1. U.G. Ridley
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    U.G. Ridley I'm a wizard, Hagrid Supporter

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    Be wary of rules.

    Discussion in 'Insights & Inspiration' started by U.G. Ridley, Oct 17, 2016.

    For the few years I've been writing, I've learned quite a lot. I've come to understand some of the inner workings of the stories I love, specifically: the reasons why I love them, what the author did right. I've learned how to find and apply some of these things to my own stories. But one of the things I haven't learned is "the secret."

    I think most of you know what I mean here. We all had that period when we first started off, where we googled every little thing we could think of that seemed related to writing, to try and figure out what every successful author seemed to know, but refused to share with the public. What's the trick to writing good drama? How can I make my writing funny? How do I make my writing more appealing to read? What's the secret?!

    Of course, during that time, we barely wrote anything down.

    And then we learned that there is no secret. You might also have learned that there aren't really any rules. The only places where you can find rules is in each individual story. Lord of The Rings wouldn't work if Tolkien followed the same rulebook as Stephen King. In fact, I imagine it would suck pretty hard if he'd done that... I see a lot of people on this forum (including myself from only a month or so ago), asking questions that become detrimental to their writing if they end up taking the answers too seriously, and if they decide to follow the rules that are given religiously. Thankfully--because most of the people who have been on this site for a while seem to be aware of these things already--the answers are often filled with warnings to be wary of these things, and that whatever they say are just suggestions. Though I do see some people here get carried away, claiming that their way is indeed correct, and the other ways are wrong. I've done this too, by the way.

    Here's the secret I have learned, and I only call it a "secret" because we all seem to have forgotten about it at some point in our writing endeavors, and we need to be constantly reminded: You become better at writing, by WRITING AND READING. Not by reading craft books, not by asking for people's opinions out of the context of your story, and certainly not by spending hours every day searching for the ancient knowledge that seems to have been brought down in generations of writers, kept hidden from the rest of us. Write with purpose, see what works, test things out, get feedback from people (by actually having them read your story, not by asking questions out of context to learn the "rules"!), and then adjust and re-write till your fingers bleed.

    Be wary of rules. If you write a book that breaks every rule you've ever heard anyone give you, and someone still likes it? Well, then you did yourself a good job. There is a rulebook to every story, there might even be one to each reader, but there is no rulebook to writing.

    (Edited--Credit to @Tenderiser--There are also more great ideas around this topic in the comments below!)

    PS: I'm all for "tools not rules."
     
    Last edited: Oct 21, 2016
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  2. Spencer1990
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    Spencer1990 Contributing Member

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    This is my favorite part. Well said.
     
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  3. Simpson17866
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    Simpson17866 Contributing Member Contributor

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    Always ;) I am not sorry.
     
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  4. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    Rules... The word itself is a red herring in our context. It sets up an ever expanding set of subroutines that grow exponentially more erroneous. And yet we cleave to the word and its many derivatives in related conversation. We want it to be the right word because then the answer will be set and fixed and mathematically satisfying.

    It's the wrong word in every sense.

    Tools, not rules. We use tools to fashion an end product. The end product is infinitely variable, infinitely complex.
     
  5. Tenderiser
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    Tenderiser Not a man Contest Administrator Contributor

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    I think this must be modified to "you become better at writing by writing and reading." I agree with you that reading craft books/googling advice isn't helpful to most people, but I mean reading fiction. Read books you enjoy and you will learn something, even if not consciously. Write, read, write more, read more... and you'll get there.
     
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  6. Simpson17866
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    Simpson17866 Contributing Member Contributor

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    I would argue that both reading fiction and reading instruction is better than one or the other – when you're learning to cook, just eating food isn't enough to teach you how to make it, you also have look at other people's recipes to see what you want to change specifically and what you don't – but yes, if I absolutely had to pick just one (though I can't imagine why I would), then I would say that reading fiction without instruction is better than reading instruction without fiction.
     
