One of my current projects is a small book on Creative Writing advice. I call it advice because I really didn’t want to call them rules. I didn’t want to sound self-important, as if I am the sole arbitrator of good writing. The items in this book are bits of advice I have been given that I feel is worth passing on. But that doesn’t mean there are not rules. I’ve read some authors who either never took the time to learn the rules of good writing or they have decided to ignore them. They remind us that rules are made for breaking. Try that in court and you’ll see how silly that really is.
Learn The Rules Before You Break Them
If there ever were an artist who broke the rules, it would be Pablo Picasso. He once famously said about that how he took twenty years to learn the rules before he could break them. Rules are rules for a reason. This is true for fiction and for painting. By learning the rules of Creative Writing, you learn the basics and get yourself grounded in the fundamentals.
I grew up hearing you have learn to dribble before you can slam dunk. A pitcher will never learn to throw an effective curveball if he has never learned how to throw a fastball. A scientist will never be able to split the atom until he has learned basic physics and some advanced math. And an author will never be able merely by natural talent alone to compose the next Great American Novel. I don’t care how wonderful your momma or your Sophomore English teacher said you were, you have to learn how to do anything before you can ever be good at it.
Let’s say someone wants to learn how to play the trumpet and become the next great jazz artist. He needs to learn embouchure and how to play his scales before he can ever improvise. Think of a Creative Writer who wants to break the rules as a jazz solo. If you cannot even play the trumpet properly with a solid understanding of music, you can never raise the people to their feet when you perform. Your “rule-breaking” novel will never get pages turned if you never even learned the rules before you broke them.
Don’t Break The Rules As Much As Modify Them
The idea of breaking rules, at least to me, has the connotation of ignoring the rules. A Creative Writer should never really do that. The only times we defy the guidance from the greats, it should be occasional and not perpetual. And on the occasion we go against what we have learned, we have a really good reason for it. And when I say reason, I mean an artistic reason and not some personal preference.
For example, Fitzgerald shows us how going against the rules sometimes works. One of the rules is that we need to avoid modifiers, and adverbs in particular. In The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald wrote how a car drove “triumphantly” down the road with gifts and packages in the back. Yes, he used the dreaded adverb, but it adds to the music of the text. And moments like this contributes to his voice, which is one of the most unique and spectacular voices in all of fiction.
In Tender Is The Night, Fitzgerald makes the “mistake” of using a weak verb – were. But the sentence it wonderful. “The hotel and the tan prayer rug of a beach were one.” The end of the sentence needs to be weak so it doesn’t take away from the best part, that spectacular simile about the tan prayer rug of a beach. And still, Fitzgerald followed the rules about avoiding adverbs and using strong verbs. He didn’t break or avoid the rules, he just modified them, and only when the art was improved by these modifications.
Some Rules Should Never Be Broken
The remote modifier or being verb will not ruin your writing. But there are some things that are fictional sacrosanct. The most elevated of writing rules is Show, don’t tell. To tell is to engage in the weakest of writing and should always be avoided. I could write a chapter with all telling, and at best, when I’m stuck with is a treatment of what the chapter should be if I write it properly, with the strong action of interesting characters. Telling is boring, and boring is the unpardonable sin for any artist.
Another firm rule is Writing is re-writing. A manuscript is not done when the author types THE END on the last page. In a sense, the work has only begun. Now starts a long series of edits. No one should ever think everything that can be said has been said and in the best way when the first draft is finished. There’s a good reason why the first draft is also called the rough draft. And no manuscript we present to the public should ever contain anything rough.
The plot points need to be learned and observed. Every story, and every scene, needs to have its setting, a conflict, and rising action that leads to a climax, followed by the declining action that trails to and end to the story or the scene. Even when you read some avent guarde work, if it is written well, it will still have the plot points. Consider James Joyce and his stream-of-consciousness style. There are many rules he negotiates around, but he always has the basic elements of the story. Not just the city of Dublin, but different parts of the town, both public and private. There is something the main character of the scene wants, can’t get it immediately, but eventually does – or doesn’t. Either way, it’s a scene with elements of plot.
In The Natural, Roy Hobbs’ father tells him, “You’ve got a gift, Roy. But it’s not enough. You’ve got to develop yourself. If you rely too much on your own gift, then you’ll fail.” It was true for him and it is true for us. I have read a lot of stuff from people who were told how naturally talented they were and they never took the time to seriously study the craft of composition. It’s all bad. They willingly flaunt the idea of rules in the name of art. They try to write the way Picasso painted. His work is genius, and theirs is a rotten mess. Art truly is what you can get away with, but that doesn’t mean the rules are frivolous. more than a few authors what written with no regard for the rules, and in the end, they haven’t “gotten away” with a single thing.