Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Writing Rules

There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are. ~W. Somerset Maugham
If you obey all the rules, you miss all the fun. ~Katherine Hepburn
I see so many "how to write a novel in X steps" blog posts and how-to books. It really gets under my skin that there is such a market for that crap. There is no sure fast rules for writing a book. This is my advice: Write your story first. Then come back to it and make sure you have all the elements in place. What are those elements you may ask?

Well, grammar is one of the elements. Yeah, there are tons of grammar rules. When dealing with English, those rules are often arbitrary, attributed to a "style" preference, contradictory, and frustrating. It is worth learning the rules of grammar. It is worth learning those rules so that you can not only break them but also so that you can tap dance on their graves. English is a language that is always evolving so writers need to stay up to date on those rules- again, so they can gleefully break them later.

Another element is story structure. I'm not really talking about "introductory paragraphs, body paragraphs, and concluding paragraphs" that are taught in school. Those lessons may prepare an early writer to write from point A to point B but it is rarely anything interesting to read. Let's face it: Writers need to write something interesting or no one will want to read it. Writing is interesting because of the structure. The basic structure is this:

You start the introduction with exposition (or set-up), set the rising action with a conflict or obstacle (tech term: inciting incident), move on to the climax where the crap really hits the fan (or crisis if you want to be technical), drop into falling action where the pieces finally start to come together, and then even out in the resolution where you find out if everyone learned their lesson, met their goals, etc. that basically explains where everyone goes at the end of the story.

That is all neat and tidy. However, writing is seldom neat and tidy. This is my version of structure:

As you can see, my structure doesn't follow the traditional 5 step story. I like to lead with an introduction but then things get a little muddy. I like to vary the rising action with mini-conflict and mini-crisis just to keep the characters jumping all in an effort to get them ready for the big bad ultra-crisis that everyone else knows is coming. I usually tie my conclusion into the end of the falling action and then make sure there is wiggle room for one more story in the resolution.

A third element is industry standards. As an unpublished author, of course you can write a 200,000 word single volume space opera in the year 2732 where the reincarnation of President Lincoln fights the invading Atlantians over water rights on Earth That Was in iambic pentameter. Good luck getting it published though. Word count requirements vary depending on the genre, intended audience, and personal preferences of agents and editors alike. Another variable? Setting up the final manuscript. Some folks (meaning agents/editors at publishing Houses) don't really care too particularly about Courier vs. Times New Roman, .5" and 1" margins, etc. and others care very, very much. If you are submitting your manuscript for publication, you damn well better know the specifics for every single person you submit your manuscript and tailor each submission to suit.

The fourth, and last, element I'm going to discuss is writing. I'm not talking about commas and subject verb agreement here. I mean this- Are your characters tangible? Your characters don't have to be likable. They don't have to be neat and tidy. But they do need to feel real enough to touch. Everyone has a back story and has reasons for why they do what they do and needs and wants and goals and fears and dreams and... You get what I'm saying I hope. Is your story compelling? I don't want to read a story that plods along from point A to point B. I want a story that careens from point A into a detour that barrel rolls through points X, Y, and Z before finally railroading its way into point B. Stories, good ones, elicit emotional responses from readers. Take Harry Potter for instance. Readers were so emotionally ensconced in that series that some readers experienced genuine emotional anguish when Sirius died. And again when Dumbledore died. And again and again when all the others perished. Seriously, there were tears and angry words in my living room.

So in conclusion (see what I did there? :3), there are definitely rules for writing novels. But the rules are different for every writer. Write your story then worry about the rest after. That is why we have a 1st draft, a 2nd draft, and a 10th draft. It will all come together in the end.

Love is love, no matter the back story. <3 DS

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