This Business of Writing

There are no rules! Really?

In The Craft of Writing on March 29, 2010 at 7:48 am

by C. Patrick Schulze

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I may be missing something here, but I wonder why people in the industry say there are no rules in writing. Of course there are rules. Lot’s of ‘em. Everywhere you turn.

Here’s a thought. Isn’t, “There are no rules” a rule in its own right? Thus, it would appear the statement is false on its face. So, have I’ve already made my point? Regardless, let’s journey forward.

“There are no rules” is considered by many just the Real Rule among the multitude of maxims they know exist. Here’s one example that proves the invalidity of the Real Rule.

Don’t query fiction before you have a completed novel.

Of course, another rule says you don’t have to follow this rule if you’re already a successful novelist, or a celebrity, or a politician or this or that. But, that doesn’t make the Real Rule not a regulation for us mere mortals, does it?

Here’s more proof the Real Rule is incorrect.

Don’t query unless your novel is well-written.

That’s definitely a rule.

Ah, I can hear the arguments now. “You’re talking about publishing! You must understand there are no rules when writing.”

Well, they are often interdependent, but let’s check that one out, too.

If there are no rules in writing, I guess you can write a novel that contains no conflict, right? Conflict in fiction is a rule, isn’t it? Maybe not if you believe the “no rules” rule.

Care for another example? When writing your novel, everyone says you need a sympathetic hero. How many novels would you sell if nobody cared for or identified with your protagonist? I guess we’ve found another rule that does exist.

Here’s another I guess you can ignore when writing; point of view. Just write from any and every viewpoint at any time. Right? I doubt even your mother would care to read that novel. Hum. Yet another rule.

One more, if you’ll bear with me. There is a rule when writing grammar that says you should eliminate most of your “-ly” words. Here again, another rule.

In addition to the many binding rules of writing, there are any number of ideas that are passed off as rules when they are not. One that comes to mind says fifty percent of your novel should be dialogue. That’s more a “guideline” as our pirate friends of the Caribbean might say. These sort of pseudo-maxims are a bit more difficult to address and beyond the scope of this article.

It’s probably time to stop and get to the point. My point is, there are rules, many and all kinds of them, and as writers we need to know and employ them.
With that said, I believe “there are no rules” is much like the rules of society. That is, rules do exist and people in power expect you to follow them, but it’s a lot more fun when you know how to break them. If fact, as Katherine Hepburn once gave words to my personal mantra, “If you obey all the rules, you’ll miss all the fun.”

In general, rules are made to be broken, but for the majority of us we must be circumspect when we do so. Some, such as conflict in fiction or the sympathetic hero really should not be broken if we wish to sell our novels. Others, like the use of semicolons, can be manipulated.

I recommend we think of the rules in writing as techniques or skill sets, if you will. Early in our writing careers we should first learn these various skills and methodologies. We should then adapt to them and become proficient with them. After we’ve reached that level of success that satisfies us, then figure out how to bend and even break the rules.

In the mean time, if we wish to sell our novels, we should jump through the hoops the industry requires of us and don’t give those people who say there are no rules too much sway over our writer’s life.

Okay, I’m done. Now I want to hear your arguments to the contrary.

Until we speak again, know I wish for you, only best-sellers.

C. Patrick Schulze
Author of the emerging novel, “Born to be Brothers.”


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