Wednesday, February 27, 2008
Writing Rules, Rules, and More Rules!
Seems no matter what writer loop you're on or group you're in, the subject of "writing rules" comes up. Again and again. The ubiquitous nature of this topic just goes to show--all writers get hung up on "the rules" at some point. Ironically, after I'd decided to post this week on the topic, it came up again on a writer's loop. And once again I see the same angst.
Before I talk about my take on "the rules," I want to address the heated emotion behind the topic. Time after time as these discussions arise, the subject is broached by a hard-working aspiring author who's not yet published by a traditional house. This author is struggling to get everything right in his/her manuscript, only to read a published work in which one or many of "the rules" are broken. Understandably, said author cries, "Foul!"
Let's stop right there. What's really happening? I can't speak for every aspiring author, but I can remember my own journey, and I'll bet it's pretty typical. I was working danged hard to learn the craft of fiction. The process was frustrating. I got a lot of rejections. Something in me kept me slogging away at it. But the process of pouring my heart out on pages only to be rejected led to many moments of bitterness and anger. When I saw what I considered sloppy writing or "rule-breaking" in published novels, when I saw those undeserving authors' success while I, hardworking, sincere and certainly more talented than they, had none ...
You get the picture. Anger. Bitterness. As a result, I burst out with that typical defensive question: "Why can so-and-so get away with that while I can't?"
Guess what. Wrong question. Oh, the defensiveness is understandable, as I noted. It's human nature. But it's not helpful. Because as long as we're defensive, we're not learning. We're too busy crying "not fair!"
Having gone through all this angst (if you want the whole sordid picture, read my archived "How I Got Here" story), I say to frustrated authors--go ahead and let the defensiveness/anger come. It's going to anyway, so you might as well deal with it. But at some point we need to get over it. We need to put aside all emotion and settle back into learning mode. Only then, with open and clear minds, can we ask the right question:
What is so compelling about this author's story that allowed him/her to be published despite breaking "the rules?"
That's a question that will take some probing. It's a question that will lead to better understanding of the craft.
As for my own writing rules now, I only have one: Story Rules. I will write however I must to best tell the story.
Having said that, I have discovered that some of today's commonly known "rules" are there for a reason. Most of the time, they do help my story be told better. And, contrary to what you might think, they enhance rather than inhibit my distinct author's voice.
Tomorrow I'll talk about some of the rules, why we have them, and how I approach them. In today's fiction, these tend to be the ones you'll run into most:
1. One POV per scene
2. Use adverbs sparingly (pun intended)
3. Avoid speaker attributes (he said, etc.) whenever possible
4. Avoid "to be" verbs in narrative
Any others you want to cover? Please leave a comment.