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The One Rule for Writers...
by Moira Allen
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Sometimes it's a rule someone heard in a class. Sometimes it is found in a book. Sometimes it is gleaned from articles on a particular topic. Sometimes it's handed down by an individual -- people have often told me, "so-and-so in my writers' group says that you must always/never..."
The question is almost invariably followed by a statement along the lines of, "Because even though I know you're not supposed to do X, my story/novel/poem seems to work so much better if I do..." From there, of course, the writer proceeds to the fear that if the rule is broken, no publisher will ever consider the work, and readers will shun it in droves.
Some of the "rules" I've been asked about include writing in the present tense, head-hopping, writing about talking animals, word counts, and whether it's absolutely necessary (as someone was apparently told) for romance characters to have wild monkey sex by page 12.
So... What do I think about rules? Listen carefully, for I'm about to reveal a vital, all-inclusive rule of writing that could make (or break) your career...
Rules are very important. And rules were made to be broken.
There, that's settled. Now I'll go have a cup of coffee... Oh, that's not quite clear enough? Did someone say, "Well, that certainly muddied the waters nicely?" OK, let's look at the matter a bit more closely.
First, let's ask why fiction-writing "rules" are "invented" in the first place. It's important to note that such rules are not handed down from on high, like the Ten Commandments. Nor are they "natural laws," like gravity. In fact, most rules are actually more like "fashion statements."
Note that I'm not referring to grammatical rules here. Grammar is a completely different issue, and though it evolves and has fashion changes, it serves a much larger purpose than, say, a story about talking animals. Grammar is about enabling human beings to communicate at any level (the current example being "let's eat Grandma" vs. "let's eat, Grandma"). Grammar is essential; fiction is (more or less) optional.
When examining any current "rule" for writing fiction, it helps to determine where it came from. Quite often, today's "rules" are a reaction to yesterday's most popular styles.
Take, for example, the prevailing rule against the author directly addressing the reader. Dubbed "authorial intrusion," this is generally considered, today, to be a bad thing. It distracts the reader from the story, we're told. It prevents the "suspension of disbelief." The reader seeks to be immersed in the words, not to be reminded that there's an author behind those words.
Well, this rule evolved as a reaction to a common Victorian (and earlier) style of writing in which the author quite often addressed the reader. The classic cliché of this style is "Dear Reader," as in, "Dear Reader, if Adele had only realized what would result from her ill-considered decision that day..." (Another variant, of course, is the infamous "Had he but known...")
Now, a great deal of Victorian fiction is pretty darn unreadable by today's standards, but not because an author chose to address the reader directly. In fact, authors who have done this are often just as popular today as they were 100 years ago -- E. Nesbit, anyone? Or Mark Twain?
A century ago, it was fashionable for an author to "tell a story" to the reader, because storytelling was still very much a popular form of entertainment in those days before television and Nintendo. The storyteller was part of the story; hence the author felt no need to pretend that he or she was not involved in the story being written. Today, we no longer have such a tradition of active storytelling, and so it is no longer so fashionable to include the author in the tale.
"Head-hopping" is another no-no, we're told. We're firmly advised that one scene should involve only one viewpoint (though a tale as a whole may have multiple viewpoint characters). In this case, it's important to note that this is primarily an American "rule." British authors have head-hopped happily for years, and still do. The difference is, most British authors treat this as a slight variation on author intrusion: They use a "limited omniscient" viewpoint to view a scene, not just through the eyes of a single character, but from a "higher" angle, dipping into different heads to gain different perspectives. Hence, you might be told, "When informed that they would be spending the summer with Mad Aunt Hattie, each child had a different reaction. Simon felt a thrill of excitement at the thought of exploring Hattie's supposedly haunted halls. Beatrice felt a twinge of alarm at the thought of being cooped up in a dark house miles from the nearest town..." And so on.
Yet another source of "rules" is, to be blunt, pundits. So-called "experts." There are always folks who seem convinced that they are an "authority" on what people want to, or should (and should not) read. I've seen this most often in articles and books on children's fiction, with various experts weighing in on what children do and don't "want" to read, or shouldn't be exposed to, etc. This, too, is nothing new; there are loads of Victorian articles on what children should and shouldn't read as well. The words change; the song remains the same.
Hence the "rules" about no talking animals, and (until J.K. Rowling), absolutely no magic! Today's children are too "sophisticated" for such silliness, we're told (and many Victorian sages said the same). And yet, although it might be tough to sell a new Oz book in today's market, the Oz books have never once gone out of print...
So if rules are just "fashion statements," why do I say that rules are important? Simply because rules are a reaction to something. If pundits declare that there should be no more "talking animal" stories, just what is it about talking animal stories that is problematic? Rules arise when something is (a) overdone and (b) often done badly. If, therefore, you are yearning to write a talking animal story, it would be wise to find out what has gone wrong in this genre to give rise to such a rule.
Rules are also important because, as a writer, you need to be aware of the prevailing tastes and prejudices. If you have written a talking animal story, and you know that many book publishers are convinced that "children won't read those," you at least have the comfort of knowing that you're not being rejected because you can't write. And sometimes it's just a matter of waiting for rules to change -- ten years ago it was almost impossible to sell a paranormal romance to a print publisher, but since vampires became cool, it's getting hard to sell anything else.
But I also said that rules were made to be broken. Keep in mind that you can only break a rule if you understand what it is. Acting in ignorance is not the same thing as breaking a rule. Breaking a rule requires a measure of courage, conviction, and understanding. You must know what you are doing, why you are doing it, and feel that, despite what the rule-makers say, it is the right thing to do for your story. If you do, you may well succeed, but only...
And here it is, Dear Reader... the One Rule...
Only if you do it well.
Moira Allen is the editor of Writing-World.com, and has written nearly 400 articles, serving as a columnist and regular contributor for such publications as The Writer, Entrepreneur, Writer's Digest, and Byline. An award-winning writer, Allen is the author of eight books, including Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer, The Writer's Guide to Queries, Pitches and Proposals, and Writing to Win: The Colossal Guide to Writing Contests. In addition to Writing-World.com, Allen hosts VictorianVoices.net, a growing archive of articles from Victorian periodicals, and The Pet Loss Support Page, a resource for grieving pet owners. She lives in Maryland with her husband and the obligatory writer's cat. She can be contacted at editors "at" writing-world.com.