Tuesday, March 2, 2010

We like dancing and we look divine

The Guardian's "Ten Rules for Writing Fiction" piece has inspired some buzz around this here series of cat-filled tubes I like to call the Internet, causing people to talk about what they think ought to be the rules for writing.

And I dunno.

I like lists, and I like rules, and surely we can all agree that adverbs are the tool of the devil, and certainly he will condemn every writer who useth them to eternal damnation. Or something.

But some rules - "write transparent prose," "never write in first person" - are only a matter of taste. Some stories require baroque and intricate language. And consider the difference between "Call me Ishmael." and "The man's name was Ishmael." as opening lines.

Do I believe it's possible for a person to learn to write better? Of course. I even think there are universal things - read as widely as possible, acquire a basic familiarity with the rules of punctuation and grammar - that lead to an improvement in the quality of writing. But beyond that, do I think that there are rules that must be followed in order for the writing to be good?

I mostly don't. Seeing rules as checklists - if I do x, my writing will improve y-amount - always makes me think of the scene in Dead Poets Society where the textbook tries to rate the quality of poetry using a graph. That page is useless. Rip it out.

I think the good part about lists is that they tell you what works for many people, a lot of the time. Lists are a great place to start, but they aren't magical incantations. If I made myself sit at my desk until I had written something, I would likely become so depressed at my lack of progress, I would never write anything. When I'm stuck, I run through my list of tricks that usually work to jump start my brain, but there comes a point where I need to get up an do something else rather than stare at a blank page because otherwise I begin to feel like a fraud and a failure, and that doesn't get words written for me.

So I guess if I were going to make a rule for writing fiction, it would be to look at the rules that other people have decreed. Then break them. Break them all if you need to. Do whatever it takes for you to find your story, and write it.

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