FIVE WRITING RULES AND HOW/WHEN TO BREAK THEM

I found a statement in an old copy of Writer’s Market on line by Jessica Strawser (Feb. 13, 2012 issue) that made me laugh out loud, and I quote: “As wordsmiths, many of us rejoice in a single fact every day: “Writing is not math.”

The reason it hit my funny bone is that I know a number of writers who would agree. I, on the other hand, loved math when I was a kid in school — probably from early junior high school on — Oh, not even! I remember maybe in upper elementary (?) whenever we hit fractions, both dividing and multiplying. I got an old steno-notebook and filled a page, top to bottom, with a straggly column of fractions. I moved over an inch or two and made a second column. Between the two I placed a “multiply” or “divide sign”; then moved over another inch or two, and I’d see how fast I could write the answers. My form of playing “Angry Birds” or some other “game” on an android, or even a phone, before those were invented.

What does all that math have to do with writing? Actually, it has to do with the “rules” imposed on us. Math has rules. So does writing. And every conceivable language, whether written or spoken, has rules. In math, formulae and protocols must be strictly adhered to . . . I wonder if anyone told Einstein that? Or Newton?

We writers “know” our rules too, and sometimes understand how and when to break them:

  1. WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW.
    But does that yield “bland protagonists? “Sleepy settings?” “Mild plots?” Instead, think “Write What You Know means Write What You See Differently, Feel Profoundly, Know is Important, Where You Find the Extraordinary in What is Universal.” Don’t limit yourself to what you know: use your imagination, exercise your human potential, stretch beyond your “borders.” And “The Rules.” Go ahead: Natalie Goldberg has advised writers to “lose control,” say what they want to say, break structure, and sometimes assigns them to write “what they’re not thinking of” or “what they don’t remember.” It’s the writer’s job, Goldman maintains, “to give the reader a larger vision of the world.” She claims everything — every person in Portugal or darkest Africa, the grass, bees, a horse, even a rock — all have different languages. And Donald Maass adds “. . . you can always research what you don’t know. But you can’t fake what’s in your heart. Say what matters. That’s writing what you know.”
  2. HOOK YOUR READERS ON PAGE 1.
    “Most experts advise starting with or quickly getting to an ‘inciting incident,’ or at least something that implies a main character’s status quo has been interrupted,” says Jerry B. Jenkins. Above all, he says, “it’s not gunfire, murder or mayhem,” but something wherein you want to know what’s going on — and you’ll stick with it until you find out. But, can we break even this rule? Steve Almond says most “student authors” refuse to orient the reader by providing “basic dramatic circumstances, such as where we are and what’s happening, and to whom. Instead we’re plunged into “[an] ectoplasm of vivid descriptions and incisive observations. I refer to this style of writing as hysterical lyricism.” All because they’ve been told over and over that they have to “hook readers on Page 1.” What the reader seeks to learn above all is “whom she should care about, and what those characters want or fear. Readers deserve clearly told stories, not high-watt histrionics.”
  3. SHOW, DON’T TELL.
    What, exactly, does that mean? Your job as the writer is to “transmit experience so the reader also experiences it. Details. We need details to let us envision. Back to Goldberg, “Writing is a visual art — and a visceral, sensory art. The world is not abstract, it is full of particulars.” Later, she says to “Lay out all the jewels for us to behold. To only tell about them is to hide the emeralds from view.” Donald Maass argues that, generally speaking, this rule is sound, but asks that we “make it concrete. Externalize . . . [what] is internal. Use a slap instead of a slow boil. A single four- letter word in dialogue can do the work of a whole paragraph.” But, he argues further, sometimes, “what you want to capture on the page is intangible. You can’t see it, weigh it, smack it or lick it. You have to trap a wisp in words. Trying to turn it concrete only causes it to evaporate.” He compares it to the change of mood in a stadium when fans know “with bitter certainty, that their team is about to lose.” There’s “the buoyancy of . . . new spring fashions . . . or the intuition . . . for no solid reason that she’s going to leave me.” So how do we break this rule? Maas says “Realize there can be tension in the invisible. . . found inside he who’s experiencing that which is vapor.” So the trick to telling is to base your passage “in emotions. Less obvious emotions are good. Contrasting emotions are better. Conflicting emotions are best. If moving beneath the surface, then you’re cooking. Fold into these feelings whatever outward details are at hand in the moment . . . Telling doesn’t ignore tension, it just snatches it from the air.”
  4. WRITE “SH*TTY FIRST DRAFTS.” (REALLY, DO YOU HAVE A CHOICE?)
    Nope. No choice in the matter. So “let it rip. You have nothing to lose as long as you make a deal with yourself: NO ONE will ever see it,” says John Smolens. “Here’s the thing about writing fiction : You’re alone. You work on your sentences, again and again. You have a chance to seem smarter in your final draft than you were in your first. Your character may not have the right rejoinder today, but by next Thursday she may come up with something . . . witty, urbane and wise and, despite your hours of labor, it may even appear to be spontaneous.” Musicians can jam — it’s not solitary, and what you hear is what you get — goofs and all. For writers, the first draft is a Solo Improvisation, “littered with sour notes and botched chords.” You’re just trying things out, what works, what fits. It’s the reason you write that “sh*tty” first draft: to see what you can’t/shouldn’t do before you discover what you CAN do. And with revision, patience, no one will ever know your first draft existed.
  5. WRITE EVERY DAY.
    John Dufresne believes in writing every day: says that writers want to write, but there’s the world beyond the writing room, intruding. And all those books to read! But “the doing, the intense activity of the mind . . . fascinates the writer . . . allows her to shape order from chaos. Writers write. Writing is work. And you go to work every day. It’s not a choice. If you don’t punch in, you lose your job.” He goes on to say “if you’ve tried to quit and catch yourself back at the desk — well, then don’t give up. Give in.” Good news: all the writing doesn’t go on at your desk. It goes on while you’re out in the world. So he advises carrying a pen, notebook; (today it’s more likely to be an Android or your phone). Whatever works. Gather evidence. With pen in hand (or other recording devise, perhaps), you think differently, observe more keenly, learn to pay attention, keep your senses alert. The note is repository, source of material, and refuge. “Go there when you need to think. Writing . . . engenders more writing. “And everything you write today informs everything you will ever write. James Scott Bell, on the other hand, is a big believer in word quotas. He claims the best advice he ever got was to set a quota and stick to it. He started doing a daily count, but life would intrude, and he’d miss a day (who hasn’t done that?), but when life intruded and he missed it, he became “surly and hard to live with.” He switched to a weekly quota, and has used it ever since: doesn’t have to beat himself up if he misses a day. He just writes a little extra on other days, uses a spread sheet (I, personally, let 750words.com keep track of my daily writing, and my total. Long ago, I passed a million words, and I’m almost 200K beyond that one now. And I can go look at any specific day since I started at ANY time!) Bell also intentionally takes one day off each week, his “writing Sabbath”. That seems to recharge his batteries. Meanwhile his projects are cooking away in his subconscious (like Stephen King’s ‘boys in the basement’ hard at work while King takes a day off). Bell also suggests taking a week-long break from writing each year. Use the time to assess your career, set goals, make plans — because “if you aim at nothing, there’s a very good chance you’ll hit it.”

Next week, Five More Writing “RULES” and How/When to Avoid/Circumvent Them.

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