Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Insecure Writer and Letting The Rules Rule Your Writing



Today is August's contribution to Alex Cavanaugh's Insecure Writers Support Group.




This month’s insecurity is a little different from the ones I usually discuss. My previous entries have focused on my insecurities about being a writer and how I deal with them. This time I want to focus on a more subtle insecurity – a fear of the rules.

We writers are inundated with rules. Showing versus telling, dangling participles, too little interior thought, POV shifts, too much interior thought, head hopping, etc. You know the drill. And while I have learned enough rules in the last two years to last me the rest of my life, I wouldn’t consider myself comfortable with them. At best it’s an uneasy truce. And therein lies the problem.

You’ve probably all seen posts and comments by agents and editors bemoaning the fact that so many of the submissions they receive are lacking in voice. The authors have tried so hard to make their stories sound professional that all the voice and style have been beaten out of their manuscripts.

And I’ve begun to realize the same thing is happening to me.

Years ago, I discovered my natural writing style tends toward the whimsical, which, I suppose, is one of the reasons I enjoy reading Douglas Adams, JKK. Rowling, and Eoin Colfer. It’s definitely one reason I’m attempting to match Rowling’s style in my Hogwarts story. When I’m in a whimsical mood, early drafts flow like water and life is good. But when I get around to worrying about whether I’m following all the rules correctly or when I’m focused on sounding more authorly (whatever that means), much of that whimsicalness disappears – along with my voice -- and my story no longer sounds like a Harry Potter type of story.

I’m not saying I need to abandon the rules to get my voice back. That would be a disaster of epic proportions. I just need to become comfortable enough with the rules that I can naturally incorporate them into my voice. Of course, there’s no guarantee anyone will care for my voice once it's out there for all to see, but that an Insecure Writer’s topic for another month.

Question: Have you ever let the rules of writing take away from your natural style?

20 comments:

  1. The answer is yes. When I talk I say something in another way when it seems somebody didn't get what I said the first time. In writing, I used to do the same thing without waiting to see if I said it right the first time, and you know I often don't say things clearly enough.

    But my worst problem is puns. I have no discretion because I love them all. I removed 80 percent from my chapter 6 (the first one I wrote) before my SCBWI group saw it and told me there were so many they distracted from the story.

    I liked your last submissions a lot so I don't think you lost the whimsy because of the really stupid adverb rule or any others either.

    I'm trying to get the courage to join Alex's group.

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    1. Take the plunge and join Alex's group. It's fun adn there is not pressure. Everyone is very supportive.

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  2. Yes. Here's some advice I need to remember too: Write your first draft however you want. Ignore all the rules and just WRITE. As you revise, follow the rules when the strengthen the story, forget them when it takes away from it. Just keep writing!

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    1. Things to flow better in that first draft when I forget the rules. Unfortunately I've noticed that I sometimes forget to forget the rules in early draft mode.

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  3. Hey - what's all this stuff about rules? why didn't anyone tell me? I guess no one got to that James Joyce or that odd Kerouac guy. If only they'd known. No one knows what is good - they only know what they like. If it feels right to you then it is right. If you get successful then you will be trolled and you still won't know. Life is short. Just do it and be happy. I'm not sure if I've ever dangled a participle but it sounds fun. No - the rules have not hindered me too much - but there again, I don't know them.

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    1. thanks Emma. Ah, the bliss of not knowing the rules. I used to be young and naive about them. Unfortunately, I've now read too much about writing and there's no way I can quit.

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  4. OOh I nearly did when I first let several writers and editors look at my work. They lobbed tons of well-meaning advice my way and to me it felt like England during a world war - bombs everywhere.

    Worse was that some of their rules conflicted - I became nearly useless until I sorted which rules made sense for my genre and remember that sometimes bending them a little - just a little is ok.

    GREAT POST!!

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    1. This is true. Not everyone agrees about the rules, which makes things so much more difficult. I guess this means I have the option of picking which rules to follow.

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  5. Getting too bogged down in the rules probably isn't the best thing to do. They are just rules of thumb, after all, although breaking rules of thumb needs to be done by one who has mastered them first. I think you should just work on voice until you feel like you can be yourself on the page, even if it means breaking the rules.

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    1. Sounds good. I'm just afraid of what will happen when I start revising. Am I going to throw all that voice out the window again?

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  6. I used to feel that way. But then I realized that my voice simply evolved as I tightened my writing. It's still a voice unique to me.

    Of course, some rules are broken on purpose, and if it's done well, it can work. That's where critters and beta readers come in. They'll let you know if it's working or not. :)

    IWSG #179 (At least until Alex culls the list again. :P)

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    1. I think that's the trick. Learning what your writing voice is when you follow the rules. That's what I'm using this story for - to work out all those kinks and figure out what my real voice is.

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  7. I think Samantha's advice is great - just getting that first draft down, regardless of the rules, lets you go back and worry about what changes might need to be made to tidy it up. I'm a natural pantser trying to learn to plot more (and finding the writing goes much quicker when I do), but I think getting words on the page, once you have an idea of the overarching plotlines, is key to avoiding focusing on any "rules". When I stop to think too long, to edit a sentence or change the POV or focus too much on any one aspect of the draft, then I end up wasting hours, or days, on what should just be the first run through.

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    1. I used to not worry about the rules during first drafts, but lately I've been having to rewrite a few scenes over again from scratch and I find myself trying to sound too professional during the rewrite. Then I'll look at my other chapters and realize how much more lively the original versions were.

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  8. Ken, sound advice has been spoken here, I believe. Remember the rules when you get to the editing and revising phases, not while drafting. Tell the tale. (That said, I find that giving said advice is far easier than taking it.)

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    1. The advice everyone is giving is good. The trick will be whether I can learn to apply it to my writing or if I just end up making the same mistake over and over again.

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  9. "Question: Have you ever let the rules of writing take away from your natural style?"

    Holy crap, yes!

    When you mentioned an insecurity about rules, I came to a conclusion: rules suck, break them!

    My characters used to be fun and have natural internal monologues. Now, they are, as you said, trying to sound "professional." I read internal memos and textbooks and news articles and they are boring. Characters needs life. Stories need life. LIFE needs life.

    This month, BREAK THE RULES! If you have spent two years enslaving yourself to them, then spent one month unfettering yourself from those shackles and just have a bucket of fun with it!

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    1. I've written a fair number of technical articles for scientific journals or as a requirement for work. I probably learned to try and sound professional because of these reports. I think that's why I hated writing - that is, until I discovered how much fun it is to write fiction.

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  10. I don't think I have a writing style yet :) I'm not comfortable with the rules either, although I try to follow them. Sometimes you need to break the rules in order to get the best possible result. Rules are made to be broken :D

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  11. The first draft is for hot pink hi-tops and mardi gras beads, which is easy for me to say, but the truth is, I'm hung up on the rules as well. Yes Mom, I know my comma use is erratic. Sigh.

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