RULES - should they ever be broken? by Hywela Lyn

Once upon a time I naively believed that one just wrote a book, revised it to within an inch of its life until it was as good as one could get it, and submitted it to an agent or publisher.  

So I did exactly that, and eventually, after several tries,  received the email that made my entire year - an acceptance with the coveted Publishing Contract. 

Then I waited for my edits, joined groups and loops talked with other writers on the internet, and came to realise that there were a great many rules which were supposed to be followed by a writer which I didn't even know existed.  By luck rather than judgement or even talent, I seemed to have instinctively complied with a lot of them but as I went through the suggestions I received from my editor I learnt all about the importance of 'deep point of view',  'showing not telling'  avoidance of 'head hopping' and adverbs, and the 'pluperfect tense',

This last one was brought to my attention lately, when a dear friend of mine submitted her second novel and received it back with a request for a rewrite, for there to be more P.O.Vs  from other characters, and with instructions to use the 'pluperfect' tense. This phased her rather a lot since she'd been trying hard to stay in her two main characters' 'deep POV' and nearly every piece of advice to authors includes stern warnings to avoid the 'pluperfect' as much as possible.  Rules it seems, mean different things to different people. 

Of course this is not such a problem if you're an 'Indie' author.  I don't  mean I think you should immediately throw the 'rulebook' out of the window, and I do believe that  in order to break the rules, or judge their worth, you first have to know them. However, being an 'Indie' gives you a lot more control over your book and if you think it works fine without adhering to a certain rule, then no-one is going to try to stop you.

For my own part, I write the first draft without worrying too much about rules or structure, or even punctuation, this is when I'm being the 'creator'. I then  go through and revise,  and while doing so try to check that I have applied those of the 'rules' I think will make it a better book. If I don't think a rule works in a particular area though, I'll ignore it and write the passage the way I think it should be.  I usually have to make several revisions and rewrites before I'm happy that the MS is fit to send to my editor - and  I  would always use an editor.  While I do rely a lot on my crit partners and Beta readers, I don't expect them to catch everything and I know I'm far too close to my own work to spot the potential problems. Heck, to my embarrassment, I've written more the occasional  blog post which had a glaring typo or badly constructed sentence, which I only spotted when it was too late to change it, so I've no chance of  turning out a perfect MS!

I do feel there is a danger  of losing ones  'voice'  by following rules too slavishly though, and thereby squeezing the very life out of ones work, leaving it flat and colourless. What do you think?  Do you feel that rules make everyone's work too 'formulaic' and are meant to be broken, or do you think they're a necessary evil and should be adhered to as much as possible?
Hywela Lyn

You can find out more about Lyn and her books on her  WEBSITE
She also blogs at her own BLOG, and THE AUTHOR ROAST AND TOAST
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Susan Price said…
I've heard of a plu-perfect, but I've never seen one. Wouldn't know it if I did.
The writing students I see at University are often obsessed with rules about 'depth of POV' and 'story segments'. I told one to take all her 'how to write' books to a paved area at a safe distance from buildings and set fire to them. It's not that such books can't help - they can - but not when you become so obsessed with 'the rules' that you're thinking of nothing else. Just tell the story! With as much conviction and imagination as you can muster, and worry about tidying it up later. And forget about plu-perfects and just use the English language.
Anonymous said…
Rules are all very well, but there's no substitute for talent. Hollywood has become a wasteland of rubbish because of it's rigid attitude to plot construction.
Hywela Lyn said…
Hi Susan and Simon - thanks for your comments. I agree with you both, rules are OK in their place, but if followed obsessively, can stifle the imagination!
Dan Holloway said…
This is such a complex topic, and one where it's rare to get a discussion that doesn't just dissolve into "rulebreaking is just an excuse for not learning the rules in the first place" vs "rules are irrelevant to genius". And then, of course, you get someone slyly throwing in a reference to Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000 hour theory in Outliers and standing back to watch that reignite the mudslinging.

I think my thoughts are that there are many answers and a lot depends on 1. what you are trying to do as a writer and 2. what you are looking for in writing as a critic/reader. I think if you are trying to produce a certain kind of book (and most books, whether self-published or traditionally published, would fall into this category because most authors want to appeal to a certain kind of reader who has particular tastes and expectations), it is probably a truism that you need to know the rules that apply to that kind of book.

