Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Breaking the rules

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):
  1. Show, don't tell.
  2. Write what you know.
  3. Maintain consistent voice & point of view.
  4. Write every day.
  5. Write for the market.
  6. 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).
  1. Show AND tell. [Come back tomorrow for details.]
  2. Write what you care about. Or, write what you know: don't fake it, don't imitate.
  3. Discover and maintain the internal logic demanded by your piece.
  4. Write even if you don't feel like it.
  5. Write for yourself, and your Ideal Reader.
  6. 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.


  1. Francis Macomber: one of my favorite short stories ever. The rules were made to be broken, but I'd add the caveat that one should be sure ones craft is developed enough to get away with it.

    For example, leaving quotation marks off your dialogue might work for Chuck Palahniuk and Cormac McCarthey, but beginning writers better not try submitting that unless they've polished it until it gleams.

    My rule-breaking? Minimal. I like using adjectives as adverbs sometimes. Occasional sentence fragments. Works for me. :)

  2. Great post, Carrie. We are all individuals and wired differently. I can only say what works for me. And as you said, the point is that we're writing.

    As far as market trends, we need a break-in, but we also need to be true to ourselves. So, hopefully we can find a break-in that is true to ourselves! It's not impossible.

  3. Yes, thank you.
    I'm looking forward to tomorrow's post.

    I struggle a lot with the POV and i suspect i always will. But it's good to know the rule is much more flexible than i have been taught. Also Stephen King doesn't follow that one...

  4. I much prefer Joan's revised rules. I'm not big on rules when it comes to the arts. Do what you like because if you like it then there's probably someone else somewhere who will also like it and if there isn't then you are totally unique which could be interesting in itself.
    Thanks again Carrie for your superb comment to my question on my post from yesterday. You have a knack for expressing your thoughts exceptionally well.

  5. Loved this Carrie. Seems like new writers can get tripped up with these old myths.

  6. Wow, what a fantastic and encouraging post! It's true - we can get so mired down by "the rules" that we psyche ourselves into a creative coma. I'd like to break the rule that your opening has to be good ... haha, just kidding ... at the end of the day, SOME rules are not meant to be broken .. I just need to keep working at it, I guess! ;-)

  7. I love this and I LOVE the picture.
    The revised rules DO make more sense and I really look forward to more about the showing and the telling.

    One thing I get a lot of from one person in my writing group is "Is this your voice, the character's voice, or another voice?" and I'm thinking, For heaven's sake, it's all the character's voice! She doesn't like it because I don't use italics. But it's written in close third person. And no one else had a problem with that, AND I think the genre does that a lot. So I'm keeping that rule broken.

  8. I kind of think of the rules as more of a suggested ideal. All in all, I agree with a lot of her changes to them, but they do make sense on their own even without being broken. I see both ends of the spectrum.

    Thanks for sharing this with us. I like getting treated to seminar information and such without having to find a sitter for my 5 kids and drive umpteen hours to get to the gig. :P

  9. Great post!

    I once took a fiction class in which a guy wrote a story breaking every single rule the professor laid out (don't write from beyond the grave, don't write from the point of view of a writer or student, don't have it all be a dream, etc.) and he wrote a BRILLIANT story. Even the professor conceded. The rules exist for a reason, but they can always be broken.

  10. First of all, I love that picture.

    Second, I always thought "write what you know" was a dumb rule. If everyone only wrote what they knew, then we'd have no sci-fi, fantasy, or supernatural stories. Unless you assume that every sci-fi writer owns a time machine. "Write what you care about, and back it up with research," is a much better goal.

  11. Carrie, nice meeting you at Grub last night. Your blogsite is awesome. For rudimentary, see mine at www.kosmospack.wordpress.com. I'll be a frequent visitor. Best, Mike Geisser (mgeisser@cox.net)

  12. I'm a born rule-breaker, so thank you for the validation ;) Seriously, excellent advice. Thank you for passing it on! Bookmarking this one.

  13. I agree a lot with what she says. I'd have to say though the basic rules are there for people who need some early guidance, which was definitely me. Break them only if you understand the rules and know why you're breaking them.

    Rule 4 should say, "Write every day, even if you don't feel like it."

    Rule 6 should say, "Read bad books and work out why they're bad." You'll learn more that way than reading supposedly good books.

    I especially agree with her rule 5.

  14. A very good post. My rule breaking is usually in the area of frangmented sentences - people just don't always talk, or think, in complete sentences. And of course, write what you know. I don't know much about a lot of careers and such, but I know how to research and find out.

    Thanks for the 411 on the rules and reporting out on what sounded like a great seminar.


  15. I agree with Gary's comment. Break the rules once you understand the rules. Rule provide a fence and if you don't understand what is being fenced in our kept out you cannot build gates where you need them.

  16. Exactly. You study the rules. You try to write by the rules. Then, you hear that an editor picked up a book because it was written in such a unique way by someone who broke the rules. Perhaps writing what you know really means writing from your passion...worry about the rules later.