Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Rules

There are SO MANY of them.

Avoid adverbs. Vary sentence length and structure. Don't attribute quotes with verbs other than "said." Don't shift point of view. Don't open with the weather. Show, don't tell. Tell some, but show more. Don't tell and show in the same scene. Don't use omnicient perspective. Don't use omnicient perspective unless you're really good at it. Don't use repetition. Don't use repetition unless you're doing it for emphasis. (See what I did there?) Set the scene. Avoid superfluous details. Make every word count. Don't use flashbacks. Don't use flashbacks unless you're really good at it.


Are you kidding me? There's so much advice out there, it's impossible to figure out who to listen to and what to believe. Sure, a lot of it's good advice. Sure, a lot of the widely accepted "rules" make for great writing. But then there's the rule that trumps them all: Rules are made to be broken.

I haven't had a lot of time for writing and revising lately. But I have managed to fit in a lot of reading, which, in my opinion, is an important part of the writing, revising and learning process. And if there's one lesson I've learned more than any other while studying the work of a wide variety of writers and genres, it's that if a rule has been recorded, there's a (best-selling, prize-winning, critically acclaimed) writer who's broken it.

That said, I do hold to the theory that to break the rules - successfully, at least - you have to know the rules. As an example, I offer my art analogy. How many times have you heard this complaint about an abstract painting: "My dog/3-year-old/grandmother could have painted that?" My answer - at least for work that wasn't created by a dog/3-year-old/grandmother - is this: That artist probably could have painted a recognizable landscape or a detailed still-life or even a realistic portrait, but that wasn't how he chose to express himself. If he's getting paid to paint (and I realize this can't be true in all cases, but run with me here), he probably knows "the rules" of painting. The elements of design. Color theory. The effects of light and shadow, the importance of form and technique. Maybe he hasn't studied them in a classroom, but he knows them.

On that note, I'll give you another theory - one I believe applies to all forms of art, whether it involves painting with watercolors, chords or words. To some extent, the process is instinctual. If you're an artist, you should know the rules. But just because you know the rules, that doesn't make you an artist. Or a writer. Sure, practice makes ... improved. But somewhere, somehow, to find success as a writer, you just have to have it in you.

And I think that's what allows all these writers I've been reading to break the rules. Because they just know when something works and when it doesn't.

1 comment:

  1. I think the time to break the rules is when following the rules makes you no longer sound like you.
    It just like decorating- the rules are important. But you have to live there and sometimes you need to break the rules to make it work.

    I can live with just about anything if the story is good. I CANNOT live with adverbs or anything other than "said". I will put your book down and walk away (well, I will delete it off my kindle and stay right in my seat) if you use the word "witheringly" or something like "mused" instead of "said". It gives me chills- and not in the good way.

    But some people couldn't live with my tiny undersized coffee table that doesn't fit the scale of my other furniture :) But it works for us right now. And maybe adverbs work for some people (the millions of romance novels would testify to the fact that they do!).

    Just no withering please. I loathe withering.