Sunday, December 21, 2008

"Rules" in Writing Were Made to Be Broken

There are people who love rules. I mean, they love those suckers. Remember that kid in school who always got that superior little tone in her voice when she admonished you with, "Oooooh, we're not supposed to do that! That's AGAINST THE RULES!" I don't know about you, but I often came away thinking, "Okay, well, if I ever break that rule, I am so gonna make sure Little Miss That's-Against-the-Rules doesn't hear about it."

You can imagine how annoyed I was to learn that there were "rules" when it came to writing, too. They weren't always called "rules". Probably because the word itself isn't considered cool. It's also an interesting phenomenon, but there are writers who do like rules. They seem to see them sort of like recipes; if you know exactly how many eggs you need to put in, how much grated Swiss cheese, the precise amount of milk, then you'll be pulling a perfect, yummy Quiche Lorraine out of your oven.

Except we're dealing with stories. We're dealing with the muse. It's not a quiche, folks.

Incidentally, The Rules are not to be confused with publisher guidelines. There's also a difference between good critique and rules that are downright bizarre. Here's a few dillies I've heard over the years:

1. Make sure you fit a baby into the book. Now I LOVE babies. See my previous post about my granddaughter. But squeezing a baby into every single book you write, with the express purpose of selling the book, kind of dictates what's going to happen in that story. It's a little hard to write about a town visited by a big, strong, handsome alien, for example, if you've gotta have oh-look-they're-having-a-cute-little-bouncing-baby-boy scene here and there. It also makes the baby into a sort of gimmick. This was a Rule that was really big some years ago, and I guess, if like Marisa Tomei's character in My Cousin Vinny, a reader's biological clock is doing some serious ticking, then 150,000 books with babies in them are called for. I notice, though, that this Rule isn't followed that much these days in newer releases.

2. Make sure the hero wears protection. An editor actually did tell me that once. Obviously, not the same one who touted having a baby in every book. "It's the responsible thing to do," she basically said. Of course practicing safe sex is being responsible--except a romance novel is supposed to be fantasy, an escape, not a public service announcement. It's also very difficult preaching to your audience while writing a scene that is supposed to be spontaneous and passionate. That editor is no longer in the field, by the way.

3. Never use judgment words. This was a writer who, as far as I know, made up this gem. What was meant by "judgment" was that you're never supposed to call a hero "handsome" or "sexy"...a good writer is never to describe a waterfall as "beautiful"...a good writer doesn't remark that a heroine was listening to a "funny" song. The writer who actually did say that "good writing doesn't do that" stressed that you can show the waterfall as being beautiful, and yes, you can do that. But I've seen better and more beloved writers than the one who insisted on this rule use "judgment" words--sparingly, but they've used it. I'm a stickler for preferring to use "he said" and "she said" with sparse usage of words that follow like "angrily," "loudly," "bitterly," etc. Yet I find the "Never use judgment words" rule to be one of those rudimentary, objective things that might work well for one person, but there are other more important things to focus on in the creation of a story. This is one of those rules that you can follow, you can omit all the beautiful, gorgeous, sexy, and so forth that you want--but that's not what will make good writing better. I wish it was that easy! Again, this ain't quiche, folks.

4. You have to find the right place to start for a story. That rule is true, but the person who told me that one made it sound like you have to agonize over that beginning scene. No--they BELIEVED you have to agonize over it. Contrast that to a tip I've heard attributed to Nora Roberts, who said (and I paraphrase), "With writing, you have to throw it up, then clean it up later." In my personal experience, I've found that to be true. You find the most interesting place to start, but you don't agonize for it to drop from Heaven. (It'll come as a surprise to the writer who swore this Rule had to be adhered to, but trust me, Heaven has more important things to do.) Get that story out. If your characters, who by the end of their story you'll know them a lot better, tell you the story starts out in a different place, you can always go on back to the prologue or Chapter One and change it. Agonizing over the beginning is no fun. And writing should be fun.

5. You can never rewrite too much. Oh, yes, you can. You SURE can. This is a sacred cow with some folks, too. I put this in the same category as washing your hands three times before pouring yourself a glass of milk. Again, this is my personal experience, but if you rewrite a story--and I'm talking about rewriting it from scratch, as some writers neurotically do--twice, and that baby doesn't work, then it just doesn't work. Period. Also, there is a BIG difference between editing and polishing and rewriting. I'm not suggesting a writer send in a first draft, which typically guarantees rejection. There are sections that always can use reworking; there are sections a writer will realize are unnecessary, or your inner editor will tell you, "The heroine would never do that" now that you really know her. Those are sections you either rewrite (sometimes, yes, from scratch), or you eliminate them completely. I know--I've ripped out whole sections that I knew would have affected the rest of the book or story adversely, and then I was able to take it in a better direction. But rewrite the whole thing over and over again? The result is rarely a better story. The object of editing and polishing is to enhance, never to erase the creative blood and soul. That's the art of storytelling, not rewriting a piece to death.

And there are a lot of other crazy rules, but these are just some of the crazier ones I've heard of.

And broken.

Had fun while I did it, too.

No comments:

Post a Comment