♦Welcome to another edition of the Open Book Blog Hop!♦
What generic ‘rules’ did you abide by when you
started writing that have gone out the window?
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Rules exist for very good reasons. That never means they shouldn’t be questioned, revised, and outright challenged. If writing remained rigidly dogmatic in its execution, many of the great writers we enjoy reading would never be known to us today. The greatest writers have always challenged the rules and expectations of literature. It is our legacy, thanks to them.
This is not to excuse those who do whatever they please and fail. It is their right to do so, but no one should expect to be successful unless they are truly executing something with skill that questions the status quo of writing. Writer beware. Shakespeare totally made up words. He succeeded, and that made up stuff is common vernacular today. How did he manage that? It made sense and had meaning. That’s how it works. Literature may say you cannot make up words, but linguistics shows that is how words are made and thus language is a living construct. When you work within the general conventions, push the limits, you will be fine. If you flagrantly defy expectations, you set fire to your wings, Icarus, and you crash to the ground.
Yes, not all who dare will fall. Studying the things they have done, however, reveals a more calculated and skillful defection from the expectations of writing. In literature, we call it a device. Writing badly, such as ignoring grammatical rules and the like, is not a literary device. Writing phonetic dialogue is. A typo cannot be excused as device. If you don’t know and understand the rules you purport to break, then you are showing ignorance of the rule not defiance.
Defying the parameters of genre entirely is often a bridge too far also, unless one executes it with skill. That is why some authors seem they can do no wrong, while others who make the attempt fail so boldly. You can certainly try to push the limits and barriers, but if you ignore the expectations, you are likely to fail. You may say someone has to be first. Yes, they do, but they have to do it with skill and purpose. A display of open disdain for a genre will alienate the readers. It will create doubt that the writer knows their genre. It will fall out as ill-formed.
Certainly a writer can defy genre, cross-genre, and attempt to create something new. What that requires is skill. One must understand which bridges are too far just yet, and make the journey by routes navigable by the readers they intend to bring to their new city. You won’t attract any visitors when you make your work a crime against writing.
My rules were simply this, be defiant but within reason. Write the stories you have to tell. Understand how genre and writing work. How do you do that? You read. Devour other writers’ work. Study writing. Read criticism on writing. Ask why certain devices work and why some have become passé. Explore with the intent of gaining skills. Play the game with the confidence of someone who knows what they are doing, not the new comer who just doesn’t want to comply with well-established rules. If you have no good reason to defy, you risk looking foolish. That’s why Rules Are For Fools. Rules exist to prevent foolish and arbitrary acts in writing.
Why, though, do I back rules? Because comprehension requires meeting expectation. Miscommunication happens when the intertext is unknown, or the signs and symbols or language are unknown. When you mis-punctuate, you alter the meaning. When you use the wrong words, you change the meaning. Shakespeare had purposeful reason to do so and he did not do it across his work. He used it exactly in the moment he needed it to work for him. However, if the audience doesn’t understand this, the device fails. You must work within the expectations of the audience.
This is exactly why memes are glorious. They’re signs and symbols and intertext. An internet meme communicates an idea broadly, often mocking players behind the meaning. It exposes contradiction if not hypocrisy. It functions. If your attempt is dysfunctional, it is a failure and should be abandoned. So insisting is to the editor that points that out is foolhardy. Seek more information and a solution that will work for your writing. Obstinance doesn’t serve a writer, expanding and fine-tuning one’s skill does.
That’s another rule I have. Be open to criticism (not the kind that just declares you the worst writer ever or personally attacks you). Criticism should lead you to perfecting skills and your work. If it doesn’t do that, it’s just bullying. Writers, however, can be prickly on that topic. I get sensitive too! It IS tough to hear your hard work isn’t working out as intended. Should you get that news at the edit phase, you’re super lucky. You have an opportunity to perfect. How much stronger will your work become if you take that opportunity?
