Friday, June 24, 2011

Writing Rules? What Writing Rules?

I’ve read many dos and don’ts of writing. There seem to be so many rules it’s hard to keep track of them all. And many contradict each other. For example, I’ve heard you shouldn’t start your book with dialogue and yet many proclaimed writers do. These contradictions can be confusing and frustrating for the new writer.

After much research, I’ve come to a conclusion: In terms of writing, there are no absolute rules. I’ll say it again:

THERE ARE NO ABSOLUTE RULES

If you write your story well enough, then rules shouldn’t matter. It’s the story that matters. The majority of your readers won’t know the rules, but they’ll be able to recognise a good story.

Sometimes in the quest to ‘get it right’ we lose the power of the story. Grammar and punctuation can become a straight jacket. This is why you might hear the advice to write the first draft as fast as possible. And even that ‘rule’ can be broken. You have to find what works for you. To do this you’ll need an open mind, the freedom to experiment, and the bravery to be different.

I’m not saying don’t bother learning the rules. The more equipped we are, the more able we’ll be to make a good story great. What I am saying, however, is not to fret too much.

Are you a stickler for the rules or a rebel? Do you think there is such a thing as worrying too much about breaking the rules? How do you justify a broken rule?

--
I’m heading to a Children's and Young Adult Literature Festival on Saturday. It is run by the NSW Writers’ Centre. It should be fantastic.

Pic: When I took this photo I overheard a passerby scoff at me for taking a photo of shadows when I had the grand view of Sydney Harbour laid out before me. I guess I broke a ‘rule’ for the sake of creativity.

34 comments:

  1. A writer must master basic tenets of grammar-- spelling, punctuation, subject-predicate agreement, consistency with tenses, and the like.

    Almost everything beyond that and it's like asking someone to tell you how to dress in order to communicate your personality. Three words from the Wizard--

    Trust. The process.

    And if you're really stumped, just read the fiction of others. We absorb that which we admire and naturally move from that which grates us. If someone starts nattering on about POV's, exercises to craft compelling dialogue, whether or not a prologue is de rigueur for a specific genre-- just let them eyes glaze over, friend. There be dragons.

    Read. And write. Therein lies the sharpening of true skill.

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  2. For me- the rules are meant to be bent. LOL I think it is important to learn all the things you can about grammar, spelling, word usage, sentence structure, and syntax, but then after you learned them all you will know which ones you can bend to manipulate to your own advantage.

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  3. I'm a coward and not confident enough and nor do I have the skill to break rules without seeming to do so! LOL!!! So for me, I like to have a solid framework to spring from!

    Take care
    x

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  4. Old Kitty, flap them wings, darlin'. Methinks you underestimate yourself.

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  5. the rule is that there are no rules ;)
    I would've liked the pic of Sydney Harbour :P /scoffsatyoutoo/ :)

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  6. To a break rule properly, you need to know the rule really well first ;-)

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  7. Why? That's an interesting photo. Good eye.
    And crap, my next book starts with dialogue! Well, internal dialogue. Does that count against me?

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  8. It's just important to know the rules so that you are aware when you are breaking them...

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  9. Suze, I actually just had someone reviewing my non-prologued work tell me that (word for word) "for a fantasy story it’s very common to use a prologue where you can put all technical information in order not to waste the first chapters for introducing it in the form of characters reminiscences."
    As I sell 2nd hand books (mostly fantasy), I was curious to see if they were right, so I went to my stacks of 2000 and pulled out ten random books (different authors, varying book ages): six of them had no prologues. O_o

    But, yes, you need to know the basics. The rest (don't do this or that, or use this or that word), from what I've read seems to be a free-flow thing.

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  10. Great discussion re the rules. But when rules are broken then the ripples are caused!

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  11. I am currently reading Hooked by Les Edgerton. His big rules are about the opening, gotta hook the reader right off the bat. His tips are excellent but I get a headache when I read too many writer books. They will start to paralyze me, making me think I do everything wrong.

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  12. "The Code is more what you call guidelines than actual rules." - Pirates of the Caribbean

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  13. I loved reading this post. I suppose in a nutshell, flexibility is key.

