Thursday, October 25, 2012

Follow the Yellow Brick Rules

***This is a repost from a loonnnnggggg time ago... I'm on a self-imposed deadline to get my next book to my agent by THIS WEEKEND so I'm cheating a bit!***

We've all heard of them. They are the "writing" rules that we, as newbie writers, need to pay attention to and follow. They are taught at writing conferences, preached in craft of writing books, scribbled in the margins of a critique, and typed in the notes of a contest judge.

But, we've also heard all the moaning about the rules. They stifle our creativity. They inhibit our voice. They are ignored by famous published authors, so why do we have to follow them? And who in the world makes these "rules" anyway?

All of these are valid questions. And *ahem* I'll attempt to answer them today. Beware though: You may not like the answers!

Myth #1: They stifle our creativity.
The rules shouldn't stifle you. If they do, something is wrong. In your creative mode, the rules should be in the back of your mind. Your first draft is totally allowed to break them. Get the story down. The editing stage is when you should REALLY start looking to see what works and what doesn't. Did telling make a scene boring? Can your writing be tighter if you resist the urge to explain? Do you have five was's in a row that make you writing sound weak? Find those things in the EDIT stage, not the WRITING stage.

Myth #2: They inhibit our voice.
This is a half-truth. If you let the rules direct you during the writing stage, your voice may be tampered. If you care more about pleasing a contest judge and less about writing a riveting, compelling story, then your voice might croak a little. Again, the answer is this: Write using your voice, edit using rules.

Myth #3: They are ignored by famous writers.

Why can established and famous writers break the "rules" and we can't? Well, there are a few reason for that.
  • These writers already have a proven audience who are used to the "old" way.
  • Writing "rules" change and develop. Many of these writers started writing BEFORE we knew what head-hopping was.
  • Readers don't know what rules are. They just know if they like the story.
  • I'm convinced this is the biggest reason: Many famous/experienced writers know how to break the guidelines in style. It's like that famous actress who wears something we could NEVER pull off, but they look phenomenal in it. Conversely, sometimes they wear something that looks stupid, but because they are famous, we forgive them:-)
Myth #4: No one knows who makes the rules.

Easy answer: Readers and Editors. Readers know what they like to read. Editors make it their job to know what pleases readers and what will sell. Eventually, the trends trickle down to us writers in the form of what we call rules.
So, here's the other thing.

There is NO SUCH THING as a writing rule. There is no big writing rule book that must be followed. In fact, I've heard several people say, "The only rule is that there are no rules" and I totally agree!

They are, in fact, guidelines. Things to keep in mind while writing. Take every rule you hear and do this.

When you see the word "Always" replace it with "Usually."
When you see the word "Never" replace it with "Sparingly."
When you see a command, add "Most of the time, you need to ____" at the beginning.


There is always a but, isn't there? I've seen many writers (including myself) use the fact that these are "guidelines" as an excuse for bad writing, which is a big no-no!

The way to combat this is with a GOOD editor and/or with GOOD critique partners, ones who understand that the rules are guidelines and won't ding you for each and every was, won't ask you to "show and not tell" in every single spot even when it would be *yawn* worthy to "show", but will honestly tell you when things just aren't working or when you've colored too far out of the lines. These partners won't tickle your ear with unnecessary praises, but will give you honest, balanced feedback, both the good and the bad.

I'm curious. What is the one rule you have the HARDEST time following? Conversely, what is the one rule that is easy for you?

For me, the hardest is a toss up. I suppose repetitive words and the use of "was" rates up there, as well as RUE (Resist the Urge to Explain.)

The easiest for me is no head-hopping. I'm very linear and analytical, so staying in one POV is very comfortable to me, and I can usual spot a POV slip a mile away when critiquing a novel.

What about you?


Jeanne T said...

This is a fun post, Krista. I think the one I do unconsciously is explain. There are a number of times when my crit partners remind me: RUE!

I'm pretty good at not using "was" too often, but I'm still working to use strong verbs in my writing. I have a knack for finding mediocre verbs.

I appreciate your "take" on the rules. Thanks!

Beth K. Vogt said...

Cheering you on to your deadline, Krista!
And yes, "rules" should be seen as "guidelines" -- or even "guard rails." Because without them, we go crashing over the edge and end up in a wreckage of mangled writing.
Nice analogy, yes?
One rule ... er, guideline that I try to always follow: Meet my deadlines.
One that's hard for me to stick to?
Sheesh ... got to think on that one ... I kind of like my guard rails.

Krista Phillips said...

Jeanne, I know what you mean! And sometimes I think we can take the "strong" verb thing to an unhealthy extreme, where people are like, "what does that mean??" HA!

Krista Phillips said...

Beth, Guardrails, I like that!!!!