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  7. U.G. Ridley
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    U.G. Ridley I'm a wizard, Hagrid Supporter

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    That is very, very true. I'll edit that in there :agreed:
     
  8. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    I would like to add an idea that sometimes gets forgotten. Writing is more than 'writing,' when it comes to fiction. Writing is also storytelling. You can write perfect sentences, choose exactly the right words, create compelling characters, original plot ideas etc, but if you don't understand what makes a story move along, you'll be lacking something—no matter how great a prose merchant you are. That's the 'secret,' maybe?

    You could do worse than study the art of storytelling as well as the art of writing. There aren't 'rules' you must follow, but there are principles it's wise to keep in mind. Learn to understand the writer/reader 'contract,' and work with it to make sure you don't let the reader down. Learn to create expectations, and then fulfill them—but not necessarily the way the reader expects.

    For me, the greatest thing about reading is starting with a great deal of anticipation, and finishing with a sense of satisfaction, knowing that whatever happened in the story, this is the way it should have ended. It might not be a happy ending, but it should be the ending that feels right. That takes storytelling skill.
     
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  9. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    Yep, exactly!

    This is one reason some books that get criticized on writing forums on technical issues nevertheless do extremely well with the public, and other books that are written very well from a technical standpoint don't do nearly as well.
     
  10. Tenderiser
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    Tenderiser Not a man Contest Administrator Contributor

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    I disagree strongly. It's better for some people but disastrous for many - especially the kind that are inclined to take 'rules' too much to the heart.

    I think reading (fiction) and writing is good for every fiction writer, universally. Everything else is individual.
     
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  11. U.G. Ridley
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    U.G. Ridley I'm a wizard, Hagrid Supporter

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    Absolutely true!
     
  12. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    @Simpson17866 and @Tenderiser - It's kind of annoying that a writer can't do both. You can't start by ONLY reading fiction and also start by reading fiction plus instruction manuals too. You can't try both and then pick the best method, can you?

    I started writing my novel (and finished the first draft) without ever reading a how-to manual or taking any kind of a creative writing course or workshop. I started reading how-tos during the editing stage, and I'm still reading them and learning from them. I'll never know if I would have written a different book if I'd known all those rules, principles and tricks before I started. I may have been much less freely creative. On the other hand, I might have written the same book in a lot less time. I'll never know.

    I do know that writing without walls was the most fun I've ever had doing something creative. Unfortunately, it's something I'll never do again the same way. You're only a virgin once.
     
    Last edited: Oct 17, 2016
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  13. U.G. Ridley
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    U.G. Ridley I'm a wizard, Hagrid Supporter

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    I want those days back so badly...:cry:
     
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  14. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    I'm OK with the term "rules", but I expand it to "rules of..."

    I shift to gardening as an analogy.
    • The rules of dryfarming call for absolute weed control and wide spacing.
    • The rules of intensive gardening call for good weed control and tight spacing.
    • The rules of clean culture gardening forbid not only weeds, but volunteers.
    • The rules of permaculture accept the inevitability of weeds, and have the goal of encouraging useful plants and discouraging harmful ones.
    In gardening, no rule exists in isolation. YOU choose which rules are your rules, and you tweak any rule that isn't quite right for you. A rule isn't an outside command imposed on you that you must obey without question. It's just "Right now, this is my standard procedure."

    In dryfarming, that weird mat-forming succulent weed that I can't remember the name of is against the rules, because dryfarming demands absolute weed control. In permaculture, its mat-forming weed-suppressing nature and the fact that it's technically edible might cause a gardener to welcome it.

    I look at that weed and consider, y'know, it IS a succulent, so it's probably not transpiring much water. And it covers the soil; is it reducing moisture loss from bare soil? And it suppresses other weeds, weeds that would almost certainly transpire more water than it does. And it's incredibly easy to weed out; with one yank I clear a mat off of two or three square feet of soil Maybe I'll run some experiments, and maybe next year I will have a "rule" of encouraging that weed even in dryfarm areas.

    Rules aren't laws, they're just choices encoded in a memorable form.
     
  15. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    Yes, that's a good way to put it. Choices. And sometimes they are just conventions as well—the way things are usually done. I prefer to think of them as 'tricks.' As in 'tricks of the trade.' Sometimes you can solve a problem really quickly, if you know a 'trick' for solving it.
     
