Writing Rules vs. Writing Fashion: Should Writers Follow Fashion Trends?

From Anne R. Allen’s Blog… with Ruth Harris

Fashion. It sounds frivolous, but it has serious effects on us all.

Right now, women are getting beard-burn from kissing men who sport the fashionable romantic-hero three-day stubble. And mothers are stifling their disappointment when their golden-haired boys get the fashion-victim shaved-sides hairdo that makes them look like a cross between Kim Jong Un and the Last of the Mohicans.

And have pity on the people over 40 who are hunched over their computers trying to decipher text from the latest fashion in web design: a tiny, palest-gray font on a white background.

Alas, fashion favors the young.

Writing fashion is hard on us too. Fashion dictates a good deal of what gets published these days, and it’s constantly changing. Write like Thackery, Kipling, or Walter Scott and you’re unlikely to find a publisher or an audience. That’s because writing fashions have radically changed in the last two hundred years, even though the language itself has not.

The truth is that a great many of the “rules” that writers learn in workshops, critique groups, and classes are not actual rules of the English language. They may not even represent correct grammar. But they’re the “way we do things now.”

In other words:  They’re what’s in fashion.

Why Follow Fashion?

If you read a lot of classics and not much contemporary fiction, you may not realize how many changes have transpired in fiction writing in the past few decades.

Writing has become leaner and less descriptive. Maybe we can blame Elmore Leonard, who wrote in his Ten Rules for Writing in 2007, “leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.”

This doesn’t mean that classic books are “wrong,” but it does mean that your writing will seem old-fashioned if you follow an older, more lush, descriptive style.

This can work FOR you if you’re writing epic fantasy (hello, George R.R. Martin) or historical fiction, but it won’t please readers who expect a contemporary style.

Submitting a manuscript that’s written in an older style is like showing up to a job interview wearing a bustle or doublet and hose. It can make an impact, but not always in a good way.

A brilliant story may be rejected because the style is unfashionable. Is that unfair? Probably. But business isn’t always fair. Alas, publishers only acquire stuff they think will sell, and an old-fashioned style doesn’t always jump off the shelves.

You’ll notice the difference in writing fashion if you read a bunch of contemporary novels and then pick up a classic.

I did this recently with a collection of Dorothy L. Sayers stories. Almost every line of dialogue had a tag that included a dreaded adverb.

“I’ll have a champagne cocktail, said Montague Egg urbanely.”

Obviously, adverbs were not as dreaded in the 1920s.

Dialogue Tags

Fashion in dialogue tags has changed in the past few decades. I had a crash course in this from my UK publisher. I was asked to change about 50% of the tags in my novel The Best Revenge.

Here are three ways a writer often identifies the speaker in dialogue.

1) “Never let them see you sweat,” Serena advised the visibly nervous lacrosse team.

2) “Don’t sweat the small stuff.” Serena removed her damp, aromatic socks while addressing the team.

3) “Team? I don’t know about any team,” I sweated as I blocked the door to the dungeon where Serena had incarcerated the lacrosse players.

#1 and #2 are both correct. But #3, not so much. (Not just because it’s not nice to lock lacrosse players in a dungeon.) But people can’t sweat words.

However, #2 is more fashionable in contemporary fiction. Writing fashion tells us to drop the dialogue tag altogether and identify the speaker by adding action. Yes, I know that can sometimes lead to reader confusion, so don’t do it so often it leaves readers scratching their heads.

Link to the rest at Anne R. Allen’s Blog… with Ruth Harris

3 thoughts on “Writing Rules vs. Writing Fashion: Should Writers Follow Fashion Trends?”

  1. I’d be a yoyo – it takes me so long to write a novel that it is kinder to all readers if I don’t follow any fashion but consistency. SELF-consistency.

    So the reader who has plowed through the first 167K book can slip right into the next one (when I finish it) and feel right at home.

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