Through Arcane Rules and Procedures, We Persevere Because We Must
This comes as a spinoff from last week’s post. In the comments thread, we had a little chat about how most writing rules aren’t actual rules for all that the term is used. New writers often promote them as absolutes when picking up almost any published book would show that’s not true, while the phrase, "you have to know the rules before you can break them" is frequently tossed about. However, if they really were rules, there would be consequences (and fame and fortune from breaking them successfully is not what I mean ;)).
In driving, if you run a red light, the only question is whether you’re caught. You are guilty. You have broken a rule. There’s no way around that fact.
In cooking, if you substitute salt for sugar just because you feel like it, someone’s going to notice, and not in a positive way.
But in writing, that’s not true. Some of the experimental fiction works prove even the basics, like punctuation and capitalization, are up for interpretation if you manage to do it well. There are no hard and fast rules in writing. Everything is subjective, with the only requirement for success being that you somehow catch the imagination when you do break the rules.
This is a very difficult concept for writers. Most things work on the basis of rules, not just driving and cooking in the examples above. As you gain knowledge of the rules, you automatically improve whether it’s blacksmithing, piano, or the aforementioned driving.
But writing doesn’t work that way. The rules are different for each writer, the dangers are different, and techniques that help one person can crush another. Even worse, there’s no guarantee that with practice we’ll improve. Some writers hit a plateau they can’t get beyond and others peak early.
It conflicts with our understanding of life and the way things work.
The whole fear of "writing to a prompt" is based on real life where if I follow the same sewing pattern I’ll end up with the same thing you do. But that’s not true of writing. If we follow the same pattern, some of us will end up with masterpieces of the genre, others will end up with brilliant outliers, and still others’ efforts will result in cardboard cutouts that make a reader cringe.
People scoff at romance and detective novels because they are formulaic. Those people are usually the ones who have not read any, or picked up one and dismissed the whole. Put Nora Roberts next to Holly Lisle next to Lucy Monroe next to Lynn Viehl in romance and you’d be hard pressed to figure out that they’re writing the same genre. Take it even closer and choose seven Harlequin Presents novels by different authors. Some will be works of art, some will not. Some authors take the formula as a jumping off point, others stick to it rigidly. Some have a spark; others are decent stories but no more than that.
Writing is not rocket science.
In rocket science, if you put the same ingredients into the same mix, you’ll get the same explosion. If you find a rocket design that works, you can replicate that design again and again and it’ll still work.
In writing, even with the same author, you put the same ingredients in and get something different each time. I have certain themes that show up frequently in my works. However, the result of those themes varies radically and cross genre lines. It takes literary analysis to recognize the patterns; I know only because I have analyzed my works out of curiosity.
Authors who figure out a winning plot structure can use it again just like the rocket scientist, with one simple difference: no guarantee it’ll still work, or even that it’ll look the same. Successful writers take the same design and create something new every time. If a writer rubberstamps books though, they soon lose readers who despair of shelling out hard-earned cash to read the same book with only the character names changed.
Writing taps into one of those places we do not understand, the hidden underpinnings of humanity that make no sense when brought to the light. When it doesn’t reach into the swampy darkness, the writing comes out flat, cardboard, or even worse, bland. When it does, tears drip onto the pages, people stare as the reader bursts into uncontrollable laughter, or readers explain in detail why they hate someone to death, only to reveal that someone exists between the covers of a book.
Creativity is a mystical force. The muse is a mystical creature that none can explain or command. Creativity doesn’t require practice as much as it requires nurturing. Muses are fickle and tricky, but can be wooed and bribed. Ultimately, most writers could do almost anything else, including minimum wage jobs, and earn more per hour than by writing. Forget any dreams of low stress, hanging out at pubs, sipping your tea with a finger curled as you scribble down the next masterpiece.
I’ve been a non-fiction editor/abstractor fulltime, I’ve run systems departments, and now I write and freelance. Of all of them, the editor/abstractor was the most relaxing. Systems and writing run neck and neck, and I never had to put myself in the place of an abusive, manipulating crime boss in systems ;).
This is one of the biggest struggles. We can’t see the end of the trail because there is no trail. There is no promotion path laid out, no promise of an income, much less a raise, and no hopes that anything will ever get easier.
Every writer has to cut their own way, though they can borrow another’s machete to make the process a little faster. There’s no guarantee of success either in improvement or in accolades. And in the measures of modern industrialized society, all but the very cream of writers like Stephen King and J.K. Rowling are failures with regards to economic status and stability.
