages while another is only 8)but that's just a rule of thumb I tend to follow. I hope that was helpful. :)
      *Sarah

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    10. Olivia, thanks for your help. You answered everything that I asked! Don't worry about it. ;) Your method sounds really helpful. I am probably a little too concerned about that in the stage I'm in. :)
      Mrs. Morrill, I will hop over to that site. Thanks for the help!
      Sarah, I have LOTS of characters in my WIP. I do headers for each character when each one is in a different scene. What you're doing sounds like a good idea also. Thanks for your help!
      Again, thanks all of you for giving me wonderful ideas for how to do my chapters! You all were very helpful. :)

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    11. That's a good idea, Sarah! I may have to try that method out one day... assuming I get to all the stories I have in mind to write. ;)
      You're welcome, LHE! I wish you luck with your chapters!

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    12. Thank you, Olivia! I wish you luck as well! :)

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    13. You're welcome, and I wish us *all* luck on our writing and chapters!
      *Sarah
      P.S. Olivia, thanks for the comment on my writing prompt on Friday. I answered it if you're interested. :)

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    14. Thank you for directing me that way, Sarah! I am so relieved. :)

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  2. I am most definitely a rule follower. When I started writing, I head-hopped a lot, so learning to identify and stick with certain POV characters really helped me tighten and clarify my writing. On that note, I have a character in my oldest WIP whom I only use to narrate one scene. I really enjoyed writing the scene from his perspective because of his bumbling personality and the irony of his accidental heroism in said scene. I am concerned it will detract from the story by feeling unnecessary and distracting, though, so I'm not sure yet whether I must "kill my darling" or not.
    Yay for Roseanna White! I look forward to hearing from her. :)

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    1. That's a tough one, Olivia. I've mentioned this before on the blog, but The Help is written from three different first-person perspectives. Except for the one chapter where all the characters are together, and then it's told in omniscient. But just for that chapter.

      The rules would say, "No, that's not a good idea." But it works beautifully. Sometimes a surprising POV choice can add a lot to a story.

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    2. Thank you, Mrs. Morrill! I may have to get some feedback from beta readers to help me make the call on that one. I'll keep what you said in mind!

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  3. Love this post! I think there needs to be a healthy balance between the two. It's impossible to incorporate every single writing rule into our manuscript, especially when so many of them are contradictory. This can cause our writing to come across as stilted and formulaic. On the other hand, I love how writing rules have taken my craft to the next level. It's thrilling to study a new craft book and learn the tricks of the trade. Those who write manuscripts that are publishable quality are those who can apply both art and craft to their work.

    Looking forward to Roseanna White's post!

    Tessa
    www.christiswrite.blogspot.com

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    1. Very well put, Tessa. After my first writing conference, where I learned a ton of things I'd been doing wrong, it was really difficult to get in a writing groove after that. My head was so full of all the things I should and shouldn't be doing!

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  4. The one thing I've learned is not everything works for everyone. For example, Storm Siren by Mary Weber ends in a cliff hanger which works perfectly for her book, but I tried it in one of mine and am now going to change it! Another would be don't start a story in a dream scene even though some books can do it and get away from it (another thing I have to fix in mine - what is wrong with me?). That's just a few things I've noticed in my writing in comparison to others.
    *Sarah

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    1. Sarah, trial and error is a good thing. It really helps in showing what we are really good at and what needs work. For me, I've tried narrating one of my books, but it didn't work out too well. From Shannon Dittemore's posts, you're a very talented writer. :)

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    2. Aw, thank you, LHE, you're a good writer too!
      *Sarah

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    3. Thank you, Sarah, you made my day!!! :D

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    4. Sarah, it's great that you're thinking so analytically about your own work. That can be tough to do! I agree that starting with a dream is rarely the best thing for a story. Though I know I have a few archived manuscripts that start that way!