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  16. TheWriteWitch
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    TheWriteWitch Senior Member

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    YES! I love how you tied rules to choices. Well said.
     
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  17. deadrats
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    deadrats Active Member

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    Why is everyone so against the rules of writing? Learning and/or following the rules can really help a writer.
     
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  18. Simpson17866
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    Simpson17866 Contributing Member Contributor

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    As long as it's from the perspective of "learn the rules so you can learn how, why, and when to break them" ;)
     
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  19. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    People are against the word "rule" because it implies an absolute.
     
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  20. deadrats
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    deadrats Active Member

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    I don't see the rules as absolutes. But even if they were absolutes, they are meant to help your writing. It seems ridiculous that people would just hate rules of writing in general. Surely, no writer hates all the rules.
     
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  21. Spencer1990
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    Spencer1990 Contributing Member

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    The "rules" in question here just need a rebranding. And maybe there should be talk about the choice to break or misuse rules. If a writer breaks a rule, I expect a reason. The ridiculous part comes when people condemn the rules as useless and an insult to creativity because they can't be bothered to learn proper grammar.

    Obviously, perfect grammar is a little bit of an oxymoron, but a willingness to learn and evaluate is not unreasonable.
     
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  22. Tenderiser
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    Tenderiser Not a man Contest Administrator Contributor

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    It generally boils down to one of a few reasons:

    1. They get annoyed at advice given as absolutes.
    2. They write badly and don't like people pointing it out, so accuse their critics of blindly following "rules" and not being true artists.
    3. They're angry that they can't write whatever they want and have someone else pay to publish it, but instead have to follow certain "rules" to get a publisher to take on the risk.
    4. They're immature and just don't like following rules.
     
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  23. Kingtype
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    Kingtype Always writing or thinking things XD Staff Role Play Moderator Contributor

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    :supercheeky:

    Bad boy of storytelling and grammar!! :p
     
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  24. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    If you believe SPAG 'rules' are imposed from above, by somebody else, with the view to constricting your creative impulses and keeping you on a short leash, then you'll probably hate them. If you believe SPAG 'rules' have evolved so that more people can share the same thoughts without getting confused, then you're probably a fan.

    Without 'rules' we wouldn't really have language at all. We'd all just be making the sounds we want and most other people would be making the sounds THEY want. These sounds won't necessarily mean the same thing to both parties. Written language wouldn't exist at all without rules—unless you think chicken tracks on a page would carry subtle meaning to more than the person who made them.

    However, there comes a point where deviation from rules (norms might be a less objectionable word) can produce a desired creative effect.

    A good example is comma splicing. As readers, we are used to pausing, not stopping, when we come to a comma. It's the norm, and we grew up doing this. If a writer gives us a comma instead of a period (full stop) then we will merely pause, continue with the sentence and the thought that drives it. We won't stop and then move on to something else. A book where most full stops are replaced by commas would leave us feeling mentally exhausted after a short time, and we'd struggle to read them out loud.

    However, there are times when the writer WANTS a reader to gallop along, because something is happening very fast in their story, or a speaker is excited and falling all over themselves to get words out, or something like that. So breaking the comma splice rule can work very well, if used sparingly and for a deliberate purpose.

    I'd say breaking 'rules' deliberately can produce exactly the effect you want. Breaking them out of ignorance, however, can produce an effect you hadn't planned on.
     
    Last edited: Oct 18, 2016
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  25. BayView
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    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    There's also confusion about what we mean by "writing rules".

    Are we talking about SPAG stuff? I think writers should at least know those rules, and then decide if they want to follow them.

    Or do we mean the next level of, like, "passive voice is wrong" and "only use 'said' for dialogue" or the good 'ol "show; don't tell". I think those are designed for beginning writers and may help at that level, but need to be grown past fairly quickly.

    And then there's another level looking at the structure of the whole piece that some people seem to think amount to rules. People talk about 3-act structure or 5-act structure and what needs to happen in each act, or motivation-reaction-units or whatever, stuff that seems to turn writing into engineering. I think the people who like these like them a LOT and tend to get kind of evangelical about them, and any form of evangelicalism is annoying to non-believers.

    What interpretation of "rules" are people talking about on this thread?
     
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