So…if we can’t measure success by the hours we’ve put in, by the income we earn, by moving up the writing ladder, just what is it that keeps writers going? What makes us batter our heads against rules that aren’t rules, against skills that might actually undermine our progress, and an environment where we have to crawl past the carrion bodies of other writers who couldn’t keep going across the desert in hopes of an oasis at the other side?
Because we have to. Because to do anything else would mean denying our true selves. Because that way lies madness as the voices in our heads start breaking out into reality because we don’t keep them confined in fiction.
Whether we love it or hate it, writing is a calling as true as any other, and not one that can be ignored.
Amen! What an excellent essay, Margaret!
Glad you enjoyed it :).
Very well said. I think people on the yahoo list need to read and understand this. Great post.
Well, it took me how many years to come to the realization? Here’s hoping my thoughts can help with a shortcut for someone else :D.
You have condensed the essence perfectly. At a writing meeting it was mentioned ‘rules’ and how to break them and somebody asked ‘why are they rules — who made them?’ Now I understand why nobody had the answer.
I have a bazillion images to share. I write… or if you’re lucky (unlucky?), get to hear one of my fireside tales. LOL.
Oh wow, now that’s a conversation stopper :).
Good luck with your writing, and fireside tales. The oral tradition gets so little play nowadays.
Amen, sister! LOL.
Seriously, I write to get the voices in my head pinned down on paper. They talk anyways, so I might as well make stories for the characters that roam around my subconscious and bother me.
Well, I have this belief that if I ever find the right story for the characters, they’ll go and live in it. This does not work for characters with sequels planned because they’re not done yet, but the perfect standalone? Maybe :).
Hi Margaret, I’m with you on the rules thing and yours is an interesting take on why there seems to be such a need to adopt rules like they are the answer to everything and to often develop and exaggerate them out of all proportions, eg fixation about head hopping, cutting out words, and telling etc. All these can be taken to completely ridiculous extremes especially when used as part of a critting/learning process.
I read a quote recently, can’t think where or remember it exactly
, but it
said that if murders were carried out by mathematics then they could be solved by the same, but they are not, murderers are messy. I think the same applies to writing.
I also think this rule thing can distract when looking at other people’s
writing. I think you need to be able to keep a good bit of your head in reader mode, a lot of the `rules’ mean nothing to a reader if the end result works. I can’t believe that publishers and agents approach new work `rule’ first. Above all they must be looking for the magical combination of story, voice and imagination that makes a novel that works. As Margaret says, all sorts of approaches might provide that end result.
Also, part of the fun of writing when you have been doing it for a long time and gained a fair amount of knowledge and experience (even though you are not
producing the overall magic) is experimenting, playing with styles and voices. Currently I have one present tense, historical fantasy that I am working on and I know that it is going to be hard to get it right, and that I may not get it right, but I want to experiment and I want to try. I also have other things I am working on with different aims. One of my current aims on other projects is almost the opposite extreme – to make sure my writing is accessible as I can make it for the reader.
Writing is a journey, a long journey with many, many stages and no predictable outcome (and that’s putting the best spin on it
), the best thing is to get as much pleasure from the process as possible!
Not sure I like being in the same bucket as murderers ;), but yeah, that’s exactly it.
And good point about reader mode. It’s easy when faced with all of this to analyze everything. Many writers mention how reading itself becomes more difficult. For me, how I’ve worked around that one is to read as a reader and look back and analyze for my own edification…and the reviews I post on Stray Thoughts (my blogger blog). On the other hand, I no longer read crit pieces twice because I wasn’t commenting the first time and wasn’t seeing the wow moments on the second, so I can blend the two modes if I need to.
“you have to know the rules before you can break them” is frequently tossed
When I say the above, I am referring to rules as in grammar, not all the
so-called “RULES” that you hear tossed about, like the ones you mentioned in
your blog. Like you, I almost became crippled by other well-intending and
some not so well-intending authors in crit groups that absolutely confused
me and muted the voice that was just beginning to find its way.
And I have found that the worse or maybe the harshest crits come from those
not yet pubbed, who cling to their rule books, their how-to primer bibles
and smote anyone who dares to be different.
I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’ve a fragile ego. These so-called
rules can cause a person to never attempt to be published and that is the
saddest thing of all.
Now, having said all that, I have discovered, and taken onto myself, or
allowed my voice to adopt certain aspects of these so-called rules because I
LIKE the way they work with my voice.
