Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Monday, November 08, 2010

Not Me!

By Jeff Savage

When I was in school (you know back before computers, DVDs, whiteboards, felt tip pens, cars, fire. Okay maybe not that long ago, but you get the idea) I was often accused of thinking that the rules everyone else had to follow didn’t apply to me. I talked in class without being called on. I stared out the window and daydreamed. I had swordfights with dull scissors. I left school grounds to look for fossils during recess. I wrote on my desk. I taped up a sign that said class had been canceled due to a heating failure.

This didn’t help my grades (or my mother’s health) most of the time. My teachers constantly told me how much better I would be doing if I just paid attention and followed the rules. Interestingly enough, many of the things that got me in trouble in class have helped me in my writing. Having a vivid imagination, envisioning epic battles, having way too much to say, and a desire to explore unknown territory are great ways to come up with creative story ideas.

Not coloring inside the lines can be great for an author. But just as it was a detriment in school, believing that the rules don’t apply to you as an author can have disastrous results.

It might sound like I’m speaking out of both sides of my mouth (an expression I’ve never completely understood since speaking out of only one side of your mouth makes you seem odd at the least, and highly suspicious of some nefarious activity at the worst.) How can not following the rules be both good and bad?

Thinking differently is a good way to find a new perspective. When I was imaging Demon Spawn, I started with the basic assumption most people have that angels are good and demons are bad—with humans falling somewhere in between. But what if you saw the world through the eyes of the demons? Might angels be bad? How would demons view Hell—their home—and the humans damned to spend eternity there? Not sticking with the usual rules helped me see things if a different light.

But one thing I see a lot as I teach writing classes and attend conferences is people who believe the things they are being taught don’t apply to them. Prologues don’t usually work? Mine does. Beginning your story with a dream sequence is a bad idea? Mine doesn’t count. Head-hopping within the same chapter or section is generally a bad idea? But look at this great author or that one who got away with it.

We agree with the rules that we followed in our books, but the ones we broke are really more like suggestions. It’s okay for us to break them, because they don’t apply to us.

Here’s the thing. Every rule has been broken by a good author who knows what they are doing. I recently read, “You,” which is written in present tense, second person. “You see this. You do that.” See what your creative writing teacher thinks of that idea. I’ve read books by famous authors that start with flashbacks, dreams, flowery descriptions. I’ve read books where absolutely nothing happens for the first hundred pages. If you want to disagree with a writing rule, you can find an example of pretty much anything.

Sports are the same way. There are amazing basketball shooters who launch the ball off balance, from one side of their body, while falling away. There are batters who stick their elbow out, or bounce their arm up and down while the pitcher is throwing the ball. There are quarterbacks that throw sidearm. Superstars break all the rules and get away with it. Does that mean coaches should teach young athletes to imitate those styles?

Those athletes get away with these flaws because they are so incredible. They succeed despite the fact that they are “doing it wrong.” They’ve managed to teach themselves to hit the ball or make the shot, while compensating for the errors that you or I could not get away with. If we tried to imitate them, we’d fail miserably.

Can you break a rule and still write a great book? Of course. Does that mean you should ignore the rules? Definitely not. If you fill a chapter with back story and infodumps, 99.9 times out of a hundred you are wrong. Can you make it work? Maybe, but the odds are hugely stacked against you. The rules are there for a reason. Before you break them, ask yourself if there is any way you can avoid it. Do you really need that flashback on page two? Even if it will probably get your novel rejected? Is your story really strong enough to survive a protagonist that doesn’t learn and grow during the story?

Breaking rules is inevitable, and sometimes it is the right thing to do. But the rules are there because the vast majority of the time, breaking them will make your story worse, not better. Every time you are tempted to break the rules, do three things.

1) Make sure you understand what the rule is and why it is there in the first place.

2) Examine your story and see if there is a way to accomplish what you want without breaking the rule.

3) Try writing your prose while keeping the rule and see which version your beta readers like better.

If after all that, you still want to break the rule, go ahead and swing away. Just make sure you hit the ball.


At 11/09/2010 1:11 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post, as usual, my generous and awesome author friend. Can I add to your abundance, that a lot of pro athletes may shoot off balance or throw side arm now and again, once in a while, but its the exception rather than the rule. The rest of the time they are doing it just how their little league coaches taught them. By the book, within the rules, from years and years of practicing the fundamentals of the game.

Should an author think they are any different. They used to talk about how Fred Astair (sp?) danced with total perfection. They said he spent so many thousands and thousands of hours rehearsing every step, every nuance of his stride, every turn and bend, that he made difficult things appear to be simple. Isn't that what the "rules" are, really? Techniques for writing great novels that you practice and practice until you're really good at them. In fact, so good, that they appear to be easy and simple and within the reach of everyone.

Rule breakers, often, aren't really rule breakers as much as they are lazy. Who wants to spend years and years perfecting techniques when you can just throw it on the page. There is a very thin line between rule breaking and laziness.

At 11/09/2010 3:18 PM, Blogger Debra Erfert said...

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At 11/09/2010 3:18 PM, Blogger Debra Erfert said...