Rulebreakers in these debates tend to fall into the "art", "genius", or "guts" camps - by which I mean "I'm doing it for the art not for readers", "true genius doesn't follow rules", and "rules get in the way of the raw emotion and unmediated feeling that makes something authentic". There then follows a debate about Picasso vs punk and whether Mozart's early works were as great as his later ones etc etc.

I don't think there's an answer. I would only offer the observations:
- techniques can be great ways of conveying the raw emotion, and a lack of knowledge of technique can be as inhibiting as slavishness to the rules
- my personal preference as a writer is to know and try everything (I still don't know what kind of writer I am - until I have tried writing in every way it's possible to write I don't see how I can, because there may always be something I enjoy more - it boggles me the way people can think of themselves as a writer of a certain kind without having tried everything else first, and we don't have the lifespans to try everything!) and I want to unlock all the secrets of everything I try, although as a reader my preference is for naivete and rawness even if it's riddled with ignorance and "mistakes" - a state of affairs which leaves me feeling, as I'm sure most people do. deeply unsatisfied with everything I produce.
- I think most writers like to think of themselves in the "genius/art/guts" camp whereas most of us are in the "writing to type" camp.
- I think when a self-published book comes along that is heralded critically as a groundbreaking masterpiece it will probably be by someone who knows little if anything about the rules.
- I think for most people in most if not all professions, Gladwell is rigt, but when it comes to genius he is wrong as much as he is right. For every Picasso who produces Les Demoiselles D'Avignon after years of slaving over the easel, there is an Eliot or a Brett Easton Ellis who will produce a Prufrock or Less Than Zero out of nowhere, and in the latter cases, whilst they will go on to produce better work (The Wasteland, American Psycho), it will be their first work that is their great, groundbreaking one.
Dennis Hamley said…
It depends what you mean by 'rules'. The basic rules of punctuation and grammar shouldn't be seen purely as rules: they are basic means of communication. I feel strongly that ungrammatical writing - unless it is there for a particular purpose - risks being ambiguous, ugly and sometimes just plain embarrassing. Besides, a lot of it is based not on usage but on logic. Grammar textbooks over the centuries which have attempted to fit English into Latin have done huge harm. Grammar is the bedrock on which langage develops: without it, we would gradually become unintelligible.
Punctuation to me is akin to instructions in music - allegro,lente, p,pp,ff and the like - which are a guide to how the music should be played and interpreted. In the same way, punctuation provide a means of knowing how we are to read and interpret the work.

I also believe that nobody can break rules with impunity unless they know what rules they are breaking. Molly Bloom's great stream of consciousness in Ulysses is only possible because Joyce was probably the most meticulous user of language in all literature. To start your writing career with stream of consciousness courts disaster unless you know the tradition you are working in so that you understand what you are doing when you depart from it. I believe with Eliot in 'Tradition and the Individual Talent' that all writing depends on other writing and every book written alters the relationship between every other book ever written. The Skinback Fusilier alters ever so slightly, like the familar Brazilian butterfly, the relationship between Chaucer and Shakepeare.

