Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Follow the Rules Until You Make Them

Writing is one of those things where there are numerous rules put out by a variety of different people.  Some of the rules sound very specific, others are very broad.  Depending on which authors or editors whose advice you read, they can even be contradictory.  When you start out, you don't know any of these rules except some basic ideas of sequencing and he said/she said.  As you progress, you learn more and more rules to follow.

Follow those rules until you can make them.

That sounds rather strange, and I'm aware of that, but it really is the case and the reasoning is very simple.  It is very analogous to the instructions to little kids to "color within the lines."

The rules from the writers that come before you are basically simplified versions of procedures and advice those other writers have discovered for themselves.

When you first start out, you don't have much understanding of why you should.  As far as you know, it's just an arbitrary rule that was put into place for no particular reason.  This causes a very high temptation for to see the rules as a meaningless limitation that exists because the people that made them only accept a narrow-minded view of what is and is not "good" literature.  You'll feel very tempted to say that a particular choice is not a mistake but really a function of your style.

However, those rules do exist for reasons and simply breaking them for the sake of breaking them is not a function of style unless you understand the reason the rule exists to begin with.

Most writing rules have to do with the impression given most readers when you break or follow a rule.

For example "never begin the sentence with 'And'" which is something I sometimes do a little bit too much.

Most of the time, if you see "and" starting a sentence it has an amateurish feel to it.  Basically, it seems as if you forgot to say something and so are now trying to shoehorn the statement in.  A number of readers will get annoyed or turned off by this.

It distracts from your story when people are turned off by a word choice or grammar issue.  When the reader stops looking at your story and starts looking at the technique and grammar instead, you have a problem.

He walked to the store.  And then he bought the milk.  And then it rained.  And then he got lost.

However, "and" can sometimes be used with a sentence in order to give an impression of an after thought or frustration.  The same sequence above, with some basic flavoring text can be made acceptable.

The young man walked to the store to buy the milk.  And, joy of joys, it started raining while he was in the story.  And that, of course, made him get lost on the way home.  And that was the start of a very bad day.

And now it sounds like the narrator is irritated and rolling their eyes and shaking their head in frustration.  The implication that something was forgotten is still there, but you are now making use of it for the narrator's character rather than actually suffering from it.  Though this example would still need polishing to be really acceptable.

Also note that the "and" above gives the beginning of that paragraph the character of a sweeping conclusion to a sequence.

As I said, the temptation is to not follow the rules because you don't understand them and it feels restrictive.  However, the truth of the matter is that you follow the rules BECAUSE you don't understand them.

Once you understand the rules, for the most part you'll find yourself following them because, lo and behold, most of the time they work better.  However, at about this time, you will start discovering truisms that you never were told before.  As you come to understand the rules, you will start to see more rules.  This is basically what happens as your sense for reader response becomes more attuned.

You start making your own rules.

Once you've gotten to this stage, you'll know that the rules of writing put out by most people are basically advice that's true probably 90% of the time, to throw out an arbitrarily chosen statistic.

And when you come to know that, you'll come to know when the rule can be broken without breaking your story.

Note that the above "and" beginning the sentence gives that the character of a private aside to the reader, as if the narrator leaned over and whispered something on the sly.

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