Monday, May 3, 2010

"The Rules" of writing

I was the published author of four novels when I had a conversation like this with a well-known author who had read one of my novels for endorsement.

Published author with MILLIONS of books in print: "Harry, you're breaking the rules here a bit."
I leaned a little closer and lowered my voice. I didn't want everyone to know about my ignorance. "What rules are you talking about?"
He smiled and seemed to weigh his words. "Don't be afraid to read what the teachers are writing." (Admittedly, this seasoned and successful novelist was gentle with me. He could have been more direct, but instead urged me "Don't be afraid.")
My experience is far from typical. I was a chief resident in surgery, a reader, and a lover of fiction when I decided to pen my first novel. I was naive. What qualifications did I have? How could I dare assume that I could start and complete a task of such enormity when I hadn't been schooled? (Oh, I'd been schooled all right, just not in writing. I'd been through four years of college, four years of medical school and nearly five years of general surgery training by then...notice the absence of a creative writing course!)
In those early days, I wrote happily on, ignoring the "rules" because I wasn't aware of them. Blissfully unaware.
Of course, in order to get published, I did have a knack for it (I would say a gift). I followed enough of the rules in order to get it right enough to interest a publisher. I understood plot, building suspense, cliff-hanging a reader, sub-plots, layering, and a bit about characterization and romance.
At the time of my conversation with the well-known author (ok, if you've read this far, I'll reward you with his name: Frank Peretti), I had signed a contract to deliver a novel that I hadn't written yet (The Chairman). Getting a contract before a book was written was new for me. Because of my career as a surgeon, I'd always had the luxury of writing what I wanted, and then showing it to my publisher. After four novels, I let a publisher know about a project I wanted to write and I was almost immediately offered a contract. This was new to me, but industry standard.
So I called my editor at Crossway Books and told him about the conversation. "We know you're breaking some of the rules," he said, "but as long as you don't take your reader out of the story, it's OK."
Basically, I'd done enough of the process correctly (followed most of the "rules") that the ones I bent didn't matter that much. But that didn't mean there wasn't room for improvement. The stuff I was doing wrong was the kind of stuff a seasoned novelist would immediately notice, but my general readership didn't seem to mind.
I went to the bookstore and discovered a wealth of books on all aspects of writing novel-length fiction. I read Penelope Stokes, Sol Stein and James N. Frey among others. Fiction teachers talk about openings, characters, reigning in unruly prose, tension, stakes, and point of view (for me, the point of view teaching was particularly helpful and was an area where I'd been bending the rules).
As I read, I was assaulted by doubts. Can I do this?
Remember, at that point, I all ready had four novels published and was holding a contract for number five. Nonetheless, knowing "the rules" upped the stakes for me. Now, if I broke the rules I'd be doing so knowingly (and that, somehow is worse, isn't it....kind of like if you were brought up Catholic and ate a hotdog at a ballpark on a Friday when you thought it was a Thursday...much more forgivable than if you knew it was Friday and ate one anyway).
I put off the start of that fifth novel for several months and studied the craft. I could see that the rules were helpful, restrictive in a good sort of way, but also structured enough to make me a little anxious.
When I finally started my new novel, I was primed and studied. I could no longer approach the blank page (screen) with blissful ignorance, just letting the story come out. Remember what writer, Walter Wellesley "Red" Smith said about it? "There's nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein."
Hmmm. Sounds to me like you just sit down and let it flow.
That's what I'd done up to the point where I encountered "the rules." Now I had to pay attention to all of the things I'd been ignoring. Sure, I still "opened a vein," but now, I monitored the output, made sure I positioned the tubing and made the vena-puncture in just the right location.
So what are "the rules?"
Somerset Maugham said, "There are three rules to writing fiction. Unfortunately, no one can agree on what they are." Ha! So true.
And I'm sure we all realize that the rules aren't concrete. Especially over time. Readers change, and so the rules change on how to engage them. Readers from several generations ago weren't so video oriented. Pace was slower in life and on the page. I'm convinced that Herman Melville's classic, Moby Dick would have been heavily edited and shortened in order to find a willing publisher today.
The little things change as well. Stuff like always writing in complete sentences. Now, in modern fiction we can clip along and use run-on sentences for effect. It makes things move. Faster. Increasing pace.
See how I used run-on sentences for effect in the last paragraph?....the things we do now would have made English teachers from a generation ago get out the red pencil!
Back to the rules. Fiction teacher Donna Levin says it best: "Rules are statements about what has worked before." (Notice that her rule breaks a previous one we were told, "never end a sentence in a preposition.")
So "the rules" can help us. Example: Keep the point of view character the same for an entire scene. Don't "head hop" because the reader will get confused.
But it isn't set in stone. Occasionally, I see a seasoned novelist drop purposefully disobey this rule to build suspense: the point of view character is reported not to have noticed someone standing in the shadows. Remember, if you are in the head of your point of view character, you can't tell the reader what that character doesn't notice in the shadows.
Knowing the rules is helpful. You should know and if you intentionally break them, do it rarely and with understanding.
There are a few fiction teachers that have become my favorite. The techniques taught by Donald Maass can be considered "rules" but essentially they are just what Donna Levin says, "...what has worked...."
Now, I make a study of the craft a priority. I don't think I was arrogant in the beginning, felling like I didn't need outside help. It was just that I didn't take advantage of what was out there. If I'd have been rejected by publisher after publisher, perhaps I would have been forced to the teachers sooner. (I think that would have been a good thing).
Knowing "the rules" has made me a critical reader. Now, regardless of what I'm reading, I find myself watching for breaks in technique rules. I see the masters doing it all the time.
I may be tempted to get uppity about it, but I quickly remember that I did the same thing for a long time and that the masters are probably bending the rules knowingly. And I remember how gentle my first editors were with me, telling me that if I wasn't taking my readers out of the story, they'd let me get by with it.