Monday, June 13, 2011

Are You A Writing Lemming?

One of the things I find funny about writing, besides how many people are doing it, is the crazy amount of rules. There are published authors writing about rules. There are agents writing about rules. There are wannabes-galore writing about rules on blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and wherever. Rules. Rules. Rules.

Whatever happened to writing what works—what feels right?

I know that rules are important, but sometimes I feel like these rule makers are forcing me to be like everyone else, sound like everyone else. Not only that, they want me to pimp their rules on my blog or at writing group. The crappy part is, I do it—I’m a lemming.

It’s funny. I’ve stalked a few agents’ blogs in the past. The agent will tear a query letter apart, outlining what sucks about it, what rules were broken, and why he would reject. I would read these rejects line by line, absorbing what went wrong, hoping that when I was ready I would follow the rules and kick out an awesome query. I would apply these rules to my novel and struggle until my eyes bled just to get it perfect.

Then one day when I was scouring the blogs, I found an example of a query letter that broke all the rules. I knew it; I’ve been reading the blogs, studying the rules, so I knew the agent was going to rip it up. I kept reading, waiting for the attack, but it never happened. She loved it. Yes, it broke all the rules, but she didn’t care. She wanted to read more.

“I want to read more.”

Isn't that the phrase writers want to hear?

If you look at books on the NY Times Best Seller List there are many that are far from perfect. They break the rules. They use exclamation points, one too many adjectives, contrived plots, blah blah blah. But there are millions of people who want to read more. They are clawing, scratching, and digging their way to the bookstore to get the sequel.

Meanwhile, back in don’t-break-the-rules land, we mock these authors. We laugh at their use of punctuation, their overuse of adverbs, and whatever else we see wrong. I’m not sure if it’s because we think we’re better or if we just can’t get over these rule breakers. 

So what do you think? Is your writing bogged down with rules? Or are you a bad boy and following the voices in your head, exclamation points and all? Do you write what feels right no matter what? 


M.J. Fifield said...

Well, I don't love exclamation points and definitely am not a fan of adverbs (at least when used in dialogue tags) but I like to think that I am not a writing lemming. I write what I want to write and how I want to write it. If others don't like it, then I guess that's their loss.

mooderino said...

The thing about rules and guidelines is that they tend to focus on the peripheral stuff. If the story isn't interesting it doesn't matter how well you write. And if it's an engaging story, you can get away with writing like a six year old.

It's just easier to advise on punctuation than it is on ideas.

Moody Writing

Misty Provencher said...

I LOVE exclamation points!!! And I start sentences with conjunctions, often ending with prepositions if I want to. I misspell, I rarely use who or whom correctly and...I'm not going to stop any of it. I've fallen into the rule game. Sometimes I even hoist myself onto a big ol' soapbox to blah blah blah about them and end up breaking them myself, less than two sentences later. There's a fine line between breaking rules and not knowing them~ one to be walked in ballet shoes. Or, as I prefer, in cleats.

Julia Munroe Martin said...

Great post! I'm rarely bogged down in rules (in general I'm a rule breaker...but that's another story), but I do follow the serial comma rule (gotta have one!) -- perhaps my only staunch pet peeve in writing!

Donna Cummings said...

Rules are confining--LOL--and I think they've become an attempt to pinpoint why a certain story wasn't a page turner. And then the rule is used in a preventative manner ("no adverbs"; "show, don't tell"), in the hopes that the book WILL be a page turner. I think the most important rule to follow is "Thou Shalt Entertain the Reader". :) Any rules broken along the way after that don't seem to be noticed much.

Jessica A. Briones said...

All rules are meant to be broken and I am pretty sure I have broken all of them during my writing process. It's important to focus on the writing, the broken rules can be fixed when we edit...!

Rosemary Gemmell said...

Good post. It's one of the criticisms of university creative writing courses, that all the students start producing similar types of work - don't know if it's true, but it's been written about a lot!

