Sunday, January 1, 2017

Rules and Resolutions: Brake or Break?

Something in us loves formulas and fresh starts, vows and pledges. After all, if you aspire to quality, you want to identify which mountains to disregard or hike, and how to discern when you approach the summit. For many, January 1 promises a chance to do better. More exercise and writing, healthier food, less to be guilty about, more opportunities for pride as opposed to arrogance.

Tip: You can’t decide which rules to break—and when—unless you know the rules in the first place.

For better self-diagnosis, read plenty of fiction and nonfiction about fiction (as opposed to fiction about how fiction is actually written and judged).

~ Understand the rules well enough to evaluate when to break them.

There’s oodles of info on this, on the web and elsewhere. For example, at the “Literary Hub,” Amitava Kumar offers “Ten Rules of Writing,” everything from length of sentence to daily practice.

Stephen King has twenty rules, culminating in “Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid or making friends. Writing is magic, as much as the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink.”

It continues. In The Guardian, Margaret Atwood suggests:
You most likely need a thesaurus, a rudimentary grammar book, and a grip on reality. This latter means: there’s no free lunch. Writing is work. It’s also gambling. You don’t get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but ­essentially you’re on your own. ­Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine.
Determined to maintain fiction as art rather than industry, again in The Guardian, Jonathan Franzen insists that “Fiction that isn’t an author’s personal adventure into the frightening or the unknown isn’t worth writing for anything but money.” 

~ Use your knowledge of the rules to consciously choose when to break them.

In “Brain Pickings,” Neil Gaiman assures that
The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it’s definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it ­honestly, and tell it as best you can. I’m not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.
Scott Turow made this point at ThrillerFest (2014): “I think that you must be aware of the existing conventions. … That does not mean that you cannot reinvent them in your own way.”

The better you internalize rules or resolutions, then the more successfully you’ll reinvent them. A preference for “showing” over “telling” is helpful, as is awareness of when readers want a transitional bridge, even though the author writing the scene can follow perfectly. 

~ Sense when you’re being subjective, even self-indulgent. That’s when you want to apply the brakes.

These questions might help you analyze based exclusively on craft:
  • Do you merely seek what’s easiest?
  • Is your rationale for disregarding this rule or resolution legitimate?
  • Is the main motive anxiety that you’ll never devise a preferable solution?

Meticulous attention to rules can breed mediocrity. But complete disregard for rules can breed failure. Like everything else about writing, the goal is candid self-assessment coupled with rigorous follow-through. Resolve to make revision seem not like strenuous tedium, but euphoric fun.

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