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  5. I would love any advice you could give me on what I'm about to say. I only started writing books early last year, so I could use any tips you could give. OK, here it goes:
    I am writing a book, and I don't know whether it qualifies as young adult fiction or not.
    I have done a prologue, but only because the reader could use some extra info.
    I do chapters, but not chapter names. Partially because I'm lazy (lol) and partially because I just don't think my book needs them.
    I'm definitely a stickler when it comes to punctuation and spelling.
    I know that most people here are writing or have already written a book, so please feel free to give advice. Thanks! :D

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    1. Hey, GJE, I'll try to help a little bit with your questions here.
      *To be a Young Adult book (YA) the main character is usually between the ages of 15 and 21 and typically the reading deals with issues teens have or are interested in. For example, my trilogy is YA fantasy, so my two main characters are 18 and 21 and I deal with a lot of issues like loneliness, suicide, love, trusting others, etc. YA also doesn't have heavy "thematic" issues either like adult would.
      *Does the reader *need* the information in your prologue? Or could it be the first chapter? It's a personal choice for each and every writer, but the Helping Writers Become Authors site actually has several points about prologues on her website. I suggest you check those out as her advice is really good.
      *I don't do chapter names either (mainly because I stink at coming up with them LOL) and most YA books I've read don't have them either.

      Wow, that was a lot. I hope I answered some of your questions - I'm rather new at giving advice so sorry if I did a poor job. The most important thing I can say is write what you love and you're passionate about. Go to it!
      *Sarah

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    2. No way ! You did a great job! Thank you!
      The main characters in my WIP are 17 and 12. They deal with a lot of hard issues together, but I wouldn't call it very intense. It's sad, though. It also includes a Christian message (something I usually try to include), but that's not the main issue.
      The prologue is set several years before the first chapter and kinda gives the reader an idea of what's going on. You know, *why* the chapters start where they do. Some of my other WIP's (I have WAY too many plot bunnies) don't have a prologue. They just don't need one. The story starts at one place and goes on non-stop from there.
      What books are you writing? Have you published any? If so, I REALLY want to read it (them). I love books. lol
      I try to write whenever I get a chance. I don't think I'll become a famous author or anything, but I am pretty passionate about it all the same! Thank you for all the GREAT advice. I'm sure it will help me in the future!

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    3. GJE,

      I think some of this was already said above, but I'll throw in my opinions too :)

      YA is a surprisingly difficult genre to pin down. (My dad read The Lost Girl of Astor Street and was like, "Why is this a YA book? I enjoyed it so much, this could be an adult book!") Character age definitely plays into it. I would keep your main character 19 or younger. But it's more than just character age. It's also a "feel" thing. Helpful, right? :) YA books tend to take place in that space of "I have my whole life ahead of me, and I'm making important choices that will direct that future ... but I'm still not free from childhood quite yet." I don't know how much sense that makes.

      You could have someone read the prologue and see what they think. Here are some articles on Go Teen Writers that might help:

      http://goteenwriters.blogspot.com/2014/10/does-my-book-need-prologue.html

      http://goteenwriters.blogspot.com/2016/05/wewritebooks-post-15-prologues.html

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    4. Mrs. Morill, would the ages 13 or older (up to 19, though it has a couple of adults who share their thoughts), count as YA? I just thought about this while seeing what you, GJE, and Sarah said. :)

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    5. Thank you, Mrs. Morrill!
      I believe my book is YA, now. The characters are definitely dealing with issues that will affect their future lives. Thank you for the advice!
      Alrighty, I'll read 'em. thanx! :D

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    6. In general, editors advise older narrators for YA books because typically young readers prefer to read up (about a character that's older than them) versus down (a character who is younger). That's just in general, though. 13 is a more common age for a middle grade novel.

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    7. Thanks Mrs. Morrill! :) Yeah, I think my WIP is a middle grade novel.

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    8. Thanks Mrs. Morrill! :) Yeah, I think my WIP is a middle grade novel.

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    9. GJE, same here on the "want to be an author but won't be famous" thing. I don't really want to be famous, so that's okay by me!

      I'm not published yet though I hope to be in the near future. I'm currently writing a YA Christian fantasy trilogy (yeah, I know that's a mouthful) of which I have the first book "finished" (meaning I still have a lot of work to do but I wrote "The End")and I'm down to the wire on book 2 of which I should be finished with the rough draft by the end of this week (Yay!). Book 3 only has some vague ideas so far.

