Sunday, February 26, 2017

Why It's--Sometimes--Okay to Ditch the Rules and Just Write

Rules, Rules, and More Rules

When you're first starting out, unless you're the Mozart of the writing world, you're going to make some mistakes. You're going to write clunky sentences. Your prose is going to be too wordy. Or too flowery (substitute the word "purple" here). You may mix up verb tenses or employ head-hopping in your narrative. You may burden your readers with the dreaded info dump. Learning how to avoid those things will be one of your biggest challenges as a writer.

You Must Learn the Rules

Wait! Why are you entreating me to learn the rules? I thought this post was about the fact that it's okay to ditch the rules. Well, yes it is, but before you can effectively ditch them, you have to learn them. Knowing them and ditching them versus not knowing them at all is what differentiates between personal style and poor writing. So learn them. Learn all of them. Then figure out which ones you can effectively break. The key word here is effectively.

Why Would You Want to Break the Rules?

Did you read what I just said about personal style? You have to have your own style when you're writing, otherwise you'll sound just like everyone else and no one will notice you at all. You don't want that, do you? Well, to avoid that you sometimes have to bend the rules. Maybe not throw them out altogether (so perhaps the language of my title is a little too strong), but find your own unique way of getting around them. And it's okay to do that, because that's what will make you stand out from everyone else.

Again, you have to learn the rules first. That's the only way you'll be able to tell if your personal choice of words in a specific passage is effective or just plain bad. But once you learn them, you don't have to feel bound by them.

The thing is, all readers are different. Some people will dismiss your book offhand if you deviate one millimeter from the accepted norm. But others will actually enjoy it, and some may enjoy it a whole heck of a lot. It's okay to write for those people rather than the college-professor types who make it their goal to point out all the imperfections in your work.

My Personal Experience With This

I'm discovering that I love backstory. I guess I've known this pretty much forever, but in the last couple of years I've begun looking at it from a writer's perspective, which is putting a whole new spin on things.

Regardless of what the rules may say, backstory is essential to your book. It's what gives the characters their depth and makes them feel like real people. It's what makes readers feel they've truly entered the world you're building for them. You have to have a backstory, the more extensive the better. The trick is how to weave the backstory into your narrative.

I've seen data dumps done badly. I've read books that spend the entire first chapter catching the reader up on what's gone before, and only then jumping into the actual action. Don't do that. It's not fun to read.

But the people who think they know about such things will tell you not to employ info dumps at all. That they interrupt the action and take the reader out of the character's head. Well, yeah, they do, but what I've found recently is that I actually like that in a book. As long as it's only a couple of paragraphs. As long as it's related to what's going on in the scene. And as long as we don't break POV by giving out information the point of view character couldn't possibly know. If all those rules are followed, then, yeah, I like info dumps. I like to hear the history of a certain building. I like to know that the recipe the main character's mom is cooking was passed down from her great-grandmother and has been given to every female member of the family on her twenty-first birthday for the past fifty years. I like being told upfront that the reason everyone is nervous around Weird Uncle Bob is because he just spent twelve years locked in a psych ward because he had some kind of breakdown one day and chased his wife down the street with a pool skimmer. I want to know those things, and I don't mind if the action is put on hold for a little while so the author can fill me in on all the juicy details.

Make Restraint Your Guiding Principle

Like I said before, you don't want to get carried away. Limit it to a couple of paragraphs. Three at the most. Make sure it's related to what's already happening in the story. In other words, don't tell me about Weird Uncle Bob until he actually shows up at a family gathering. And please don't break POV. Tell me what your characters already know, and nothing else. If you only have one POV character, you will be very limited in what you can reveal. Stay within those limits.

And it bears repeating...always, always learn the rules before you try to break them.

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