February 27, 2011

WRITING ADVICE: Mike Duran #5 – The Danger of Writing Rules

I have never seen Mike Duran. We “met” online a couple years ago because of a little…altercation I caused by saying something less-than-nice about Christian speculative fiction on his blog. Mike, being both a spec-fic writer and editor, won me closer to his side with gentle and wise words. Since then I’ve found that Mike has lots of gentle and wise words. I’m looking at how some of them have had an impact on my own writing in these WRITING ADVICE posts. (Quotes are used with his permission.) He also participates in “ONE OF WRITER'S DIGEST 101 MOST VALUABLE WEBSITES FOR WRITERS, 2008 & 2010”, NOVEL JOURNEY at http://noveljourney.blogspot.com/.

In a July 2010 blog entry, Mike Duran says, “If the primary goal of a story is to take us somewhere, then the ‘writing rules’ must be subservient to that end. Much like a map, aesthetics are secondary to functionality.”

The “writing rules” he’s talking about here are the ones all new writers hear over and over again:

  • Show Don’t Tell — Use action and dialog rather than exposition
  • POV — Maintain a consistent, realistic narrative point-of-view; don’t “head hop” from one person to the next in the same scene
  • Avoid Passives — Keep tenses active; “Dean killed the cat is” better than “The cat was killed by Dean”

“By over-emphasizing writing rules we unwittingly create a ‘checklist mentality’ that places style above story and ‘pointlessly constricts writers’ options and narrows their range.’ Of course, new writers need to understand the rules.” Mike Duran says in essence that following the rules is NOT the right thing to do. Well, maybe that’s not exactly what he’s saying, but “writing rules must be subservient to…tak(ing) us somewhere” comes close.

I understand his point, but I’m afraid it’s pretty much only understandable to experienced – maybe even only professionally published – writers.

I’ve been teaching writing classes to gifted and talented fourth through twelfth graders for fifteen years. During that time, I’ve also done presentations to thousands of young people at Young Author’s Conferences and received dozens of manuscripts for critique. I’ve been approached by hopeful parents asking if I had an agent. Twice I was the “Grand Prize – a year working with published writer Guy Stewart!” That time, I worked with one adult writer each year and spent hundreds of hours critiquing their ideas, style, logic and grammar.

After all that, I am going to say that the rules CANNOT be subservient to style.

What is style? It has two definitions applicable to writing. The first: “editorial directions to be followed in spelling and punctuation and capitalization and typographical display”; and second: “a way of expressing something that is characteristic of a particular person or group of people or period”

I doubt any writer would argue the first, so I believe that the second definition is the one Mike Duran’s article is decrying. After reading thousands of stories by young and old alike, I have reached the conclusion that unless a writer knows the rules so well that they can explain to you exactly which one they are breaking, why and what the intended effect is, then they need to follow the rules.

If they do not follow the rules, then the story becomes incoherent or entirely unreadable. When the author confidently submits to a professional market and they are turned down, it leads to billions of blog posts and comments that boil down to “they JUST don’t understand my brilliance!”

So if Mike Duran and Frank Peretti and Gene Wolfe and Franz Kafka want to break the rules, that’s fine. Superb writing is sometimes the result. But UNTIL they learn to write according to the rules, they need to stay with them.

I would amend Mike Duran’s comment to read, “we knowingly create a ‘checklist mentality’ that places style above story and allows writers’ options to become focused so that they can later broaden their range”.


image: http://www.scott-warner.com/webimages/TenCommandments.jpg

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