Maybe it's like art - once you learn the basics, you can start breaking the rules. Individuality will always stand out, if the right person reads it.

Sarah McCabe said...

Oh, how I hate the propagation of rules in the writing blogosphere. To rules, I say, "Pshaw!" I'll use whatever adjective, adverbs and verbs I bloody well feel like if I think they fit and feel right. I'll be true to the story that I'm telling no matter what the "rules" say. And I'll be confident that I am the only one who knows the right way to tell the story in my soul and not listen to those who tell me I'm doing it wrong.

Stephanie said...

I love your blog; everything you write rings so true. I've thought these exact things about the rules. Who makes these rules anyway? Why do we have the rules in writing that we do? I think what the NY Times bestseller list shows us is the average reader doesn't know the rules, and they don't care about them. They care about a great story.

Elisabeth Hirsch said...

I've stifled myself with rules before, but hopefully blogging has broken me of that. I find that I can just be myself and let the words flow when I blog. It's liberating :0)

Julie Musil said...

So true. And what's worse is when the rules contradict each other. Sometimes I get so confused! I need to shut down the noise and just write the darn story :D

Diana said...

Great comments! Let's burn our writing bras in protest! (so liberating. I used two exclamation points in 9 words)

I think most of the rules are good, but we just need to keep them in mind later, in editing. Don't sweat it until we have to, right?

Marc said...

Great post! Loved every word and it probably broke some rules writing it, *gasp* :-D

I've been writing stories since I was 7 or 8, and every time I see some post about rules, I always get all self-conscious. I want to see if I'm doing things right, as one tends to do. When I read through and figure that I probably do all the things that this rule-stater says are correct and proper, I wipe the gallons of sweat from my forehead, and sigh, "Phew! Thank goodness I'm on the right track!"

Granted, we're in a very shaky economy, and I realize that publishers and agents probably aren't looking for things that are too "out there" that break too many molds or traditions of genre, syntax or vernacular. But at what point are publishers and agents just pandering to "the rules" and not thinking far enough outside the box to improve the quality of their clientele?

People say so much about rules, and I'm not enough of a rebel to say something cliche like "rules were meant to be broken."

But in all honesty...I don't think I've ever had any concrete "rules" in my head when composing any of the books I've written, and they've all been pretty epic. I've never sat at the keyboard and said, "shoot, what's step 4? Oh yeah, now I need to put a climax right here, to word my climax, which page in the manual is that...?" It's all just there. It all flows natural.

By the way...still love the game Lemmings, on the computer. Those little blue-haired green guys are so cute, :-)

Michael Offutt said...

Publishing is a business. The only rule is to make money. When it comes down to it...if the writing makes money then they'll take it. So if you break the rules...they better be broken to make some money. Otherwise the safe route is to follow the rules to some guaranteed money.

Tracy said...

Super post and NO, it is not...I write from the heart and well, it is what it is...if you like it; great, if not, sorry but it's still mine and mine alone. In writing, I'm not a rule follower unlike in the rest of my life!

Tanith said...

You should probably follow the rules for decent grammar, though. If people can't understand what you've written, then well, you're probably not going to make it to the Times Bestseller List. Probably.

J.L. Campbell said...

I suppose we're conditioned to follow the rules because they're what we see and hear and get fed when we're trying to learn all we can about the craft.

I told myself I couldn't wait to be published to break me some rules. I write whatever works and I'll continue to do 'it' until an editor at whichever publishing house tells me 'it' doesn't work.

For instance, I don't think 'was' is such a big deal anymore, but we strive to avoid what writing gurus say we should (insert was here) at the risk of stilted-sounding sentences.

We all start out as lemmings. The thing is to find our own groove and make it work for us. As to the rules, I like to say 'everything in moderation'.

tanyamaikai said...

I love this post. It's so true that when you get right down to it, the public cries for entertainment!

Diana said...

"Publishing is a business. The only rule is to make money" Thanks Michael, that it absolutely true.