Monday, February 13, 2012

Writing Rules Don't Matter.

CONTEST REMINDER: We think pretty highly of the novel around here, and from your devotion to reading and developing craft, it's clear you do too. We're dedicating this year to answering the question: Why does the novel matter? Answer that question with panache and you just might win a Kindle Touch. Read rules here.
Writing is words rather than paint on the canvas. Art created with pen rather than brush (oh, okay with computer). It is the burden of the artist-writer to be clear about meaning.

And there are rules for how to do that. Rules of writing. Rules of expressing the human condition with clarity and depth of meaning.

Writers sometimes complain about these rules. How they are too rigid and interfere with the creative process.

Maybe. But, honestly, I don’t think so. How do we get away from the fact that the art of writing is governed by the rules of language? And the really funny thing about these rules—they change.

Oh fickle finger of fate. Okay, not fate so much as us and our fickle way of talking. We change and our language changes with us, sometimes in spite of our best efforts. Have you read Dickens lately? Austen? Oh so very different from today. Multiple POV, sometimes within the same sentence. Tsk tsk. Modern no-nos, but back then it was the norm.

I suspect one of the reasons writers squirm under the pressure of writing rules is because they are so shifting, so uncertain.

So, what if we decided to forget about rules and focus instead on tools?

This is more than a semantic difference.

Rules tell you that you can't run in the hallways. Tools suggest that, should you find yourself in a hallway, there are numerous and various way in which you can choose to travel it. Rules set the boundaries (the hallway is this wide, this long), tools help you decide if you will take on its length on foot, in a canoe, or riding a giant ice cube sliding down a plastic tarp.
The more writing tools you own, the less the constraints of rules matter to you.
Your job then becomes to get to know your tools intimately so that you are able to choose which is the best one for any given job.

In Roy Peter Clark’s book on writing called Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer, he outlines four basic sets of tools every writer should master:

1. Nuts and bolts: working at the word, sentence, and paragraph levels.
2. Special effects: tools of economy (a cherished commodity in the world of modern publishing), clarity, originality, and persuasion.
3. Blueprints: organizing and building stories.
4. Useful habits: routines for productive writing.

What I like about these tools is while they suggest a need to respect the rules, they are more focused on keeping the creative juices flowing and producing a work of excellence than on ensuring the writer adheres to a checklist.

Art isn’t close your eyes and create. We know this. Art is hard work, dedicated time, and great effort. Having a full toolbox helps us in everyway. Sure, we know the rules. Now, which tool do we have at our disposal that will set the rule on fire? That can blaze a trail so deep and wide that the rules are rewritten? (Insert evil grin here).

Is there a writing rule that imprisons your writing in some way? Are you sensing it’s time for a trip to the metaphorical hardware store? Have you found a tool that helps you “put the screws” to the rules? Share! As always, we love to hear from you.


LeAnne Hardy said...

An excellent way of looking at it. When I edit, I try to write my comments in terms of "this change will help you to more effectively accomplish your goal", but the language of tool rather than rule will be very helpful. Thanks.

Patti Hill said...

Is this why I love the hardware store so much? All those clever tools! Hanging on the display, they're so friendly, helpful, and ready to please. Yes, tools are very nice. Rules make me stuff my knuckles into my pockets.

Cynthia Ruchti said...

The painting/sketching/sculpting art has "rules" that are better described as tools, too. The location of the light source in the room will dictate (ooh! dictate!) where the shadows fall. Messing with that truth messes with the beauty and the way the painting communicate--confusion or resonance. Applying those kinds of tools to my writing helps me create resonance.

Bonnie Grove said...

LeAnne: I like how you're applying this to editing with gentle assurance. Thanks for that perspective.

Patti: You like the hardware store for so many reasons! I bristle at rules, too.

Cynthia: So true. There are so many things to keep in balance while writing a novel that without rules we would all wander onto the highway and get run over by an eighteen wheeler. There are rules that exist because of beauty. How we want to play with the rules will often depend on how adept we are at whielding various tools of the trade. Thanks for that!

Cherry Odelberg said...

"The more writing tools you own, the less the constraints of rules matter to you.
Your job then becomes to get to know your tools intimately so that you are able to choose which is the best one for any given job."

This is sooooooooo good. (And so true of other things. Like, Music, for instance)

Bonnie Grove said...

Cherry: Yes to music. It is storytelling too. I guess all forms of art are really different forms of storytelling.

Eulie Cienfuegos said...

As with many stories, a good portion of my most recent novel, At Tildy's Thrift, depends on dialog to tell the story. A tool I found helpful was to channel real, human conversations. We speak in ways that allow us to connect with our audience, and that's how our characters should speak as well!