Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Rules Rules Blah-Humbug

Firstly, I'd like to wish everyone a peaceful holiday full of love, cheer, and sugar plums.

There are few times in the year when I'm not up to my eyeballs in work. It's usually refreshing for a day or two, then it becomes unnerving. I'm currently doing everything I can to hold off working on book 2 until the first of the new year so I can take full advantage of this OFF time. (I consider myself an obsessive binge writer...) So, I've been running around like a crazy woman with the release of DESCENDANT (which is going excellent by the way!), school closures for snow, my son's 13th birthday, last minute shopping, family traditions....

But let's get back to writing. While I do listen to a lot of audio books throughout the year, I tend not to read for pleasure while I'm writing or editing (lest I absorb someone else's style and lose track of my own). That said, being between projects, I have finally been able to read a few books for sheer entertainment! And you know what? I am reminded of a very important thing: THE WRITING RULES ARE NOT BEING FOLLOWED.

I know we all know this to some degree, but what rules/pet-peeves have you taken to heart strictly because they came from someone you respected ten years ago? Or because how-to books make it seem as though breaking rules is unprofessional and raises a "newbie flag" in the world of publication? (Please don't think I'm condoning first-draft writing as publishable.)

Head hopping used to drive me nuts. I'm starting to believe it's ONLY because I've always been called out on the slightest shift and it's annoying to see 'this' or 'that' book get away with it. But...I'm not a stupid reader and I can follow simultaneous PoVs without any trouble whatsoever. In fact, I'm starting to like it! I'm not saying everyone should do it, but if it makes for a stronger story and you can do it without being sloppy, go for it! Who am I to say you can't when so many published authors do it quite successfully?

I've always believed that writers are harder to please than readers—because writers KNOW what rules you're bending to suit a need. Most readers just want a great story and don't care how it happens.

So one of my writing resolutions for 2014 will be to trust my own judgment when it comes to rules, and to remember that the most captivating stories are not the best because they've been conformed, whittled, and slashed to fit into a suitable marketing box, but because they dare to have a life of their own with a certain magical spark of passion and creativity.

I leave you with this bit of editing (below)—as I found it both funny and sad. I wonder how many remarkable stories have been slaughtered in the editing process.


Unknown said...

I think the rules about head hopping are more suggestion than anything—pretty much like all the other 'rules' of writing. They're there because it's difficult to pull off 'without being sloppy.' Doesn't mean it can't be done.

Personally, I don't mind a little head hopping in a (mostly) 3rd person limited narrative, or switching povs from chapter to chapter, but I can't stand head hopping in 1st person. It's just too jarring for me to be deep in one character's interiority and suddenly have inexplicable insight into another character's thoughts or emotions. It pulls me out of the story every time.

I definitely understand what you're getting at. It's easy to lose voice and style choices when you try to adhere to a strict set of rules. Tahereh Mafi's Shatter Me series comes to mind. She breaks grammar and style rules like crazy, but it works because it fits the narrator's voice.

But the rules are still there for a reason. How can a writer know when it's okay to break the rules if they don't know and understand the rules in the first place?

Toni Kerr said...

Agreed the rules are there for a reason, and it does take some skill to break them well. :-)

My son just came up with a great analogy-- anyone can break rocks, but not very many people know how to make a serrated arrowhead.

Susan Francino said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Susan Francino said...

I know this is a joke, but seeing it reminds me of some moments both in critiques I've received and critiques I've written--it reminds me how easy it is for writers, when they come to a peer's work, to forget to look at it as a reader seeking a good story. You can be picky about some pretty unreasonable things if you're merely sitting there trying to find things to pick on.

Toni Kerr said...

Agreed, Susan. I'm certainly guilty of inflicting my personal preferences when editing for others--though I'm not nearly as picky as I used to be.

The example is an eye-opener for both sides of the story--the power of an editor (good or bad), and the test of a writer's confidence to accept or ignore suggested changes.

J Lenni Dorner said...

Great post!
And happy holidays.

Unknown said...

It's always frustrating to me to read posts about rules that writers should follow when I immediately can think of a half dozen accepted great books that don't follow those rules. Over the years I've come closer to believing that the rules we see a lot are just what another writer came up with to try to explain why a particular story wasn't working.

The reviews I appreciate most and the ones I work hard to provide are reader-based. Rather than prescriptive (too many "likes," show don't tell) I appreciate notes that tell me what the reader was thinking, where he or she got confused, whether or not she likes a character and why. The reason is as a writer, I'm hoping to generate a story that has a certain emotional impact. If that is not coming across - due to clarity, a misstep in action or any other multitude of reasons - it's my duty to fix it so that an attentive reader is where they should be. Example, one person may say they don't like the way two characters are very much alike, and may want me to fix that. However, I know I want them to be alike because in four chapters, a huge event is going to happen that shows how their very slight differences can have extreme consequences in the aftermath.

To me, prescriptive rules and changes are the reader taking over the story rather than working to provide the author the information needed to tell the story he or she wants to write.

Toni Kerr said...

I agree Joel-- It's always good to find out if a story comes across as intended for the reader. And since every reader has a different perspective, it's nice to know if something in particular (be it grammar or plotting or style) throws more than one person out.

I tried reading a book that bravely broke all the "rules". The author might have been absolutely brilliant- but I'll never know because I couldn't get past the first three pages.

Unknown said...

Great post! I'm always breaking the rules. All that "show don't tell" stuff? Bah! There's a time to show and a time to tell. Anyhow, who wants to read every detail of some character's road trip or school day or...or.. fill in the blank. Sometimes it's better to tell a little, especially when you're revealing a character's thoughts.

I also use adverbs occasionally, but not to prop up weak adjectives, and I think prologues are fine when done well. The point is any rule can be broken when the writing warrants it.

Love the edited version of The Night Before Christmas. So funny, but sadly often true and the reason I avoid crit groups now.