Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Breaking the Rules - Secret Sin #4

Recently I posted my top-ten rules of writing. It got me thinking about how many of those I actually implement; how many I don’t; and why. If you read the post about my personal struggle with writing crap, you know I’m a rigid believer in the rules. Let me say this in the simplest way possible: rules are good things.


Your writing will improve if you follow them.


But not always. Why not always? Because structure kills creativity.

I was reading a post by Jessica Faust on the Bookends, LLC blog that echoed some personal sentiments of mine. To paraphrase, she said that authors like to impose rules on themselves, to find the “right way” to do things, and in reality the rules are no more than guidelines. Meaning we should use then within reason. It just isn’t healthy running around killing ourselves over one passive clause or three “ly” adverbs.

On the other end of the spectrum, some writers break the rules just because they were told not to. (You know who you are.) These acts of rebellion keep the person in a place where they can’t learn. They continue to write the same junk day after day, blindly, refusing criticism or advice. They never grow, and never become real writers.

There’s a balance. Finding this balance is the hardest thing a writer must learn. When is it okay to break a rule? Or to rephrase: when is it okay for you to break a rule?

Once upon a time, some writer discovered a gold nugget of wisdom, and condensed it into a simple phrase so other writers could benefit from it. What’s important is not the rule itself – it’s the principle behind it, the lesson that writer learned. 

Sometimes it feels like we’re being handed an ultimatum. “Do this, or you’ll never become a good writer.” Not so. The truth is, a rule is a bit of wisdom. Each writer must learn how it applies to their process – their book, their scene, their particular main character. And some things are common sense. “She walked to the door” doesn’t read nearly as good as: “Her flip-flops smacked against her heel as she jogged up the steps.”

As an example, let’s take a rule and dissect it.

The rule: Write every day.

The common interpretation: If you want to become a good writer, you need to write every day. Or set strong goals and make sure you reach them. Or get over your writer’s block because it’s just a weakness. No. Matter. What.  

Now look at this rule, subtract all/any absolutes, and try to find what’s really being said here.

The underlying principle: Being a writer requires that you challenge yourself, and that you have dedication to your craft.

Once you have the underlying principle of a rule, you can work at applying it to your writing.

The balance: With this example, the balance is to keep a writing schedule or list of goals – one that fits you and your needs. You can write every weekend and none during the week, or spend a few days playing around with notes and outlines before writing a single scene, or hack out 5,000 words in 24 hours, and do nothing for eight days.

The challenge here is weighing your effort against your results. If you work too hard, you have the challenge, but no forward motion. If you take it easy, you may have amounts of forward motion, but no challenge, and no growth. So your balance is somewhere in between – a schedule that requires effort but still fulfills your writing goals.

If you’ve been struggling with a certain rule, try looking at the underlying principle. What is it? Have you been applying it in your writing? How close can you follow the principle and still fulfill your writing goals? Loosen up a little. Get some wiggle room. And if things get sloppy, well, you can always tighten up.


-Creative A



colbymarshall said...

When I'm writing my first draft, I try not to think about rules...just write. I come back and fix the rule-breaking later. :-)

Found your blog through Aaron- I like. :-)

David Isaak said...

You're right that the most important thing about rules is their underlying logic.

But self-imposed rules also help give shape to a work, like the girders of a building. As Orson Welles put it, "The absence of limitations is the enemy of art."

Creative A said...

Hey Colby. *waves* I've seen you over at Copious Notes - thanks for hopping over. And honestly, if more writer's could learn to "just write," I think they would get a lot farther.

David: True. I agree. Discipline is really important. I do think that when you try to impose a rule , you can loose sight of what that rule is meant to help you with. That's like religion instead of creating. I believe this is where it is important to start applying principles rather than still have to follow through, just on your own terms.

Thanks for commenting :)

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