Monday, June 9, 2014

The Golden Rule

“Always” and “never” are usually red flags in front of a rapid bull for discussion topics.  Don’t/Do
Why do I feel a song coming on?
/Should/Shouldn’t lead directly to the list of exceptions where an author not only did/didn’t, but was fabulously spectacular and now sleeps on large piles of cash surrounded by scantily clad women.

What?  It’s my blog.

The bloggers and free-advice-givers aren’t operating in a vacuum.  They’re offering lists of generally accepted wisdom that, while an exception can always be found (writing is an art, after all), that exception often proves the rule.  Those that “dared” (translation: were ignorant of their mistakes) had a list of other things they did correctly.  Beautiful prose, wonderful plots, living and breathing characters.

Or an agent and publisher who knew how to market!

Check out Jane Austen and her repeated use of double-negatives.  William Faulkner liked to start sentences with a conjunction-junction.  Dickens was verbose to the point of excess, in part because he was paid by the installment of roughly 32-pages of text.  Let’s not even get started on the crazy that is
You really can buy style!
Shakespeare, who violates both literary and theatrical rules—all to great effect.

Listing out these rule-breakers makes it seem like everything is up for grabs.  It should be strongly noted and reinforced that these authors broke their particular rules selectively.  They didn’t burn their copy of Strunk & White to make s’mores.  They carefully selected which rules they felt didn’t serve their purpose, or how breaking the rule would serve.  Or, as my editor likes to tell me, “You get a couple vetoes.  You’d better make them good.”

The truth is that there are exceptions to every rule, and there are authors who violate rules either accidentally or deliberately.  In the case of the latter, the rule was first known by the author and then bent or broken for effect.  Much like when an architect knows to follow the customary tried-and-true, and when, like Frank Lloyd Wright, to throw it out a geometrically divided window and create genius.

That doesn’t give carte blanche to all writers everywhere to break any rule at any time.  Understanding the rule, why it exists and how it’s meant to help communicate understanding, is still a necessity.  I certainly haven’t mastered the English language such that I feel comfortable rejecting the basic foundations on which I lay my stories. 

The rules also change over time.  Dickens, for example, built his tried-and-true process of installments so that he could create for himself a steady income.  His method, which became a much-used formula for years after, was wholly new when he developed it.  So what worked 50, 100 or 200 years ago may no longer be readable, useable or publishable.

Dickens was also a master storyteller.  Good writing, a good story, does trump a broken rule or a borrowed cliché.

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