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At 11/09/2010 3:22 PM, Blogger Debra Erfert said...

I always colored inside the lines. And unless I knew-absolutely knew that I knew the answer to a question I never raised my hand-or my eyes-to the teacher. I didn't talk in class, and I never saw the inside of the principal’s office for discipline. I was painfully introverted.

From early childhood I always followed the rules, and I have to say, learning the proper techniques of writing fiction has been the hardest adventure I've ever attempted. Finding knowledgeable sources is extremely difficult-but not impossible. It’s a slow process, but with every new rule I discover how logical and exciting writing a story can be. I’m still waiting patiently on the rewarding part.

At 11/09/2010 4:58 PM, Blogger Michael Knudsen said...

Agreed. We should earn the confidence to break the rules, by succeeding within them. The "next level" for us might eventually involve abandoning those rules. Or maybe that's just my conservative, follower self talking.

At 11/10/2010 10:58 AM, Blogger Jon Spell said...

My problem is that I have a contrary nature. I see certain rules and I don't want to just break them, I want to twist them.

For example, I want a character I've just introduced to look into a mirror, then not make any comment about their own features in it.

I'd have to agree with you (grudgingly) Best to follow the rules first, learn WHY the rules are there, then develop your own style. There's a reason why a story told like Memento is discouraged. It's confusing! (But powerful in small doses.)

At 11/10/2010 11:46 AM, Blogger Charlie Moore said...

I agree with you, Jon. Rules have their place and their reason, but I believe placing boundaries on creativity makes some people who may be very good not want to try. Rules in most facets of life are in place for a reason and should be respected. In writing, perhaps these should be considered as guidelines that have worked. Give creativity a chance. What may be sour apples to one reader may be sweet honey to another.
Jeff, this is not meant to disagree with your post. Simply offering my thoughts.


At 11/10/2010 12:04 PM, Blogger Debra Erfert said...


When you said, "Give creativity a chance. What may be sour apples to one reader may be sweet honey to another," sounds good to me, but how does it read to a literary agent when you've never had anything published? My query letter may never get past his circular file. Wouldn't it be better to follow those well-defined guidelines and get established before letting my hair down, sort to speak?

At 11/10/2010 2:26 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Everyone here, I'm assuming, is an author. And you're looking at the rules as a means of restricting your creativity. That's fair. No one likes to be told how to execute their craft, even if it will save you time, pain, and waste. Sort of like the apprentice baker who wants to bake bread without yeast, the new cinematic actress in cinema who just came over from Broadway and uses melodramatic facial expressions the director insists makes her look silly on camera or the new mechanic at Jiffy Lube who tries the really cool translucent red transmission fluid in your crank case. It usually ends badly for everyone.

First, we should probably call a rule what it really is—a writing technique that clearly communicates your creative ideas to the reader. Techniques weren't invented to make the author's life miserable. They were developed over centuries of writers figuring out how readers best receive their writing. Writing techniques are the accepted, approved, typical, needed, liked, enjoyed, preferred-by-the-reader vehicles for communicating your creative ideas to the reader. They are based on feedback about the presentation. They are, really, the reader telling you how they best understand your story. They spring forth, not from the author's need to create or tell a story, but from the readers need to understand and enjoy that story. The reader does not share your brain. The reader comes to your story without any pre-ordained ideas about that story. They haven't plotted your story. They haven't peopled your story. They know nothing about your story except possibly the genre. Or maybe what they read on the blurb. The rest is hidden deep in the recesses of your brain and the writing techniques are simply the behind-the-scenes format that will allow you to be understood by the reader. And your first job as an author is to be understood! So violate the technical "rules" all you want, but know that you run the risk of failing in your primary objective.

Think of the "rules" more as a means to communicating your creativity. Techniques are not creative. They are static. They don't change much. Technical "rules" are the semi truck, your creativity is the cargo. The rules are the UPS jet cargo plane, your creative story are the packages inside. Technique minimizes confusion while creativity drives interest in your story. They are symbiotic. They are friends. They are complimentary not in opposition.

Technique is a miracle of story-telling history. It’s been refined over centuries by story tellers getting feedback from readers, and then returning to their writing tables to hone their “communication” skills so that their stories are both creative and easy to understand. They author who appreciates the symbiotic relationship between technique and creativity is the author who appears to write a compellingly inventive novel so effortlessly, after years of practice, trial and error with the myriad of techniques they have mastered in their bag of writing techniques a, that every reader says to themselves. "Gosh, that looks so simple, anyone could do it."

And that's exactly what you want your writing to look like. So technically CLEAR and UNDERSTOOD yet so brilliantly creative, that the reader is at once thrilled with the story, and so unaware of the careful technical clarity that they assume writing a novel is a simple task for anyone.

At 11/10/2010 3:54 PM, Blogger Rebecca Talley said...

Excellent post, Jeff. We have rules for a reason. The better we undestadn them, the better our storytelling.

Anonymous makes great points as well. If we read a book that makes it look so eaay, odds are that author has used techniques that make the writing invisible and only the story shines through. That's something I hope to accomplish someday.


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