Are there Writing Rules?
This is a bit of a deviance from my schedule. Sorry, I DO WHAT I WANT. I mean... I hope you enjoy this discussion.
Normally, I like to keep my blogs reader-focused, but lately, I’ve had this particular blog post nagging me. You see, most of my Twitter interaction is with other authors. It’s an amazing community, but sometimes there are a few strange ideas that go floating around.
One such idea that I’ve seen lately is that there are no “writing rules”. In other words, there is no standard for good storytelling.
Is that true? We all know there is such a thing as a “bad” story. Most, for instance, would say that Stephanie Meyer's Twilight, while popular, is poorly written. Or that A Charles Dicken’s novel might have flawless prose but the plot lacks an appeal for most modern audiences. Or that Jane Austin is timeless in almost every way. And there are some books that nobody can stand. Have you ever heard of the Harry Potter Fan Fiction, My Immortal? Look it up and get a laugh.
Some popularity can be attributed to trends. Yes, certain stories gain more interest from particular cultures or during a specific time period. Anne Rice often mentions that her Vampire Diaries fluctuate in sales as vampires come and go. And most books have a natural life, a period after they are published when they will hit their sales before they sink into obscurity.
So what is the answer, are there actual rules that make a story good? Are there standards that set apart good writers from bad writers, apart from taste that is?
To this I say:
While I understand the urge to tell writers that there are no rules, to comfort them when they are overwhelmed, I think that this is not just a lie but a dangerous idea. Eventually, it will end up doing more hard for them, than good.
I’ve read a lot of books, and I’ve read a lot of books that could barely pass for storytelling. Prose, though the concept of what “good” prose is changes, is important. Story structure is important. If you can’t understand as a writer how to construct a scene or how to convey emotion, you are going to frustrate your reader and yourself. I can’t even tell you how many books I’ve read that don’t know the basics of Point of View. Or that don’t understand what a climax is. Or that clutter the body of their work with “stuff”, all just happening without impacting the plot or affecting the characters.
It might sound a bit cruel to say it, but just because you have a “story” inside you, doesn’t mean that you deserve to be a writer. Writing is hard! There are hours of studying, of sifting through bad advice and rolling up your sleeves to write thousands upon thousands of words. Words that will probably end up in the garbage because they are unreadable. If it was easy, where would that value be in it, though?
But this is good news.
For writers, you can improve! As my Aunt used to say, perfect practice makes perfect. So, as you write, find your voice, your style, your audience, you can only improve. And yes, sometimes "breaking the rules" ends up giving you a better book, but don't just do it because you are too lazy to learn! Don't be satisfied with your best, make your best better. Make each book an improvement. If you don't want to write well, what is the point of writing? There are much easier things to do.
And for readers, writers care about you. You aren’t just screaming your thoughts into the wind. Yes, we write what we love...we are readers too after all. (at least we should be) But most writers who are serious about their craft will actually care about their readers. We don’t want you to be bored, or angry. We want you to pick up our books. So we are going to keep working to make ourselves worth your time.
I know as a writer, I am so grateful when a reader will give me the gift of their time and confidence. I am not going to ever treat that lightly.
So what do you think? Are there writing rules? Can we apply “rules” to art?