Monday, June 13, 2011

Let the Rules be a Gentle Guide

One of my pet peeves is the fact that people have to come up with rules for EVERYTHING! This is especially true in the writing arena. We have rules about showing vs. telling (show don't tell), rules about adverbs (never use adverbs), rules about punctuation (never use exclamation marks), rules about cliches (never use a cliche on pain of death) and even rules about voice (use active voice, never passive).

Listen, rules exist for a reason. Over the years those who study good literature have discerned some things that make one work stronger than another, and voila! we get rules. However, "good" writing is so subjective to both personality and generation that I think we as authors do ourselves a disservice when we chain ourselves to the rules. What one person absolutely loves in a story might just drive another person absolutely batty. That, however, does not mean we should make a new rule about ignoring all the previous rules - just set them aside for a bit until we get our story down on paper.

So here, on this AuthorCulture post on June 13th, 2011, I hereby give you permission to IGNORE the rules (gasp!) for your first draft. Sit down and simply write your story, let it flow, use as many perfect-as-a-peach cliches as you wish. Your character can run quickly, or jump joyfully, or glower menacingly. You can tell the reader that Molly didn't like Peter, just like that. "Molly didn't like Peter." Use as many exclamation points as you jolly well please!!!! And then walk away from the story for at least a month. Let the story simmer in your mind, mull it over and play with ideas that will make it stronger.

Then come back to it. Get out your list of rules and carefully consider each and every place where you broke them. Would changing that area to bring it into line with "the rules" make the story stronger? In many cases it will, and I recommend that you make a lot of changes. (After all, it gives a much better picture of what Molly is actually feeling about Peter to say, "Peter stepped through the door and the familiar churning began in Molly's stomach even before her eyes narrowed. She clenched her teeth and pawed through her purse. How was it that the man could send her in search of her Rolaids simply by walking into the room?" Do you see how much stronger that is than simply saying, "Molly didn't like Peter?") 

But the reason I want you to ignore the rules for the first draft is because I think we often choke the story that wants to be told when we are so concerned about the rules.

So, now that you have permission, what rule(s) will you totally ignore on your next first draft? 
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  1. My first draft is always very bare bones. I have to go back and add layers and layers. Only after a lot of rewrites is my draft anywhere near ready for a crit partner to read.

  2. This reminder of the balance between observing the rules to find structure and chucking them to gain creative freedom is something we all need to be reminded of on a regular basis. I'm generally a structured, rule-oriented gal, but I love writing that first draft and letting the words just pour out, regardless of the "rules."

  3. All of them. Bwahahahahaha!

    Seriously, though, thanks for this post. I think there's a growing number of writers out there getting ready to pull out the pitchforks and torches over the legalism of writing rules. Of course, it would be better if we could all just take a deep breath, set the rules aside in their little corner--ready to be referenced at a later date--and WRITE, we'd all be good.

  4. I think you need to know about all the rules. A writer should read all the "how to write" books that are out there and be fully aware of these limits that are being set up.

    That way, if a writer decides to break the rules, it's a conscious choice because it's better for the story. There is some fantastic writing out there that breaks the rules but it shouldn't be through ignorance.

  5. Sharon, I always find it interesting to talk to other writers about the methods that work for them. Each one is so unique. I'm glad you've nailed down the method that works for you.

    Katie, I agree! :)

    Becky, LOL and true. The key is not to stifle your muse.

    Jessica, I agree that it is important to know the rules. But my point is that when we are so focused on the rules, we can suffocate a good story. Ignore the rules for a bit. Get your story down. THEN go over it with the rules in mind. I'm not advocating we throw all rules to the wind forever, just for a bit. Hope that clarifies.

  6. What Lynnette just said ...

    The rules are important and we should all know them. But don't chain yourself to them so that you end taking a pillow and smothering your story.

    Same with stereotypes -- it's not a cardinal sin if one of your characters is one. (They exist in the first place because there's a little bit of truth in them.) But if your entire cast of characters is one cliche after another? That's an invitation for the reader to close the book.

  7. Good point about character stereotypes, alexadena.

  8. Great advice! The rules are supposed to help the story, not suppress it.

  9. Loved this post, Lynnette. You made me laugh--particularly about the exclamation points!!!

    I'm a proud rule-breaker in the first draft, sometimes the second and third drafts. Even the final will have some rules broken. For instance, there are times when the passive sounds more poetic than the active, and when that's what I'm striving for, I like the passive.

    I agree with what Jessica said, everyone should know the rules so they can make a conscious choice about breaking them. But I also agree with throwing them out the window when the creative juices are stirring a first draft.

  10. Great idea and one I really have to work at. My perfectionist personality really struggles not to edit as I write. Thanks for the tips and encouragement.

  11. Well said.

    On a side note, it's interesting to look at some novels from a few decades back and find instances where there can be a great deal of telling in a story (even with well known authors). That's confusing, especially if you put that alongside more contemporary novels and all the articles/books out there that preach the "show don't tell" approach.

    I've often wondered what it would be like to put writing advice articles and books side by side from the past several decades to see what has changed...

  12. It's nice to have a draft where we can flaunt rules. :o) I agree with you. There are too many rules for writers these days, and some of them are arbitrary.

  13. Fun post--and thanks for giving me permission to ignore the rules!
    I think I'll ignore the "No -ly words" rule. I'll weed those out when I rewrite. That's when I hunt down and destroy all the unneeded "thats" and "buts" and "justs" that show up too.

  14. Rose, Exactly!

    Linda, There's a lot to be said for keeping the writing poetic. And I agree about knowing the rules inside and out.

    CC, I have to admit that I'm one who tends to like to edit as I go too. Working on it. :)

    MGalloway, So true. The thing is we live in a much faster society than many of those books did when they were written. We are used to having everything right now and don't like delayed gratification. That's why many of the rules work for today and wouldn't have in years past, and vice versa.

    Janalyn, I agree that many of the rules are arbitrary. The hard part is finding the ones that will make the book enjoyable to MOST of the population and sticking with them.

    Beth, I keep a running list of words I need to hunt down at the end of each novel. :) So have a wonderfully joyful time blissfully using all the "ly" words you want. You can carefully zap them later. :)

  15. Excellent post!

    I recently struggled with a short story thanks to getting too hung up on "the rules of story structure." When I finally let go and just decide to write the story without worrying about structure, the words flowed. Then I went back and fixed the structure during revision.

    Besides, the pirates have the right idea (Pirates of the Caribbean):
    "I thought you supposed to keep to the (Pirate's) Code?"
    "Well, they're really more like guidelines." ;)

  16. Great article, Lynette, and great points from everyone. There's a short and pithy quote from Ernest Hemingway (as if he ever made any other kind) that's helped me along over the years: "First drafts are sh**."

    And they are. They're meant to be. I mean if a story is to grow organically, like a flower, what do plants grow best in? *G*