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.

Part 2-6
Part 7-end


Richard L. Mabry, MD said...

I've been reminded not to forget Dwight Swain's rule about "motivation precedes reaction" when writing an action scene That's an easy rule to forget, but it does make a difference in scene flow.
Your thoughts?
Also, the rule about "avoiding passive voice" sometimes leads to awkward sentence structure. Again, your comments?
Thanks for delving into this very timely subject.

Anonymous said...

I think you are correct. Authors tend to get hung up on “the rules” when they should be more concerned with learning to write a compelling story. Sometimes the rules help with that and sometimes they don’t. I think you are also correct in saying that some authors become bitter because some authors are able to get “illegal” stories published. I would like to suggest that there may be another reason as well.

While there are always plenty of friends who will say, “I enjoy your writing,” authors look for a way to determine how good their writing is. Feedback is often subjective, but “the rules” seem to provide a more objective measure of how an author’s writing compares to that of other authors. This knowledge gives the author ammunition with which to try to convince people that he is worthy of being read. Ironically, though some people will refuse to read something that “breaks the rules,” I have never known of anyone who chose to read something because the author follows the rules better than someone else does. It is more likely to be based on the premise and how well a person likes the author.

Pam Halter said...

I keep hearing, begin the story in the middle of the action! But if you don't show the protagonist in their normal life, how can we get to know them and care about them so that when the action begins, we won't say, so what? How will we know the changes being wrought in the hero are real? Painful? Exciting?

Don't we have to establish the status quo before we thrust the hero into their journey?

Shouldn't we set up the story in such a way to create emotion for the main character?

I ask this because my good friend is writing a powerful story and has been told by her agent that she needs to get to the action right away. But if she does that, the reader would think, so what? What's the big deal about that? And all because no time was taken to introduce the characters to the reader.

I hope this makes sense.

Deborah Raney said...

I would add "show, don't tell" to the list, Brandilyn. Really looking forward to your comments.

The Encourager said...

I'm in the rewrite process on a manuscript and look forward to hearing more reminders on rules. I believe Richard touched on it, but you might add "scene/sequel" structure. It also sounds like backstory could be addressed.


Anonymous said...

Perhaps the more humble/spiritual among us didn't get "mad" at first when we observed other writers breaking the rules or should we say more correctly "superceding" the rules, but the early author in us is usually quite naive and competitive and generally speaking believes in our work. Comparison is an absolute no-no. It proves nothing, yields nothing of value.

The rules are valid. Sometimes they must be broken. We need to know them before we break them. The vastness of styles requires a standard from which to springboard. Boxing up writers tends to make some of us cry "Foul!" We can't abide. But the writing gig must reign in our hearts--will we continue to do it even if we don't get published?

God has a plan--that's the only one that truly matters. Within the rules for writing or without them? Let the Lord lead.

Anonymous said...

My agents tell me (when I complain about writers who break those rules) that when I am as famous as so-and-so, I'll be allowed to get away with all that. But that still doesn't mean the famous author did justice to his/her book by doing so. It takes a real craftsperson to get away successfully with jumping about in POVs in a scene or writing nearly a whole book of narration (Atonement, for example, which I found tedious for said reason). Alas, I will stick to the rules until I am famous, and then, maybe I won't want to break the rules. They ARE there for a reason...