One of the most common pieces of advice I see on the web is that a writer needs to understand the rules of writing before he can break them. Unfortunately, the second most common piece of advice is that the only rule of writing is “there are no rules.” Is it any wonder newbie writers bang their heads against the keyboard and scream? Or is that just me?
The more I learn about writing, the more I believe the first rule should be re-written as “a writer needs to understand the rules of writing in order to decide how and when they should be applied." In other words, I distrust the notion that “following all the rules” should be the default position and that every step away from that position is fraught with danger. For one thing, not every writer agrees on what the rules are. And too much worrying about rules tends to drive the author’s voice right out of the story. Not good.
Two weeks ago I discussed how the difference between showing and telling is often in the eye of the beholder. And after spending the past couple of weeks studying Mary Buckman’s book, Writing Setting, I’m beginning to feel the same way about settings and descriptions. While I learned quite a bit about strengthening my descriptions of settings (thank you, Mary), I couldn’t help noticing that many of the examples she provided of “good” descriptions didn’t strike me as any better than some of the “bad” ones. In my opinion, some of the “good” descriptions went on for too long, or slowed the pacing too much, or just struck me as boring. Of course, not everyone would agree with me, and that’s perfectly fine, but I probably wouldn’t buy many books from authors who used such lengthy descriptions in their stories.
And then it dawned on me. Much of what makes up an author’s voice is in the way the author chooses to follow (or not follow) the so-called rules. Some authors prefer writing in deep POV, some don’t. Neither is right or wrong (despite what some deep POV zealots might argue); it’s just their preference. Some writers enjoy lots of showing, some prefer more of a balance. Some writers feel that if you aren’t specific enough with your details, you’re forcing the reader to work too hard to imagine your world, while other writers think if you paint too specific an image you leave the reader no room for using their own imagination. It’s not a matter of rules; it’s a matter of style. And based on the books I read every day, most of the styles I see involve breaking lots of rules.
As a writer, you have to make your own decisions as to how closely you follow the rules, no matter what the experts say. Learn the rules, yes. Understand the rules, definitely. But don’t feel as though you’re locked into them.
And how will you know if you’ve made the right choices? Listen to your critique partners. Pay attention to your beta-readers. If they say you’re doing too much telling, heed their advice. If they say you’re doing too much showing, heed that advice too. And most of all, listen to the readers who buy (or don’t buy) your books. Because ultimately, they are the ones whose decisions matter most. Readers don’t care about rules. All they care about is whether or not they enjoy your style of writing.