Last night's Grub Street seminar, The Rules of Writing: How to Use Them & When To Break Them, was taught by Joan Wickersham. The class was originally a lecture given at Grub Street's Muse and the Marketplace writing conference (that's the link for the upcoming 2010 conference), and I can see why so many people loved it... how nice to be told that it's okay to break a few rules while you're stressing over your pitch and wondering if you're making a fool of yourself* networking!
The class boils down to this: it's all about what you can get away with.
Joan gave us six rules to be debunked (or at least clarified and mitigated):
- Show, don't tell.
- Write what you know.
- Maintain consistent voice & point of view.
- Write every day.
- Write for the market.
- Read great books.
Joan used to follow the rules, until she realized that these rules, taken at face value, were impeding her ability to write a publishable book about her father's suicide. She tried first person and third person narratives. She showed. She kept things properly chronological. And it wasn't working. She finally let go of the rules, and nine years after she started, The Suicide Index finally got an agent, a publisher, and became a National Book Award Finalist.
Here are Joan's rewrites of the rules. (I'm going to put off discussing #1 until tomorrow, because it's the most nuanced rule of the group, and deserves a post of its own... especially since I think a lot of authors get worked up about it).
- Show AND tell. [Come back tomorrow for details.]
- Write what you care about. Or, write what you know: don't fake it, don't imitate.
- Discover and maintain the internal logic demanded by your piece.
- Write even if you don't feel like it.
- Write for yourself, and your Ideal Reader.
- Read everything. Read the books you need.
These all make so much sense, don't they?
If people only wrote "what they know" in a literal sense, we'd have nothing but fictionalized memoir in the bookstores. But if you care about something, you can do the research, and you can tell the emotional truth of how your characters would behave in a previously unimagined situation. Jane Eyre was originally published with the title Jane Eyre, an autobiography, and when Charlotte Bronte released her 2nd edition with a dedication to Thackeray, a writer she deeply admired, a rumor spread that he was the REAL subject of the novel, and that his governess had written it. Charlotte cared about what she wrote, and she convinced everyone that it was something she "knew."
Not every story needs to be unrelenting in a single point of view or voice. Think of Hemingway's The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber... he gave the POV of Francis, of Wilson the hunter-guide, and of THE LION THEY WERE HUNTING. It's what the piece demanded, and he pulled it off. Joan's memoir about her father has an emotional arc in "index" form because straight chronology wasn't doing the story justice. Be true to your work.
Not everyone can or wants to write every day. Not everyone can write while traveling or home for the holidays, and it doesn't make you less of a writer. Just be sure that you aren't waiting for inspiration to strike before you sit down to work. Be sure that you're trying, more often than not.
What market? It takes so long to publish a book that any market we see will probably be gone before we are able to cater to it. Make your own market. Write for yourself.
Read what you need to. Reading nothing but the greats will probably depress and discourage you, anyway. Read bad books to learn from others' mistakes. Read books similar to your own to learn about the genre, or AVOID those books so you don't feel like you're crowding your own work out with someone else's voice. Just read.
As I see it, the rules are intended to help you avoid confusing and frustrating your reader, and to get you to write more. If the reader ISN'T confused, if you ARE writing, then it's all up for grabs.
Any questions? Are there any rules you won't break, or rules you love to hate?
* I'm sure you're not.