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  14. Aldrea, looks like the statistics were in your favor, friend. ;)

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  15. a basic rule... write such a compelling story that nobody notices when the rules have been broken...
    x

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  16. I think the rules are there for a reason--many massacre or overuse certain devices. There are no absolute rules, of course, but it's definitely worth paying attention to this stuff.

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  17. I'm with Suze. Master your grammar. This doesn't mean that even grammar rules weren't meant to be broken, now, but I believe we owe it to our reader to be mindful of the basics. Comma placement, subject-predicate agreement, etc.

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  18. Outside of grammar rules, I think rules are flexible. Only we can decide which ones to break. I do feel we need to know the rules first before we can break them or know how to break them the right away.

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  19. Good stuff! I ditto the above comments--master the grammar and punctuation rules, because that is part of your first impression to an agent or editor. Otherwise, it's like showing up for an interview in your sweats. ;o)

    But yeah, I see whatcha mean by those things becoming a possible straightjacket. Worry about those things LATER, after a story is in rough draft form.

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  20. I'm neither a stickler nor a rebel. I prefer to think of myself as flexible. :) I learn as much about the craft as I can, but sometimes when I write, I just...write. The voices might be screaming, "But you're doing it wrong!" but if it feels right, I keep writing it.

    And then I revise it, because that's the one rule I stand by: everything needs to be rewritten. :)

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  21. I like this. Fact is, whether rules or tried and tested - if a writer knows how to write that's really all that matters. Keep your readers engaged, that's the challenge.

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  22. I think that every writer should KNOW the rules. I'm a firm believer that you have to know the rules--and more importantly, why they exist--before you break them.

    There are always reasons for all the writing rules that are out there. If you know the reason, and you're breaking it for an equally good reason, then you know what? Have at it!

    I think it's only when writers are ignorant of the rules and don't realize why what they're doing isn't generally speaking the best way to do it, that they run into problems.

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  23. Sometimes in the quest to ‘get it right’ we lose the power of the story.

    So true! That happens to me because I felt I had to stick to all the rules but now I break a few here and there:)

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  24. This is very informative, thanks for sharing.

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  25. I'm a mix, I guess. I don't mind breaking rules, but I don't want to be cliche. When I read books that do the don'ts, it is a bit frustrating.

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  26. Use the rules to get to pro level. Then break to allow your own voice room to sing. For every rule there is an exception, but usually in some extraordinary sense.

    The most important is putting a story together that hangs together and is exciting.

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  27. I think that you've got to be flexible but I agree with many of the commenters. You need to follow the rules to get into the business but with self-publishing being the new way, you can break the rules more than ever.

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  28. Sometimes we tend to over obsess on rules, worry too much on getting things right, or getting all the elements that other successful books have into our own stories.

    I feel we should make the first draft just about the story and worry about everything else later.

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  29. Hi Lynda:

    Great post! I struggle with this sometimes and even had a post on this topic not long ago.

    I think Meagan hit it on the head. You have to know the rules before you can break them. (effectively)

    "Guidelines" is a great way of looking at it. As children, we learn to color within the lines. But as artists, we are free to explore beyond those very boundaries we were harnassed with as beginning writers. We also understand structure, and the need for it in even the most random of works.

    Compare the scribbling of a two-year old to Jackson Pollock's masterpieces. There IS a difference.

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  30. It's necessary for a writer to know the rules so they can break them.

    Jai

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  31. I always worry about grammar and punctuation when it comes to my stories. Most people say however that they don't even notice. Do u think that's true? Do most people truly not notice bad grammar and punctuation?

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  32. I am probably a mix of both. Whatever works best for my story is what I do.

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  33. I was hyper busy on the weekend and fell a bit behind on comments. Will catch up this afternoon because there's a lot of work I have to get done today as well. EEK! ;)

    Thanks again for all your fantastic comments.

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  34. I'm a rebel and always want to break the rules! If the story is compelling, who cares about the rules? Not me! I'm bad.

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I'd love to hear your opinion. Thanks for leaving a comment.