I don’t like using a lot of LY words because they deter from the SHOW of my
scenes. LY words, to me, are telling. But many authors love them and so, hey, more power
to them. It certainly hasn’t seemed to hurt their careers!
But my point is, in order to discover and grow your voice, and to find your style, you must
be willing to learn, and try, and fail. Eventually, your true voice
and style will surface and so, too, will your belief/confidence in your writing.
Good articles! Sheri McGathy
Re: Writing Rules
And good point. I think a lot of newer writers cling to the rules especially in critting because of the perceived need to be an authority. I go in the other direction and provide the best, most complete crit I can…then sit on my hands so I don’t bite off every nail while muttering, “they’re going to HATE me!” More often than not, I get a great note back thanking me for saying what no one else would/could, but it doesn’t change that pure terror aspect. I have made frequent crittees cry before, sadly, but a day or two later, they thank me for it :p.
Me, I learned I can only handle about 4 crits before I start to go into overload (often fewer on novels) and then I just want to throw the work out the window. Stepping away for a couple days, weeks, even months, allows me to go back to my notes and start from the point of overwhelm all refreshed.
Oh, and on the crushing of my voice, while it’s true I had to fight some of it, sometimes the advice, though technically incorrect as an inviolate rule, strengthened my writing, so it has its pluses and minuses.
Re: Writing Rules
As far as crushing your voice, if a writer takes everyone’s criticism seriously then it might be a little disheartening for that writer to read critiques. I learned early in participating in critique groups that everyone will see your writing differently. But if more than one person sees something you should change you should look at that passage and see why they think it. Many times you are not getting across the message you have in your head. Writers don’t always communicate what is in their heads and that is why critiques are so valuable. As soon as more than one person tells me something I usually go back and change it. It needs the changing. I don’t fight it, even if I don’t agree. When I reread it I see the mistake and take steps to correct it. Many times people will give you suggestions and though I don’t always follow them I take the parts that will fit my writing style and use those.:)
The kinds of rules I think you need to follow are the ones that keep your writing intelligible. If no one can read it then that’s a problem. Sometimes as little as a comma change will change the whole meaning.:)
Re: Writing Rules
Oh, absolutely. There’s a big difference between “this passage makes no sense” and “don’t ever use ‘ly’ adverbs.” Me, I’m a firm believe in critiquing for all that I struggle with the overwhelm factor. And frankly it’s just as overwhelming to have people love the piece as to have them hate it. It’s just having so many perspectives that gets me, but then I also fall asleep at rock concerts because of the crowd ;).
However, when you are just starting out, before you gain confidence in your own voice, having people who have apparently been at this longer than you have tell you absolutes, like “no one ever writes in omniscient” for example, can set a writer back. And with that kind of setback, it can take years to undo if the writer doesn’t realize just what happened.
With me, it was “that”s. I warped my sentences to avoid them because I was told never rather than use with care until my own father couldn’t figure out what I meant :).
After a while, writers learn how to manage critiques, how to recognize the bias of the critiquer and when to accept and when to nod politely and walk away. But there is a dangerous time in between when a writer’s natural voice can be harmed by criticism that follows guidelines as absolutes without stopping to listen to the voice and encourage it.
In my work as a copyeditor for Dragon Tooth Tales, I ran across one book in particular where the voice was haunting. I edited it to Dido and now whenever I hear a Dido song, I’m transported back into that story. But the author needed some help to really bring it out and to clear up issues with the story itself. Had the novel gone through many crit groups I’ve participated in, and with all the best intentions in the world, that voice would have been crushed. It doesn’t follow the “norm,” and in its rawer form, the strength required a keen ear to hear. But the editor who accepted the novel, and I in working with the author, were able to help the author bring that book out as it needed to be told. That’s the risk of slavishly following these writing rules and of applying them with a sledge hammer instead of a carefully wedged chisel. Natural voices that are strong and evocative but don’t follow the trends get slammed into “acceptable shape” and their unique aspects take years to rebuild.
On the other hand, not everyone has a talent for recognizing voice in the raw, so we have what we have. The writers who persist will muddle through and either stubbornly retain their voices (with, I hope, picking up a thing or two on the way) or will recover their voices once they gain the confidence to say no to suggestions that don’t fit into their world. Those that give up will either come back later when they’re stronger…or probably didn’t have what it takes to be a writer in the first place. It’s sad but true that the path to authordom is a hard, hot road with a ton of potholes.