Thursday, September 9, 2010

On Breaking the Rules

First, to all my he-bros (and... she-he-bros?) out there: !שנה טובה Here's to everyone getting inscribed in the Book of Life (and, if there is one, the Book of Representation by an Awesome Agent).

Speaking of books: when writing yours, you may be tempted to break the rules. While the rules are neither inscribed in an all-encompassing cosmic book nor universally accepted across the board, there are certain conventions, dos/don'ts, and guidelines that I think most writers have heard somewhere along the line (e.g. show, don't tell; maintain a stable point of view; don't write in the second person; clearly plot the rising action, climax, and dénouement; and so on).

Now, plenty of authors have broken one or all of the above rules, as well as many more that were hammered into you in seventh grade English class that I've failed to list. The reason the likes of James Joyce, Toni Morrison, and E.E. Cummings got away with breaking these rules is a simple one: they learned to follow—and mastered—the rules long beforehand.

It may be tempting for you to write a stream-of-consciousness second-person novel in dialect as your very first oeuvre, but I respectfully suggest you start with the basics. If you attempt calculus before you've figured out algebra, you're going to fail the final exam that is representation. Learn to walk before you learn to run, or you'll trip and smash your face on the cold, hard curb of the query process. (Are these proverbs and analogies working for you yet?)

Most good writers who have gone on to produce truly inventive and unique work generally started out with your basic short story or novel; most good poets who have done the same learned to master rhyme and meter before they began to work outside it. You, too, gentle readers and writers, should do the same until you've not only mastered the rules as written, but understand why those rules exist in the first place. If you break a rule without knowing why, you're bound to break it the wrong way.

Tomorrow: return of the round-up!


  1. Great point, to put it in another perspective, look at the art Pablo Picasso. He is probably better known for his more abstract pieces, but he started as a more traditional portrait artist.

    Search for his portrait of Gertrude Stein. Then search for Guernica.

    And as a side note, when he first completed the Stein portrait, someone commented that Stein did not look like the painting. Picasso's reply: "She will." And in time, she did.

  2. Kind of like buying clothes for kids that are a little too big so that they'll be longer growing out of them...

  3. Yes, good advice here. As a rule follower (blaming Sister St. Cornelia), maybe I could go out there and break something. :)

    How about s(he)-bros?

  4. I agree. Mostly. But point of view is the rule that is most reasonably broken de novo. Joseph Conrad may have written some simple things, but ALL that we remember him for are his impressionistic novels with shifting and multiple points of view. Similarly Faulkner. And as far as starting out following the rules, Orson Welles arguably made only one great movie, his first and maybe everyone's greatest, Citizen Kane. It broke most of the rules then applicable to movies, particularly point of view. It is said that Welles broke the rules because he never learned them in the first place, but true or not, the greatness of Citizen Kane is largely in its approach to point of view. So, I would humbly suggest that point of view is the one rule you mentioned that can safely be broken.

  5. I completely agree with you on that front... Hence why I'm actually taking Creative Writing classes in school.

    Granted, experimenting with what works and what doesn't can help someone self teach themselves the rules with a bunch of failures so they learn how to break them properly. :)

  6. @thestoren POV issues are indeed common in my clients' work, but the #1 rule-failure among new writers is easily "Show, don't Tell." Learning how to properly _show_ is something that, it seems, doesn't come immediately to most writers.

    I have a blog post that expands on PNM's theme, although in a rather more heretical fashion, here:

  7. I'm fine with she-bro:)

    Oh please, don't compare this to algebra. Ick!

    I'm trying not to break rules but I have this nagging fear there is some rule somewhere that I'm breaking in a big way but don't know it.

  8. Completely agree! As a rule worshiper, I actually have a had time reading books that have broken most or all of the rules. The rules are there for a reason. Follow them.

  9. In order to NOT break the rules, one must first learn WHAT the rules are. This comes with research, reading, writing, reading, sharing, reading and reading. Who knew there were so many of them? Who knew it would be so hard to master them? It's sooo easy to say the hell with it and do what you want, but it's sooo much better if what you want is brilliant writing.

    Now that I've said my piece as vaguely as possible. Learn the rules peeps!

  10. But it makes you wonder if they were really breaking the rules or not. Who says the were?

  11. Rules were made to be broken. :p

    Kind of like water balloons.