Friday, July 07, 2006

Rules, Rules, Rules

The American Christian Fiction Writer's loop had a discussion about rules yesterday. I skimmed most of the posts, afraid if I read too carefully I might learn the rules and ruin my writing.

I'm only half joking about that. Rules are great, but I didn't know any when I got published and I think that's why it happened so quickly for me. Granted, I didn't sell my first or second manuscript, but that's because they stunk. My third attempt created a great story and good writing. A winning combination.

For me, the problem with rules is that I always strive to follow them. If I learned all the so-called writing rules, I'd be so obsessed about not breaking them, my writing would become stiff. Stiff writing does not make for good stories. My personal philosophy tends toward ignorance (in writing) is bliss. What I don't know, I don't have to worry about. And when I don't worry, my writing flows from the depth of my heart rather than from the depth of my rule-obsessed mind. Of course, over time, having joined writing organizations, gone to conferences, and spent countless hours discussing my craft, I've heard the rules. What I've found is that those rules are really just common sense ideas based one what works most of the time in writing. Most of the time. Not all of the time. Done well, lots of things can work.

The way I see it, our society fosters the idea that we can all be successful if we work hard. It's the whole Horatio Alger Rags to Riches thing. Be nice, play by the rules, work hard, and you'll get what you deserve. Unfortunately, things aren't always that way. Hard work? Yes. Be nice? Of course. Play by the rules? In writing, maybe not. Writing rules are arbitrary, based on ideals set forth by editors and authors who are trying hard to help writers achieve their dreams. To do this, they've come up with a set of rules based on mistakes that many, many writers make. Head-hopping, starting the manuscript too slowly, using too much dialogue, not enough dialogue, too much backstory, not enough backstory. I'm sure there is a rule for every conceivable aspect of writing. Each one is meant to be a helpful tool used for building wonderful manuscripts.

While I'd agree there's something to be said for useful tools, I'd argue that the most important tool a writer can have is the ability to tell a good story. Without it, following every rule written about writing is going to do absolutely nothing toward producing a manuscript that sells.

Learning to tell great stories is vital in the quest to write an outstanding book. I could list a number of ways to enhance story telling abilities, but I've got four kids who need my attention. Feel free to post your own ways of honing story telling skills!


Jennifer Tiszai said...

I agree. Rules only exist to help you craft a better story. Problem is, a lot of people get stuck on the rules part and forget the purpose of the rules: to create a great story.

I think one of the best things you can do to learn to tell a great story is to read them.

Margaret Daley said...

Some people get so stuck on the rules they miss the story. Rules are guidelines, not written in stone. This was a very interesting topic. I may need to look at this for my blog. Thanks, Shirlee.


Shirlee McCoy said...

I agree, Jennifer. I think I'm a good story teller because I love reading!

Hi Margaret! I couldn't agree with you more.

Heather Diane Tipton said...

Worrying about the rules is what shut my writing down for a while. I just couldn't get past them. Then one day it clicked for me... ignore the rules! :p Story flowed much better not to mention because I did know those rules, I actually did write the correct way for the most part.