Pride is an awful destroyer of accomplishments. It either exposes the enlarged ego, or it prevents greatness altogether. Rules are for fools who cannot get around their heads to see the opportunities presented. Never make your writing about fame. By that I mean, don’t seek notoriety before you have earned it. Being a writer means being a skilled artisan. The works are the point. Absolutely, when skilled, you deserve to earn your living this way. However, seeking celebrity status puts you in front of the work that should be the point. It ceases to be about writing, turning authorship into a cheap device.
Successful authors manage to maintain their writing as the front of what they do, regardless of how they rise up. The works remain more important than them, along with the contributions to the artform. They do not treat literature cheaply. It is exactly what matters and is the point of why they exist.
My general rules, therefore are: obey grammar unless you have a specific purpose to do otherwise, which can be both defended and understood. Obey genre, but test the limits in ways that make sense. Learn from criticism, so you are the best writer you can be at that time. Do not seek validation for yourself in the public sphere; the books are the point. If you can monetize your art, remember the above rules to keep your work quality and contributing to the artform we love.
I’ve maintained these rules throughout my writing career. All that’s gone out the window for me is the idea of what a writer is and does as universal. I’ve abandoned the notion that I am not doing it right; that writing every single day to a certain number of words doesn’t make you better (but it can make you bitter). I’ve learned to listen instead of getting upset. Without listening and exploring we never improve our craft–criticism is a good thing (and now I know what it actually looks like–I’m side-eyeing the bullies). This adventure takes a lifetime, and the twenty-something prodigy almost always burns out before their 40s. Putting out multiple books a year may work for some but generally speaking it gluts the market with weak writing that pushes readers away shrinking the literary market exponentially.
One last thing…write what you know. If you don’t know it and want to write it, then learn it.
Now, hop on over to see what the other authors have to say about this topic. You’ll be thankful you did!
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Stevie Turner says
All your rules are good. I also do not write a standard amount of words per day. I only write when I feel like it, which is better!
Captain Maiel says
I’m definitely a ‘use what you can and leave the rest’ type of person as far as rules. Some really do exist just to be a pain. I also only write when I feel like it. I don’t see any sense in forcing it. That only gives me a lot more to fix later.
phil huston says
You can learn something from anyone. Out of the mouths of babes, so to speak. Bear with me, though, this is not a criticism, but a curiosity, because I see authors discussing it all the time and I see you have made a study of this.
Genre, to me, is the most disgusting, vapid, empty word in the English language. The same, sorry, but genre-bending is another phrase as useless to me as “basically.” There are x number of plots, a million ways to dress them. Bonanza and Star Trek are the same show in different costumes. So is the good guys bad guys adventure formula the genre or is it how they dress? Is the Agatha Christie low key procedural the genre or is it the costumes? Is a cozy on Foonblat 14 the same as a cozy in a turn of the century estate? I am not being facetious. To me, story is story. If one needs salt shakers turned into phazers instead of six guns, is that the key? ScyFy is a genre, not a costume change drama from a Western? Procedurals are procedurals. So is the authenticity of the set what’s at stake in “genre”? It seems to be. What would Cussler or that lot be without the alphabet soup of agencies? Where’s the line between fantasy and scyfy and the simpler concept of dystopia? Sorry, but I don’t get it. And even in this group, there are noises about “my work doesn’t fit in a given pigeonhole.” Well good. To me there are only stories. There ain’t a new one out there, only costume changes for the adventures.
Captain Maiel says
No worries. I don’t mind questions like this at all. You’re right, there are just stories, and each has a different set and dressing. Yes, that is the heart of genre. There are themes that it often addresses as well. And all the questions you ask are part of theory studies around genre.
One of my favorite professors once said…theory is only as valid as you make it (meaning its as much bunk as it is serious). Genre is only as valid as readership makes it. The expectations of readers and the literary world are what makes anything ‘a thing.’ Readers can be very ‘married’ to the idea of genre and what they believe makes up their favorite genre. Understanding what readers expect and what is accepted in the larger literary group is helpful for many writers. If it’s useful to you, either as a means to help you structure or defy convention, you use it.
P.J. MacLayne says
Be defiant within reason. I like that. Luckily, we all get to define what ‘reason’ is for ourselves!
Captain Maiel says
If you make it work, no one will ever criticize you as much as they will praise you! It can be quite the crapshoot.