I Fought the Law and I Won

There are very few rules in writing that you can’t bend, break, or ignore – if you do it right.  I’m a believer in knowing the rules and why they exist, but once you understand how to follow them, you can start figuring out how to not follow them effectively.  See, there’s no point flouting something just to flout it – in any arena, I’d say, that’s just a sign of immaturity.  You have to flout rules with a purpose in mind, if you want your writing to be stronger for it.

Some of the rules I will gleefully break if it suits my purposes, and which I enjoy seeing broken to good effect:

  • Point of view.  Who says if you write in first person, that you can’t switch perspectives?  Well, plenty of people, but it’s been done by far better writers than me – Emily Bronte did it in Wuthering Heights in the form of a frame character.  Wilkie Collins did it in The Moonstone by having multiple characters give their accounts of what happened as testimony toward the effort of solving a mystery.
  • Tense.  Yes, it’s important to keep your tense consistent, and no, you shouldn’t overuse the method, but from time to time dropping into present tense in a past tense narrative can be really effective for times of intense shock, conveying an immediacy and timelessness to a given moment.
  • Chronological narration.  Not necessarily the only way to tell your story, although you want to tell it clearly enough that the jumps don’t confuse your readers.  Chuck Palahniuk’s books are narrated conversationally, memories and flashbacks building up on one another and altering the reader’s perspective on what’s currently happening in the storyline, so that what you thought was going on originally is not what you realize is happening as the story unfolds.  This is awesome in that not only are the characters transforming and the story progressing, but the reader is changing as the book goes along, too!
  • Conform to a genre.  Yes, this makes your book far easier to market.  But, personally, I’d rather go out on a limb for my own original ideas on the chance that someone in the industry will love it and know how to package it for the masses, than write derivative, stereotypical work that sells just decently and has no impact on my readers.  If Neil Gaiman had written a typical ol’ fantasy novel in a typical ol’ fantasy setting, rather than the original twisted weirdness of Neverwhere, it’s possible there wouldn’t be a popular subgenre of underground urban fantasy now.
  • Protagonist = Hero.  Doesn’t need to be.  I love a messy protagonist who does the wrong thing sometimes.  I love anti-heroes.  I love reading from the point of view of a person I’m glad I don’t know personally, but who is fascinating anyway.  If I liked perfect protagonists, I’d be a Superman fan instead of a Batman fan.  I wouldn’t relish Dostoevsky’s work or love Heathcliff of Wuthering Heights so much or have a voracious appetite for Tana French’s mystery novels.

I was told at an early age by an excellent writer that the only unbreakable rule of writing is Do What Works.  Thanks, Mom!

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Pet Peeves – Amnesia Openings

All readers have pet peeves about storytelling.  There are some things that just irritate you when you see them in a story or a movie.  I think writers are even more prone to these kinds of tics than other readers, partly because we’re used to watching out for what does and doesn’t work in our own stories.

One of my own personal annoyances is with books that start out with a main character having amnesia.  Why does it bug me?  Well, partly because it strikes me as lazy writing, most of the time – like the character who always asks obvious questions for the sake of exposition via dialogue (*cough* Tasha Yar *cough* Next Generation Star Trek *cough*).  I don’t mind if the character develops amnesia later in the story, but to start out with it just seems like such a cheap way to get away with a long setup for your world and your characters, with an oh-so-obvious element of mystery.  The trouble is, it leaves me cold, and here’s the main reason:

99% of the amnesia beginnings I’ve read treat “amnesia” like it means “lack of personality”.  I’m sure that, without our memories, we’d all act somewhat different than usual, but we wouldn’t lose our personalities altogether.  You’d still think like yourself, you just wouldn’t know why you thought the way you did.  Aside from the fact that it makes no sense to equate loss of memory with loss of personality, there’s nothing duller, to me, than a book without good characters.  I latch onto characters quicker than any other story element, and so do many, many other readers.  Give me a lousy anchor, and I’m getting on a different boat, thanks all the same.

One thing I love, though, is finding stories that break my personal rules of reading and writing.  I’m delighted when a writer can do something I detest, and make me fall in love with his/her book anyway.  For one thing, it impresses me, and for another thing, I like to figure out why their book was different.  Why did this work, when dozens of other books didn’t (or at least, didn’t work for me)?

For my Amnesia Openings pet peeve, the book that shatters the rule is Nine Princes in Amber, the first book in Roger Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber series.  Why does Zelazny get a free pass when the very first page of his series starts with the main character having no memory?  Because, also on the first page, he shows me his narrator has a great deal of personality.  Within half a page, the reader knows he’s suspicious, calculating, tricky, and funny.  The narrative voice, the questions and doubts that cross his mind, the decisions he makes, and the way he handles his lack of knowledge about himself or what happened to him, work together beautifully to establish what type of person he is and how he thinks, and to simultaneously set up the first inklings of conflict and danger.  There’s nothing lazy about writing that can do all that with half a page.

The best writing makes the most of each and every scene – not just because it makes the book richer, although it does, but also because that’s the kind of writing that grabs people.  It’s exciting to open a book and be in another place, but more exciting to open a book and be in another place with interesting questions to be answered, mysterious events on the horizon, and a fascinating main character to anchor you in the world of the story.  A narrative hook, by itself, isn’t enough.  You need some bait, too – if I may mix my nautical metaphors here in my blog (I would avoid doing so at all costs in a story!)  😉

First Post

Since this is my first post on this shiny new blog, I’ll start with a brief introduction.

I’ve been making up stories since before I can remember, and writing them down since before I could spell.  I remember making a grand effort at editing for the first time around the age of five – and it was a monumental task to detach myself from the story enough to break it up into individual sentences, where it had originally been one long run-on strung together with conjunction after conjunction.  Editing your own writing has to be the hardest part of the process, but I’ve come a long way since then.

Now, I write fiction and work as a freelance editor.  I’ve written flash fiction, short stories, and a novel (which I’m in the process of editing).  I dislike strict genre guidelines both when writing and when reading – it’s a lot more interesting to see a new twist than to read an old re-hash.

My plans for this blog are to post a few times a week, maybe more, maybe less, depending on how busy I am or whether I have anything worth sharing at any given time, and my subject matter will be about the writing process.  Methods, approaches, exercises, brainstorming techniques, things I’ve noticed in books I like, that kind of thing.  And probably some philosophizing about writing from time to time, too.

So if that’s your kind of thing, check back here and read on!