Monday, June 28, 2010

Hang The Rules

Normally, I have a healthy respect for rules and laws. They are what keeps our society together. I also have a fear of being arrested and/ or accidentally hurting someone else, so that keeps me in check, too.

This particular trait of mine has gotten me into trouble in the past, though-- when I wouldn't break the rules, not even a little. Trouble socially, you understand, not legally. In the end, I didn't really care what those people thought of me because they shouldn't have tried to pressure me into something I wasn't comfortable with in the first place.

But the thing is, those are real-life rules that I stick to. There's a place where I go to escape from real life and all its rules, and that's my writing.

But writing is full of "rules," too. Except that with language, it's a choice to follow the rules (just like in real life, except that no one is going to be hurt by breaking the writing laws unless you use your words as a weapon of hate).

We all know the rules of writing by heart. Don't use adverbs. Show, don't tell. Be snappy. Be grammatically correct. Don't write passively. And the list goes on.

But you know what? Hang the rules. Hang them all, because language is a free-flowing, ever-changing beast, and for every rule out there, there is an example of a writer who broke it and STILL managed to get published.

This is why I don't talk about writing rules in my blog posts (anymore). I have come to see them as snake oil-- if only you could weed out every adverb from your manuscript, you would be published. If only you showed every little detail instead of telling about it, you would be published. There is no magic cure, folks-- and that includes these rules. I see them as more of suggestions (or guidelines, for those Pirates of the Caribbean fans out there) anyway.

I am guilty of using copious adverbs and adjectives, writing in first person present tense (gasp!), and pretty much anything else you can think of. But I still like my writing, and frankly? That's all that matters to me. Someone else will like it, too, it's inevitable. But if I strangle myself with the rules, suddenly I don't like my writing or the act of writing it very much anymore.

I see it kind of like music composition. There are some composers who write music almost (and occasionally literally) mathematically. Music to them is an equation. And the results are technically perfect-- but something is just missing.

Then there are the composers who write with passion-- letting their fingers pick the notes and connect with their heart instead of their brain-- and their music may be looser, more sloppy, but it moves people.

Which writer do you want to be?

So hang the rules-- hang them right up, string them high for all to see-- and then cut yourself free of them. Write like you are free from them, because you are. No one, least of all me, is going to string YOU up for using adverbs, and they might even thank you for it.

What rules do you break?


Rick Daley said...

Through the course of a manuscript I'm pretty sure I break every rule at least once. I don't try to follow them; I don't try to break them. I just try to tell a good story with the best voice I can muster.

L. T. Host said...

Rick-- exactly. Write freely, not with confinement, is really my point.

Unknown said...

Here Here!

or should I say

"Aye! Avast!"

L. T. Host said...

Taryn-- Haha, perfect :)

Susan R. Mills said...

I second Bane's comment. It's important to know them and know yes, yes, yes! Know WHY you break them. I was once hung up on the rules too. I think paying attention to them helped me improve my writing. I definitely break them all the time, though.

Davin Malasarn said...

I do try to ignore the rules when I can. Sometimes, though, if a particular piece of writing isn't working for me, I do remind myself of the rules and try to approach the problem solving systematically. I think some of the rules come from a very well-thought out place and have value to them. We just shouldn't feel so stuck in the rules that we aren't creating anything anymore.

L. T. Host said...

Bane-- we were talking about the myth of the brontosaurus. :) No, but really, I tend to agree-- I just think so many of the rules are arbitrary, made up by people who have a personal preference for things to be that way. To play devil's advocate, though: older books (the classics) tell a story just as well as newer, "snappier" stuff, and the older a book is the more rules it breaks. It might require more thought or work to read the story, but it's still a good tale.

Susan-- maybe it's something you have to go through as a writer. A device to learn to write better, and once you know them, then you can break them, perhaps? I don't know. I just know I hate abiding by them when it comes to writing! Glad to see you back around :)

Davin-- I think that's a very healthy attitude and habit to have. And an excellent point. Some of them have a purpose, but to follow them blindly without knowing why is a folly.

Stephanie Thornton said...

I think we have to know all the rules so we know when it's acceptable to break them. At least that's what I tell myself. And my students.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

Rules are like tools. Don't use a screwdriver when what you need is a hammer. And LORD, please don't use a hammer when what you want is a whisper. :)

LAF said...

Once I find a rule I really like to stick to it. It's like a life-line. But abiding by the rule overly can ruin writing, I find.

I've only just recently discovered the "rules", or more precisely heuristics I guess, are not hard and fast.

In fact, they only apply in some situations, and when they do apply you can leave them out, and still have excellent prose, if you make excellent use of other heuristics.

Nice blog btw.

Michelle D. Argyle said...

I have some pretty passionate feelings about RULES, and I've given up on many of them during my most creative moments. Like Davin, though, if something isn't working, I go back to the "rules" and see if there's something there that can improve what I've done.