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Saturday, August 29, 2015

Let's Break Some Rules

I’ve always been someone who wants to know the rules and then do my best to follow them. When it comes to writing fiction, however, I honestly don’t think there are any rules. Oh, there are methods of writing that are preferred, and there are guidelines to follow which are especially helpful when you’re starting out. But hard, fast, break-em-and-you-go-to-writer’s-prison rules? Not so much.


You won't end up in writer jail. Really.
Have you ever been writing, moving along at a good clip, and then you hit a wall. You know exactly what you want to do, but it’s against the rules. So you stop, and you backtrack, and you try to figure out another way. Before you know it, nothing feels right, no words will come. You’re stuck.

What if, instead of worrying about the rules, you just break them? Not all the time, and not all the rules (there are rules of grammar and punctuation that really shouldn’t be messed with). If the thought of breaking through those boundaries makes you nervous, consider some of these “rules” and examples of authors who’ve broken them quite successfully.

Write in a Consistent POV/Tense
In his novel, The Martian, Andy Weir starts off in the POV of stranded astronaut Mark Watney. Mark is dictating to his personal log, so it’s first person, present tense. This goes on for about the first quarter of the book. Then, we switch over to the folks on earth, so it’s third person, past tense. There’s even a chapter that’s omniscient, as we learn about the life of a piece of material. It’s all over the place, but it works. It keeps the tension going. I dare you to put this book down. And, by the way, this is Weir’s first novel.

Head Hopping
This has become something of the cardinal sin of fiction writing. Believe it or not, there are authors who do this on a regular basis. For example, in her Parasol Protectorate series, Gail Carriger hops into whichever head makes the most sense. I will admit, I found it jarring at first, but when I realized it was done by choice, not by lack of skill (because she does it quite skillfully) I went along for quite an enjoyable, engaging ride.

Make Your Writing Accessible
A more pejorative way of putting this is “dumb it down.” The idea being, write to the lowest common denominator, and thereby widen your possible readership. I have two words: Michael Crichton. Crichton filled his novels with more factual science than most people absorb in a lifetime, and it didn’t seem to hurt his sales. I believe that people in general, especially people who love to read, want to be challenged. They want to learn and grow. If they can do that while being entertained, then even better.

Rule breaking isn’t for everybody, and it isn’t for every situation. If you write category romances, you won’t please your editor by turning in a manuscript that shifts from present tense to past tense, first person to third. It’s interesting to note that the rule-breakers I cited above all write science fiction, fantasy, and/or steampunk… genres that by their very definitions break rules and push boundaries. But we can still learn something from them, even if our own writing must follow a predetermined structure. Just for fun, pick a rule and break it. Consider it an exercise to stretch your creative muscles. Don’t stop to edit yourself, don’t take time to “fix” it. Just write for at least fifteen minutes. You may be surprised at what you end up with.

What do you think? Ready to break some rules?

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Jennifer AlLee was born in Hollywood, California, and grew up above a mortuary one block away from the famous intersection of Hollywood & Vine. Now she lives in the grace-filled city of Las Vegas, which just goes to prove she’s been blessed with a unique life. When she’s not busy spinning tales, she enjoys playing games with friends, attending live theater and movies, and singing at the top of her lungs to whatever happens to be playing on Pandora. Although she’s thrilled to be living out her lifelong dream of being a novelist, she considers raising her son to be her greatest creative accomplishment. You can visit her on Facebook, Pinterest, or her website.

3 comments:

Ane Mulligan said...

I used to follow all the rules implicitly. Then, once I knew the groundwork for good writing, I understood when and how to break the rules to make the prose sing. It's a bit like the moderation principle. Use an adverb or adjective instead of a strong verb when the sentence flows better. And vice versa. Write to make the scene give a visual. :) Good article, Jennifer!

Maria Decosta said...

Good. And it teaches us something new about. thank you very much.
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Jennifer AlLee said...

Ane, there is so much about writing that we learn simply from doing it. That's part of what I love about it!