Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Don't let the rules get you down

Don't let that smile turn into a frown... Sokka.

I'm always a bit bemused when I see writers protest about rules and guidelines stifling their creativity, and so they want to break them.

Cool.  Some rules should be broken.  But I don't think the rules are always the real problem.  I think the real issues are usually mindset and experience.  Learning to write within certain parameters is a vital exercise for any writer, especially one seeking traditional publication.

I understand the fear.  I remember the passion with which I wrote my first stories and novel.  I was free and uninhibited and wrote whatever appealed to my heart.  I didn't worry so much about whether my prose was too purple or whether I was head-hopping or anything else.  And though I do still quite like my first novel, a little more practice revealed to me that some passages were overwrought; that the story could be stronger told from one perspective at a time, even if that character didn't know everything I did; that some of the writing was weaker even if it was passionate.

As I gained more experience and began worrying about craft and the rules, there was a period where it was stifling.  I worried too much about how I was telling the story, whether it would please publishers, whether I could do something or get away with it.  I silenced ideas for fear they wouldn't fit into an established mold, and didn't experiment out of concern it would all be changed back anyway.  I feared my own voice would be rejected, so I should start learning to speak in some other voice that people wanted.  But it wasn't me, and it created many messes where the way I wanted to write butted up against the way I thought I should write.

But with more practice, I've begun coming out of that phase.  (Only "begun" because there are still moments where I worry too much about rules or publishers instead of focusing on getting the story out and fixing  problems later.However, working within that box for a time has improved my craft.  I can see a huge difference between the first drafts of my last two books.  In the first of the two, one of the issues was that I was throwing things everywhere to see where they would stick with little regard for the wisdom underlying many of the more commonly-touted rules of writing.  (Another was that my writer-brain apparently just stopped working in that portion of grad school, because I don't have any excuses for some of the crap I wrote.)  In the latest, things are more streamlined and well-composed, but even where I follow convention, my passion still comes through.  It may be a little more understated in places, but sometimes a slow burn is better than an inferno.

You see, once you understand the rules, you can utilize them to channel your passion.  Once you know the edges of the box, you can push against them.  You can break them with confidence and expertise, making direct hits instead of flailing.  That'll make your rebellion more effective.  That will be the truly crazy thing.  And if you can learn to be creative no matter how many "limits" are thrown at you in the form of rules or guidelines, then you're not really limited, are you?  You can't be stopped.  You go, writer person.

So next time you fear the rules are keeping you down, consider whether that feeling might be part of a natural progression.  Mine seems to have taken me from naive inexperience (first book) to trying to follow every rule too closely (second and third books) to messy rebellion (fourth book) to, I hope, a better synthesis of creativity and good writing.


Kris Atkins said...

I think the process you went through is a natural one for most writers. Part of being a mature writer is learning to embrace the rules and knowing when it's okay to break them, and also knowing that you must have a definite reason for breaking them (not just because it's artsy or you feel like it or hate them).

Emilyann Girdner said...

A good post and something we all have to wrestle with. While it's great to be unique and groundbreaking, the majority of the time writing is stronger because of the rules.
Thanks for sharing :)