Were Rules Really Made to be Broken?

Rule breakers make me crazy. Oh, not the ones who do something so blatantlyagainst the norm, there’s a number for it in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, for those of you who have managed to escape this psychiatrictome). Perhaps there will someday be a diagnosis for writers who gomad deciding whether to follow “The Rules” or to break them. I imagine I willqualify. It’s not that I don’t know the rules. I have bookshelves filled with writingbooks containing them according to various authors. The first problem is thatthere are lots of rules, many of which contradict one other. Words like, “never,”“always,” “do,” and “don’t,” remind me of being in parochial school where therules were easy. Someone else told you what to do and if you did it, you’d stayout of trouble. Of course, you’d never have an original thought, but that’s a topicfor another day. Elmore Leonard shared ten great rules for writing in a often- quoted NewYork Times article, “Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and EspeciallyHooptedoodle.” It’s hard to argue with a writer as terrific and prolific as Leonard,especially when his tenth rule is to leave out the part that writers tend to skip. Buthis admonitions to “avoid detailed descriptions of characters” and not to “go intogreat detail describing places and things” are easily argued against when yourecall books where doing both of those things resulted in great pleasure anderudition for the reader. If I didn’t describe the natural beauty and cultural charmof St. John in my books, I think I would be cheating my readers. Stephen King’s memoir On Writing is one of my favorite writing books.King has listed twenty rules for writing. All of them make sense to me. Who canargue with Stephen King? Then there are those authors who say there are no rules in writing. Myfavorite gem is from Ernest Hemingway. “There is no rule on how to write.Sometimes it comes easily and perfectly; sometimes it’s like drilling rock and thenblasting it out with charges.” I like the notion I can be liberated from rules, until Ifind myself in a tough spot where I don’t what to do and resist taking chances.Maybe that comes from years, more than a decade really, of trying to getpublished. I heard more advice from agents, editors, and published authors aboutwhat I needed to do to get published than could fit in one book on writing, if Iwere ever inclined to write one. Now that I am published, I still struggle with the question about whether tofollow the rules, especially when authors manage to leap to the top of the bestsellers’ lists by breaking rules. Gillian Flynn (You’ve heard of Gone Girl?) andWilliam Landay (Defending Jacob) both created unreliable narrators and flew offthe charts. Now, use of an unreliable narrator is not only acceptable, it hasbecome a norm if you look at what books are selling big and being made intomovies. The Girl on the Train is the best example. I recently read The Widow by Fiona Barton (not to be confused with TheWidower’s Wife by our own Miss Demeanor, Cate Holahan), a very clever debutthat made the New York Times bestseller list and earned a blurb from StephenKing. Barton wrote from the point of view of four characters (the widow, thedetective, the reporter and the husband), which is not uncommon, but two of thecharacters were in first person and the other two in the third. I can see editorsshaking their heads. What Barton did next would give an editor a neck rotationout of the Exorcist. She jumped back and forth from 2006 to 2010, chapter tochapter, challenging her readers’ concentration at the very least, but risking thecriticism of writing authorities everywhere. As I read the book, I was reminded of the time my first agent “suggested” Irewrite the protagonist’s story in the third person rather than the first person. Shegave her reasons, including citing some “rules.” I complied, wanting desperatelyfor my story to be published, gritting my teeth as I became distanced from acharacter I had previously felt close to. The book never sold, and although I cannever be sure why, I do wonder if it became a different book when I acquiescedto a recommendation so intrinsic. To break the rules or not? How many writers have their books sitting inslush piles because they ignored the rules? I think it may come down to knowingthe rules and being able to recognize when the risk presents a genuineopportunity to be creative, rather than a gimmick. Gimmicks don’t last. Goodwriting does.       




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