Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Rule Following and Rule Breaking


I like to read the rules. I have writing friends who balk at rules, saying writing should have few rules or else creativity is stifled. That's like a surgeon saying, "I'll cut on this patient like I feel like cutting. I don't have to know the rules."


You can't go against the rules, until you know the rules. Otherwise you have no clue what you're doing.
You have to know both sides of the coin.

Elmore Leonard is infamous for his absolute rules of writing, such as:
= No prologues
= No tag other then "said"
= No adverbs to modify a tag.
= Limit 2-3 exclamation points per novel.
= Don't use suddenly.

Some writers take issue with any absolute, and most swear you can break the above rules without question. My suggestion is to learn the rules, write in strict alliance with those rules, then step back and see how you did. Ask others to read the results as well. Not a page, or a chapter, but an entire book. You may call it limiting. Fine. Then write the entire book with abandon, then go back and apply all the rules as emphasized by the masters.

Remember that English teach who beat into you about grammar, syntax, and structure? If you are from a certain generation, you once endured diagramming sentences, too. Dry, horribly boring and irritating lessons that you swore had nothing to do with your creative self being set free to tell great stories. Too confining.

I'm a gardener. If you follow all the rules of gardening to the letter, you indeed remove the bliss that comes with dabbling in the dirt. However, if you don't know that fertilizer burns plants except at certain rates, or realize that planting tomatoes in the same place each year is a recipe for disaster, or understand which plants grow in your geographic zone, you waste valuable time and money to produce nothing. Sure, you might stumble into a great recipe for nutrients and you might happen upon a gorgeous combination of plants that actually complement each other, but the chances of that are quite tiny. You learn why daffodils are planted in the fall and spinach in the early spring instead of giving them a go in the middle of summer to keep from making stupid mistakes.

Not that your writing is stupid. All writing has purpose. However, the masters are masters for a reason. They've excelled in this business; a business in which you and I struggle to make a living. So we must listen to advice. We must commit it to memory and practice it until rote. Then one day, when you're trying to get rid of an adverb because you've been schooled that adverbs are weak, yet that adverb is remarkably accurate in proving your point, and you can't dissemble and rebuild that sentence any other way . . . you have the wisdom to use that adverb in an intelligent manner.

Don't throw away the rules until you know them well. You might be tossing what could actually make the difference in a contract, in number of sales, or even a future in writing.

4 comments:

M. Dunham said...

Interestingly enough, Lee Child also tackled the subject of writing rules recently:

http://www.thebigthrill.org/2012/03/lee-child-and-the-long-game-lessons-on-success-from-one-of-americas-favorite-authors/

Hope Clark said...

Love this! He's one of my favorite authors. Finished reading The Affair just last night.

Mary Aalgaard, Play off the Page said...

It's true. And, totally ignoring the efforts of those who go before us is foolish.

Play off the Page

Chad Aaron Sayban said...

Oh, you had to bring up diagramming a sentence, didn't you. Ugggg...