As for the 'rules' of POV, they seem to me to be part of the writer's craft, not rules in their own right. For an editor to demand more points of view is, to me, just crass. I expect my students, when they come to me in the second year of the diploma, to have been taught the elements of the craft, to know not only about PoV but also how to use it, to know when it's important for the story and not for its own sake. Only the writer will know the book's needs and when a change of point of view is necessary. To think it's there as an end in itself is, to me, ludicrous.
CallyPhillips said…
There are things which are like breathing (and I think Dennis argues that grammar/punctuation are like this).. part of the conversation of the writer/reader and then there are RULES and yes of course one has to know them to break them... but one also has to be aware that sometimes rules conflict with each other and that when you are given 'instructions' on changing or adhering to rules, you need to be able to either justify your use of a rule, or your breaking of a rule... because NO ONE can work to ALL the RULES ALL THE TIME.... and the more hands one's work passes through the more chance there is that conflicting opinions turn it into a book of rules not a creative work. As a writer I think the key things are 1) that I can communicate as clearly as possible with my potential reader/s and 2) that I can justify my choices including usage and breaking of rules. The good thing about being an 'indie' writer is that you don't have to bow down to the other forces (publishing streets paved with gold or say wow the Emperor's clothes are really neat) which make you feel you need to go against your own justifications which are possibly just an example of hoping the end justifying means. But an indie writer does need to be able to raise their level of confidence (and possibly skill) to ensure that they CAN justify their actions/choices. That's the rule of aspiration (is it?) And I hate to think what rules of POV I broke in writing this reply. Please don't tell me. As they say in 'modern world' LOL.
And do you know what all these ... (are they elipses?) are a throwback from my screenwriting days where you use them all the time. I know they don't work as well in prose, but I was writing the way I think. Sorry. Off to polish some prose now.
Hywela Lyn said…
Dan, Dennis and Cally - you all put forward very profound and interesting points. I certainly don't think that one should break the established rules of grammar and punctuation, I was thinking more of the general rules that so called 'experts' in creative writing insist we follow - and I heartily agree that having a book go through too many hands can have an adverse effect and that rules do tend to conflict. This is, I think, what actually prompted me to use this as my topic this month!
Paula Martin said…
Agree about the rules of correct grammar and punctuation, although some of these do change over the years. As for the other 'rules' e.g POV, headhopping, backstory, how and when your story should begin, use of adverbs and adjectives, etc etc etc, these can be either the 'rules' of a particular publishing house, or even the whim of a particular editor. If you try to follow all the advice out there on the million and one 'How to Write' websites, you'd end up so totally confused that you;d never put pen to paper. I do know of someone who is so keen to write the 'perfect' novel which follows all the rules, guidlines, advice etc, that she's been writing and re-writing it for about 8 years - and will probably continue to do so for the next 8 years!
Hywela Lyn said…
LOL Paula,although it's not really funny for that particular writer. That's exactly what I mean! If you took everyone who sets 'rules' as being 'the gospel' and tried to please them all you would not only fail miserably but never complete anything!
Thanks so much for commenting.
The problem is that so many of the so called 'experts' in Creative Writing are - these days - not experts at all. Way back when I was a student at Edinburgh University (a long, long, long time ago!) the incomparable Norman MacCaig was Writer in Residence. I remember going to see him with my work. He was helpful, acid, never prescriptive. Inspirational. A couple of years ago, I found myself downloading the ad for the Writer in Residence/Lecturer in Creative Writing at my old uni - just out of interest. It was clear that MacCaig would not have been qualified to apply. Nor would most of the wonderful Scottish writers of my acquaintance.
I've been to readings where it's possible to distinguish between all the CW Graduates reading their finely honed poetry and prose (they all sound curiously the same) and the one or two untutored writers who are electrifying because nobody has inflicted the awful need to 'get it right' on them - yet. Don't get me wrong - I believe in learning the craft, I believe in honing skills, communicating etc etc - but I think we need to treat these 'rules' with a certain amount of healthy scepticism, and demand to see the qualifications of whoever is formulating them!
Hywela Lyn said…
Hi Catherine - absolutely! One certainly needs to learn and hone ones craft, but there are so many 'rules' and so many contradictions, one has to be wary of being 'blinded by science' and trusting so called 'experts' without question.
Michelle Barber said…
I think that we need to know the rules and then if they don't work for our particular manuscript, then you have to break them. Read all the writing books but don't let it kill your story. When I did an M.A. in Creative Writing (years ago), my tutor would laugh about someone being taught how to bat at cricket. They would be so busy making sure that they were following all the rules, they would completely miss the ball. We have to be careful we don't do the same with our writing.
Jan Needle said…
What is grammar? A set of rules which you must follow to get it right, or a description of how the dominant group does it, and later insists is the only way it can be done? Before a language existed, did somebody write a book saying how it should be spoken/written? I've just got back from Germany, where grammar is heavily prescribed/proscribed. There is a jokey truism that in German the genitive and the dative cases are mutually exclusive. Try to use them together in some places, and your head will apparently explode. (Literally, as we say nowadays. What price grammar there?) Grammar is a description wrote down by them what is in charge and wants us to believe that them knows better than what us does. Can I say plainer than that?

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