Take the Rule Book and Beat It Bloody

I’ve been seeing a number of blogs around lately that offer rules for writing.  Now, these are extremely helpful in a number of ways, and I’m not saying any of them are wrong.  Far from it, in fact.  For instance, Kristen Lamb’s “Five Common Writing Pitfalls” are perfectly reasonable and very good advice, especially for new writers (and hilarious as always). And Chris Jones’ post entitled simply “No.” makes some very good points.  (Both, however, rail against adverbs which, while I agree can be overdone, I personally find useful in many contexts.)  So, yes, rules and regulations and “don’t’s” are a necessary part of learning to write.

But let me be honest here.  I don’t like rules, regulations, restrictive categories, limitations, etc.  Someone says I can’t do this, or cross that line, or mix these two mutually-exclusive things together, or whatever, and I’m going to do my damnedest to prove them wrong.  I’m a postmodernist, it’s kinda what we do.

Postmodernists laugh in the face of rules and write things like The New York Trilogy (Paul Auster), Blood and Guts in High School (Kathy Acker), Amnesia Moon (Jonathan Lethem), Gravity’s Rainbow (Thomas Pynchon), The Dictionary of the Khazars (Milorad Pavic), etc.  They eschew linearity and unity, ignore boundaries, blur the distinction between high and mass culture, they use pastiche and mimicry.  They break all the rules and in the process create something that is old and new and powerful and playful and mind-numbing and thought-provoking all at once.

I’m not saying I’m anywhere close to being on par with such writers.  But I’m trying to become a writer who can do those things.  So I mix genres, I play around with grammar, I write in sentence fragments and metonomy, I screw with linearity and plot structure.  I break rules.

Of course, you have to KNOW the rules before you can break them. This is vitally important.  The general sentiment is that the artist who can prove they could paint the Mona Lisa if they CHOSE to, is generally left alone to do whatever they want to, even if that means drawing stick-figures.  Prove you know the rules and can follow them with skill, and you can generally get away with breaking them.  You also have to know when it will be effective for the story (and your chosen audience) to break those rules, and when it’s simply best to play along.

I have written, and continue to write, plenty of pieces that are good obedient little things – they follow the rules, they contain conventional grammar, they conform to genre expectations, they play well with others.  But sometimes – more and more often as I grow as a writer and a postmodern scholar – I really really DON’T.  Admittedly, I’m still learning to distinguish which situations, stories, and audiences will be more conducive to which kind of writing.

But the more I learn, the more I feel that all writers should learn how to allow themselves to break the rules – at least sometimes.  Obviously, everyone does to some extent or another, even if only in little things.  But I mean BIG rule-breaking here.  I mean saying ‘screw it’ to convention and boundaries and limitations and genre expectations.  I mean taking that rule book to the back of an alley, beating it bloody, and shooting it in the knee-caps so it can’t follow you back.  I mean freeing yourself from all the don’ts and do’s and allowing yourself to create something that no one has ever seen before.  Read Blood and Guts in High School or Dictionary of the Khazars, you’ll see what I mean.

So, what rules do you like to break, or would be willing to break?  And which rules are sacrosanct?  How far would you be willing to cross the line to tell the story you really want to tell?  And how far do you think readers will allow you to go? (‘Cause, of course, in the end it’s really up to them.)

4 thoughts on “Take the Rule Book and Beat It Bloody

  1. Very good points here. My favorite: “Of course, you have to KNOW the rules before you can break them.” – This is so true, and I have no problem admitting that I don’t know all the rules, but I surely love to break them. I love unconventional writing so much that as I start to write my first novel I actually think I need to brush up the “rules”. But only to KNOW them, not to worship them :)

    • Yes, its important to know the rules, and to know when they are useful. But I don’t think they should be considered untouchable. Good luck with your first novel! And thanks for commenting.

  2. The only rule I’ve really broken isn’t really a rule per se. I wrote several stories for my first book in the second person perspective. It’s sort of an unwritten rule I think that second person is reserved for instruction manuals and create your own adventure stories. It’s difficult to do right, but from what little feedback I have gotten so far it was effective. Not sure how much more I’ll fiddle with that, I’m going more towards respectable third person and first person perspectives, but it’s fun to play with 2nd!

    • Hello, hello! Welcome to my blog! I think we talked about this once on Twitter, but I’ve tried my hand at a couple short stories in 2nd person and they were fairly horrible. So if you’ve managed to pull it off, I am impressed and jealous! It’s definitely fun to play with, but it obviously takes a specific kind of skill I haven’t discovered yet. Heck, I don’t even write that well in 1st person. My brain simply works best in 3rd I guess.

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