      That of course doesn't include all the other ideas for future stories I have in my head . . . It's a good bet I'll be writing forever. :) You're story sounds really cool, and I've liked your other writing on Mrs. Dittemore's prompts, so I'm sure it's going to be great!
      *Sarah

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    10. Writing is something I LOVE to do in my free time. My sister may become famous some day. :D She's really good.
      Do you have a book title? Sometimes I come up with names to my writing after I finish, so I understand if you don't.
      I don't know if I'll write another book or not... At first I thought that writing just one would be weird, but that's not realistic thinking. I mean, The Hobbit is a great book, but there is only one... It does have three movies... LOL! xD
      Thank you so much!!! You just made my day! I like your writings, too! If your books are as good as them (they probably are), I'll be wanting to read them... :D A sneak peek would be cool... *hint, hint* lol! ;D

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    11. Sarah, how long did it take you to write those two books, Sarah? It takes me FOREVER! I'm doing a realistic-fiction, middle grade novel. I can't wait to get it done and edit it. I agree with you both. I want to get published, but I don't want to be famous. You both are VERY talented writers. :D

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    12. Ha, forever, I know how that goes! My current work in progress is the *3rd* rough draft I've done on this stupid, stubborn thing. The first book I'd say took me a year to write the rough draft, type it (I wrote it notebooks then copied onto the computer), and edit it . . . sorta. I'm still editing it! Because now that I'm learning more, I'm realizing I did a crappy job on parts of it . . . ouch.

      And to answer your question, GJE, yes, all three of my books have titles. The first is From the Ashes, second is The Fiery Inferno, and the third is Beauty From Ashes. From the Ashes took me about a year to "finish" and The Fiery Inferno took a year for me to nail down a rough draft I liked. Yeah, that's the annoying one I'm still working on . . .
      Free time? What's that? LOL
      *Sarah

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    13. Wow! They sound cool! Have you published them? :D
      Lol! I rarely get free time, but when I do... I RAVISH IT!!!!!! O_O *Sighs longingly*

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    14. Third!!!!! Gracious. I know what you're feeling. Just when you think you did something right, you go back and see that you're done a crappy job. :)
      I KNOW!!!! It takes all your time to write. It's totally worth it, though. I hope you get them published so that I can read them! xD *no pressure or anything. lol* You're doing really well. Your writing is lovely. :)

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    15. Publishing them in the near future is the plan! And thank you, LHE, I think your writing is great too! Now to go find that elusive free time . . . ;P
      *Sarah

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    16. *hands you a fuzzy free-time bunny*
      Thank YOU! Mine needs some polishing, but that's what makes your writing better. :)

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    17. Yay! I bet you're excited, Sarah!

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  6. I am a gut writer. I don't really follow the rules because I am pretty new to this so... well... I don't really know them. XD One of the rules I do follow is no saids unless absolutely necessary. Thanks for the post!
    - Book Dragon

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    1. Ah, yes, the "said" rule. That is one I have taken to heart and possibly overboard... Critiques are great for learning writing rules because another person (particularly a writer) will be able to recognize elements of your style that just aren't working too great. Good luck with your writing endeavors, Book Dragon! I've enjoyed your contributions to the Go Teen Writers community.

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    2. Book Dragon, that said rule gets funky. The guideline is really about dialogue tags as a whole. (He exclaimed, he questioned, etc.) That if you have to tag your dialogue, said is the best choice versus something more flashy, but that it's better to use action or emotion beats. Here are two articles on Go Teen Writers that might help you:

      http://goteenwriters.blogspot.com/2012/06/dialogue-tags-vs-action-beats.html

      http://goteenwriters.blogspot.com/2014/04/emotion-beats-in-your-dialogue.html

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  7. This is great! I tend to be a rule follower and seek out advice from people. I've recently gotten to the point where my editor has start to say things that are different from what a best-seller author told me at a conference.
    The post is very helpful and I'll have to watch for preferences in what they've both told me.
    What's your opinion about keeping a conversation scene at the beginning of a story if it includes foreshadowing? My editor suggested I take it out but the foreshadowing bits have me stumped.
    Thanks again for the great post!

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  8. 'they’re going to write their book with only adjectives and adverbs. In second person. Take that, world.' !!😂😂

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  9. Loved your post! I mostly go with what feels right... but keep the rules in mind. Currently, I'm working with action tags (and keeping my dialogue tags simple, like 'said', not 'sniffed' - those really annoy me!)

    Not related, but does anyone have a Camp NaNo cabin set up? I'm looking for one. : )

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