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Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Exercising "The Rules" of Fiction

Then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. ~ Mark 2:27

Those of us who are fiction writers hear a lot about “the rules.” I recently heard a new one—that similes are unacceptable. Are you kidding me!!! I’m a poet. A well-executed, well-timed simile is like a feast for the senses. Of course, an ill-executed, ill-timed simile can make you want to gag up said feast. Hmm…maybe that’s the point. It’s all about how well you do it.

All of these so-called “rules of fiction writing” are just someone’s attempt to capture that ephemeral entity known “great writing” and put it in a bottle. To give you a concrete guideline. But the rules are a means and not an end unto themselves.

Here are Dina’s “Rules About the Rules.”

1) You can break any writing rule if you do it well.
2) Apply the 10% caveat: feel free to break any rule 10% of the time.
3) Over adherence to any single rule will result in breaking another.

I’ve seen too many friends run in circles by Dina's rule #3. And no wonder when critiquers and judges shoot out comments like sniper bullets. They often give vague advice with no real training on how to apply the advice. The writer thinks they’ve applied the advice and gets in trouble with another judge or critiquer who seems to tell her to change it back.

The real problem is, the writer misunderstood and misapplied “the rule.” Let me give you some examples.

Often writers are told they shouldn’t have backstory for the first 30 or even 50 pages. True and not true. We need to have a feel for who these people are after all. What we can’t have is long, boring backstory dump. But please, do weave in hints and quick targeted details. A mention of lingering tension between the character and her mother in the dialogue. A hint of her history with the hero linked to a sensory detail. Perhaps tell us her occupation in her internal monologue. You can give us backstory…if you do it well.

Here’s another one. A friend of mine was recently (oh no! adverb usage) told she had too much description. So she stripped it all out. What? Description is the basis for setting. And the reader couldn’t picture the scene at all. You need setting. What you don’t need is long, boring description in list-like fashion. But please, do weave setting into the action. Show the character interacting with the setting. Allow it to spark her inner monologue. Let us experience the sensory details along with her. You can give us description…if you do it well.

We all know clichés can never, ever be used in fiction. But, wait! (beware of exclamation points) What if you have one specific person in the story who clings to the safe and familiar never venturing out on their own. Clichés in their dialogue can actually strengthen characterization. I would argue that you can use clichés (say it with me everyone)…if you do it well.

Yes fellow writers, rule #1 is true. You can do anything. You just need to do it well. This reminds me of a corollary in the dance world (being very careful not to word this as a simile. Sheesh people!) Sometimes you’ll see a novice dancer who thinks that because she can kick her leg to head height, that she’s ready to be a professional.

Not true.

What she doesn’t understand is that her foot must be turned out, her hip properly fixed in place, her knee straight, her toes pointed into a lovely arch, her arms situated in the correct position. All at the same time.

And how do professional dancers learn a proper kick? By a judge or critiquer telling them once. No no no, my friends. By doing thousands of hours of exercises to strengthen, hone, and stretch their muscles. By starting with small foot brushes on the floor and slowly working up to big kicks to maintain proper technique.

Yes, it (yikes! not an it) takes training. Years and years of long, hard training. You don’t get to say, “I’ve watched plenty of dance recitals. I can do that.” You have to put in the work to develop the strength, skill, and technique yourself.

The “rules” are not a quick-fix to great writing. Writing, and writing, and writing creates great writing. Studying the craft, attending conferences, taking classes. These are the keys to great writing.

So, my fellow writers, as the next round of critiques comes along to bludgeon you in the head, don’t get discouraged. Get back out on the dance floor and exercise your fiction muscles (gracious me, did I just mix metaphors?!?!), understanding that it will take time, patience, and practice to become great.

For those of you who aren't writers, what really bothers you in a book? What rules do you wish authors would follow? Also, how can you apply this lesson to other areas of your life? And for my fellow writers, what rules do you love? Which ones do you despise? Have you been caught in a circle with rule #3?

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