Tuesday, August 4, 2009

I'm Back - With A Post About 'The Rules'

I've been away because I've been judging in this year's Writer's Digest Self-Published Books contest, and unlike some other contest judges I know of, don't think it's fair to reject any entry after reading only the first paragraph---or less. I read all of the 25 books allotted to me from cover to cover, and went back to re-read certain passages in most of them when compiling my judging notes. I say this not because I'm fishing for compliments on my judge-ery, but because the experience of reading all of those books, in a short period of time, in the context of a contest really opened my eyes to something: strict obedience to The Rules is more likely to ruin your work than breaking them.

You know about The Rules, right? That collection of unofficial, yet oft-posted admonitions purporting to warn fiction writers about the prose and story bugaboos that will result in instant rejection? Things like, "delete all adverbs," "vampire stories don't sell anymore," and "publishers hate prologues"...ringing any bells?

As we all know, it's not difficult to find numerous exceptions to any such rule among mainstream, bestselling books. But the response to these rebuttals is invariably some airy statement about how big name authors can get away with that stuff because they have an established fan base, whereas you, a mere beginner in the game, never could. This statement and all its variations are wrong.

Paradoxically, the only distinction between a flawed piece of prose and a flawless one is the question of whether or not the prose sings. In other words, if we feel it does not sing, we say the prose is flawed. It's usually pretty easy to zoom in on problematic sentences or passages that seem awkard, and if certain aspects of those sentences or passages seem to repeat in other works you judge to be flawed (e.g., heavy use of adverbs), it doesn't seem like much of a leap to conclude the repeated items are the root of the problem. It seems very logical to conclude that if only those specific items were eliminated, the prose would be flawless. But as it turns out, this is a HUGE leap and it's NOT logical. There are only two possible reasons for finding broken rules in big-name authors' books: either the broken rule wasn't noticed, or else it was noticed but editors deemed it too minor to bother changing.

If a flaw was noticed but left unchanged, the author isn't necessarily 'getting away with it.' Readers notice when prose is awkward, but they're not generally peeved enough about it to return the book for a refund. Even so, many an established author has found his readership fading right in line with his attention to detail, so breaking The Rules isn't some automatic privilege of becoming a big-name author. I'm sure anyone reading this can think of at least one former-favorite author whose books you stopped reading because the quality of the work seemed to be slipping, or getting repetitive. It's not like authors have to toe the line right up until they hit the Times' bestseller list, but can relax from there on in. Sometimes flaws go uncorrected simply because in terms of time, money and human resources, the publisher's judgment came down on the side of "leave it alone".

If the so-called flaw wasn't noticed, that was either due to a simple editorial oversight or because the so-called flaw wasn't perceived as a flaw at all. In either case, the author still isn't getting away with anything. The question of whether or not the prose is flawed ultimately comes down to each reader's individual experience, and if a reader doesn't like the work, it doesn't really matter what his specific reasons are. That reader will come away thinking the writing was weak.

When a so-called flaw isn't perceived by readers as a flaw at all, the work isn't some exception that proves The Rules. It's an example of excellent authorship, and excellent authorship isn't about how many adverbs you use, or whether your story has a prologue, or whether your protagonist is a vampire. Excellent authorship in fiction is about storytelling. It's about pulling the reader or listener into a world you created and convincing her to care enough about the characters in that world to invest many hours of time and effort on learning more about what happens to them. It's about engaging the reader or listener so fully that he literally shuts off all awareness of the "real" world around him, whether because he's immersed in the plot or fascinated by the characters---or both.

The thing is, excellent authorship cannot be defined in any fixed manner; what makes one piece of work wonderful may be entirely different than what makes another piece of work equally good. For example, many people would laud Terry Pratchett for the humor in his Discworld books, but that doesn't mean that as a rule, all novelists should strive to inject humor into their work. Similarly, many others greatly enjoy the occult elements in Anne Rice's vampire and witch novels, but that doesn't mean adding occult elements to your novel will make it a surefire winner.

Conversely, choosing what to leave out of your novel by hewing to The Rules like they're your religion will not make your novel a surefire winner, either. What it WILL do is drain all the life, personality and originality from your work. In judging, I read many books that were absolutely pristine in terms of following The Rules yet were so boring, predictable or colorless that reading them felt like homework. Many aspiring authors don't seem to realize this, but an author's unique "voice", his or her specific style of communicating, is defined by when and how that author breaks The Rules. If you never break The Rules, you will never find or develop your author's voice. And as a reader, having recently read 25 novels from different authors in rapid succession, I can tell you that I'll take adverbs, prologues and vampires over boring in my novels any day.

Some of the best work I read broke numerous rules, and in every one of those cases the storytelling was so powerful that I didn't even notice any rules being broken until much later, when I went back to try and put my finger on the specific qualities that made certain entries so much stronger than others. At that point I had my eye out for The Rules, and having been schooled in them for so many years I suspected I'd find the stronger entries were stronger precisely because those authors managed to avoid breaking The Rules. But I was wrong.

In comparing the greats to the not-so-greats, there was plenty of rule-breaking happening on both sides of the fence. The only difference was, in the greats I didn't notice the rule-breaking during my first read-through, whereas in the not-so-greats I HAD noticed. It became very clear to me that what separates successful prose from flawed prose isn't the question of whether or not the author uses a prologue, adverbs, vampire characters, or breaks any other rule: it's whether the author succeeded in pulling me in. Period. But since there's no simple way to explain how to pull a reader in, no universal method or style that works for all writers in all genres at all times, we tend to find other, easier mile markers upon which to hang our hats. Hence, The Rules are born. Hence, huge populations of writers become convinced that good fiction writing is about following rules, not storytelling. I think this must be because it's very comforting to believe there's some secret formula or magic method that invariably leads to success, and very scary to think there isn't.

In my critiques of those 25 books, my notes on how the books could be improved had to do with things like characterization, phrasing too awkward to be easily understood, story arc, plot logic and pacing. I didn't advise anyone to kill the adverbs, strike the prologue, or eliminate the undead from their stories. I'd already read plenty of work that had done all those things and more in service (or servitude) to The Rules, yet still failed to hold my rapt attention. In the end, the books that piqued my interest and held it were the ones I judged most promising, regardless of The Rules. Plenty of these needed a good edit, a little work on pacing or character, or improvement in some other area of mechanics, but all of those things are easy to fix. If your story lacks personality, originality, or imagination, neither I nor anyone else can tell you how to fix those problems. It's like telling a musician to play better.

If you must have rules, I'd say these are the only two you need:

1. If it weakens, or adds nothing to the work, change it.

2. If it strengthens the work, leave it alone.

I think you'll find that these two rules alone cover everything from spelling and grammar to plot and pacing, and that there's no flaw you can think of in a piece of prose that can't be fixed through the application of one or the other of these two rules. Even murkier areas like character, theme and tone are covered by these two rules, because every choice you make in drawing character, conveying theme and setting tone will weaken, add nothing to, or strengthen the work overall.

But as I'm sure you've noticed, these rules are fairly useless unless you can tell the difference between what weakens/adds nothing to, or strengthens, a piece of work. And if you can already tell the difference, then you don't need these rules to begin with. Unfortunately, there's no rubric to which you can refer on this, it comes down to your gut and the reactions of your readers. Even spelling and grammar aren't so clear-cut as you might think; believe it or not, there are times when purposeful misspelling and incorrect grammar really can strengthen a story; just ask Burroughs or Vonnegut.

In the end, the inherent problem with conventional wisdom is that if you follow it, you end up with a conventional product for conventional people. And when was the last time you heard a novel praised for being conventional?