— Mark Paxson
We talk a lot here about the “rules of writing.” In our video chats, in posts. It seems to be a significant issue within some portion of the writing community. The fodder for much of this comes from Twitter and its very active #writingcommunity.
Every day it seems there are tweets from writers of various levels of experience asking questions about the “rules.” Some of it is just for sake of conversation. Some is just to see what kind of response will be generated. And some of it degenerates into “thou shalt” and “thou shalt not” kinds of responses.
I’m all for good dialogue and interaction on these types of topics. I think we need more of it, which is one of the reasons we talk about these kinds of things around here. (Hint: we’d like more voices on these topics. Hint: we’d like hear from you. Yes, you. Don’t look over. your shoulder as if I’m talking to somebody else. We want to hear from you about writing, your creative process, and all that goes with it.)
Where I want to jump off the cliff is when the dialogue degenerates into those “thou shalt” and “thou shalt not” moments. As I’ve said repeatedly, the only rule in writing is one — write a good story.
But I get that some people need more guidance than that. And that’s what they should look for guidance, not rules.
I recently saw the new Dune movie. It inspired me to read the book again, and once I read the first book, I decided to keep going and see how far I could get into the six books Frank Herbert wrote about the world of Dune. Years ago, I got through the first three books. This time, I’ve made it into the fourth book, unsure if I’ll make it to five and six.
But as I read it today, there are some lines that are very relevant to this discussion about rules and writing. Leto II, the God Emperor of Dune, is talking with one of his underlings, trying to get him to see a point Leto II is making. I’m not going to provide any more context than that to avoid any more spoilers for anybody who might be reading through these books. But, the conversation has nothing to do with writing or with what most people would consider a creative endeavor.
Here is the first statement Leto II makes that struck a chord with me:
There is no such thing as rule-governed creativity.
And the next line:
Rules change with each surprise.
And the final line about Leto II’s one and only rule:
Short-term decisions tend to fail in the long-term.
It’s fascinating to me that these statements are embedded in a conversation that had nothing to do with a traditionally considered creative endeavor. It’s almost as though Herbert was stepping outside of the story and speaking directly to his fans and critics, both of which there were many, and telling them to pipe down. Using his story and this little space in it to essentially say — this is a creative piece and even I don’t necessarily know what is coming next (i.e., things change with each surprise) and considering the lengthy arc of the entire Dune story, one shouldn’t look at only short clips of it, but consider the entire work.
But, that’s not really my point here. My point is that those statements are exactly what I think about the “rules of writing.” Creativity simply cannot be bound by rules. If it is, then it is no longer creation. It is simply following a formula that somebody else established for their own purposes. When creating, you are the god of your universe and you get to establish the parameters within which you are going to create. There is nothing wrong with seeking guidance and input from other writers, or from readers, or from whoever. But always consider it as such — guidance. If it doesn’t fit your creation, toss it aside.
I really like the second statement. Rules change with each surprise. Maybe this doesn’t happen to plotters who have their story outlined, laid out, and fully formed before they start to write. But I know that there are all sorts of surprises that come with each story I write. I have a general idea and I start writing. Sometimes I know the ending, but not much of what happens between the beginning and end. Sometimes I don’t even know the ending. I just have an idea and I want to see what happens.
So, there are surprises along the way and I have to be open to them. And some of those surprises can cause the apple cart to tip over. So, not only do I have to be open to the possibility of surprises, I also have to be open to the possibility that a surprise will completely shift my thinking about the story — meaning the parameters (notice, I try very hard not to say rules) I lay out at the beginning for how I want to tell the story might change as those surprises reveal themselves.
The novel I’m currently working on is a surprise unto itself. A story that started as a short based on one of the writing prompts I posted here a couple of months ago. It has blossomed into 30,000 words at this point and I’m realizing I need to change some foundational things about the story.
It started in first person and when it was just a short story motivated by that prompt, that was fine. But when I got to 29,000 words, I realized that I needed to get deeper into some aspects of the story, reveal more about some of the other characters, and that was going to be difficult do if I kept it in first person. So, I’ve spent the last week or two converting the existing portion from first person to third person. I’m about two-thirds of the way through and now I’m concerned that some good elements that existed in the first person version will be lost as I shift to third person. And I’m toying with going back to first person to keep those elements.
I’m torn between the two versions and one of the reasons why is that there are a multitude of ways to tell a single story. And part of the challenge is to find the right way. The surprises that come along during the creation are one of the things that can make that challenge even greater. If you set in stone the “rules” for your story at the outset and close yourself off to the changes surprises can produce, you may just miss out on the best version of your story.
Which essentially leads into the third statement. Short-term decisions tend to fail in the long-term. I think that’s basically what I just said, just using different words.
Listen to Leto II and his wise words. Creation means bending and breaking the rules. It means keeping your mind open to the surprises that come along the way. Whether writing or painting or sculpting or composing a song. There are all sorts of side paths that can be taken. Colors that weren’t expected. Notes that ring truer than imagined. Those surprises, those side paths are what make these things a creation. Your creation. Don’t let a “rule” stop you from discovering them.
Great points here, Mark! The “rules” that bug me the most are the ones citing specific words as problematic. Okay, maybe the original intent is something like “If you use [this word] a lot, that might mean your prose is dull, or the way you’re telling the story is clunky.” But when focus shifts to specific words, the message always turns to “Don’t ever use [whatever word/s].” Which is a really bad message, in my opinion. I’ve seen sentences and paragraphs turned into baroque masterpieces of obscurity just so their writer can avoid the forbidden word “was” or a word ending in “-ly,” both of which are trotted out frequently as taboo.
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If ignorance is bliss, I’m downright giddy when it comes to the rules of writing. I don’t know them. Instead, I apply Duke Ellington’s dictum, “If it sounds good, it is good” to all creative endeavors and it is my sole standard for all that I read and write. But that’s just my approach. There are no doubt other useful approaches to writing that might even include learning and applying some or all the rules taught by college professors and/or bestselling authors. Who knows?
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That’s pretty much been my approach as well with writing. Part of it is that I hated English classes when I was a kid. I generally did as little as I could in those classes. Whatever it is I have as a writer comes through genetics or some other type of natural process because I don’t think I learned it in school and I’ve resisted the “rules” such as they are ever since I started this writing thing.
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I don’t know where the desire/ability to write comes from either. I was writing stories at the age of 13 — but they were bad. I’m no prodigy at anything. I certainly don’t remember what they taught us in HS English class. I couldn’t diagram a sentence if my life depended on it, or identify all the different parts of speech. Luckily I took a typing class in HS, a skill that I’ve used all my life.
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