Saturday, August 21, 2010

Breaking the Rules

 That's my dog, Chi, on the couch. She's a rule breaker extraordinaire.  Every day, she tests her rules and every day, she gets away with something. I can almost see her thought process "Sure, I'm not supposed to drink the tea or eat the cookies Nan left on the coffee table, but she's probably not that hungry since she walked away and I'm sure she wouldn't mind sharing just this once."  
For Chi, the rules are always negotiable. And at least once a day, she gets away with breaking them.
 I understand rules.  Heck, when it comes to Chi, I'm the one who makes them (my husband, not so much).  
Of course, in writing there are rules too. I want to know what they are.  I want editors, agents, and other writers to talk about them at conferences, blog about them, tweet about them.  I want to know what draws them into a story and what drives them crazy.  
But rules are fun to break. And I love it when writers break them.

Below are some writing rules (ones I've read about, heard at conferences or found on the web) and some great examples of how to break them.

RULE:  Don't start your story with an onomatopoetic word.
RULE BREAKER: Pam Bachorz "Candor"
 First line in her great book:
"CA-CHUNK, CA-CHUNK, CA-CHUNK. The sound drifts through my bedroom window. Pokes through my homework haze."

RULE: Avoid use of flashbacks.
RULE BREAKER:  Gayle Forman "If I Stay"  
As she lies in a coma, seventeen-year-old Mia must make a choice between life and death. The story is told in a series of flashbacks. It is gripping and beautiful.

RULE:  Never start with your character waking up.  I had a list of books I've read that started with the mc waking up, but seemed to have lost it. So I went onto the kidderlit random first line generator to find these. (If you don't know this site, it generates first lines to pb/mg/ya books. It's addictive.)
RULE BREAKER: Eve Bunting "The Banshee" 
First line:
"I'm half asleep when I hear her wailing."
RULE BREAKER: Kristen Tracy "Camille McPhee Fell Under the Bus"
First line:
"When I woke up and kicked the covers off, I moved my legs back and forth like a superpowered scissors."

RULE: A first line should get the reader right into the action.
RULE BREAKER:  Lucy Maud Montgomery  "Anne of Green Gables"
The first sentence is 148 words long. It's not about Anne at all. Here's a link if you want to read it.    It's not really fair to hold this book to contemporary rules and standards since it's over a hundred years old. But I adore this book. And I get a kick out of the long opening line so it's always worth mentioning.    

When I find my misplaced list of rule breakers, I'll post some more. So how do you feel about breaking the rules and do you notice when other writers do it?                                            


Mike Jung said...

I've always felt that the rules are important to know as a STARTING POINT - I know that as a newbie writer (I'm gonna arrogantly think of myself as no longer a newbie, ha!) I wanted and needed to learn all the rules because personally I need some boundaries to work within! That's true on a creative level, but it's true in regard to being a part of the industry as well. Once the rules have become firmly planted in my mind it becomes possible, realistic and sometimes even necessary to break them, because I also believe that it's vital to expand those creative boundaries in order to keep evolving as a writer. But creative rule-breaking can't be done willy-nilly - it has to happen with a solid understanding of the rules in place, because those rules exist for a reason, and breaking them can only be done effectively if the writer truly knows why and how to break them.

Anne Mazer said...

Wonderful post, Nan! I LOVE this! For every rule, there's a successful rule-breaker.
Rules don't work for every single person. You have to carefully determine whether they work for you or not. They're actually guidelines. If they serve you, use them. If they don't, ignore them.

Dana Carey said...

I enjoyed this post, Nan. Looking forward to reading your list of misplaced rulebreakers. Maybe Chi can help you sniff them out? :)

nanmarino said...

Mike, Knowing the rules has made me a better writer but I totally agree with you that breaking the rules helps you "expand creative boundaries and evolve as a writer". Great line.
Anne, I can't think of many other parts of my life where rules are meant to be used as guidelines. Not exactly sure that the "if the rules serve you, use them. If they don't ignore them" philosophy would work in my day job as a librarian:) . And yet, in writing, it's a perfect way to look at rules.
Dana, Ha! If it were in her treat box, maybe.

Hilary said...

I like to break rules or at least test them to the limits. I didn’t realize there were so many writing rules, and I find it funny not using flashbacks are one of them. I can think of so many books that have used that technique….Chi is a cutie!

nanmarino said...

Hilary, I agree with you about flashbacks. I think they're used a lot more in adult lit than in YA/MG, but they do seem to be used often.
On behalf of Chi, thanks.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Mike. Rules are good when you start out, but once you learn the craft you can explore ways to effectively break them.