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ASK THE EDITOR Breaking the Rules

By Susan Malone

November 2001

Rules abound in the writing world (I’d say the “literary” one, but publishing these days has precious little to do with anything actually literary).  Rules, however, govern the craft.  You know the ones: Show Don’t Tell; Use Active Voice; Avoid Sentence Fragments; Tighten; Don’t Shift Viewpoints Within Scenes; Focus; Structure All Scenes.  The list is endless. 

These rules exist for a reason.  And that reason is not only to satisfy grammar and composition teachers, but to help the writer get the most from her word buck, and for the reader to have a clear and clean and well-written book so that he can zip through the action segments, puzzle over the mysteries, and ponder those parts that the author intended.  In short, writing is all about communication, whether we’re talking fiction or non.  You, as the author, are trying to convey something to your reader.  This runs the gamut from how to make a better guacamole dip to solving the perfect murder to contemplating/understanding the secrets of the universe.  And the way in which you write your book, the rules you use, and those you break all add up to whether or not the whole package works. i.e., if you get your intent across in the manner that best facilitates THIS book. 

And that’s the point.  The rules are there for YOUR benefit, as the author, to use at your discretion to fashion the best possible read for your audience.  Period.  And conversely, the ones you break can make your book.

First off, however, you must know the rules.  So you study and learn them, understand them, use them.  Once you’re familiar with them inside and out, then and only then can you begin to break them.  And then, ONLY for specific reasons.  In other words, you must be able to justify to me (or another editor or agent) exactly why you broke this or that one, and what you sought to accomplish through it.  I see so many manuscripts where rules are broken all over the place and the writer doesn’t know he’s doing so.  Often I get responses to the effect of, “Well, such and such famous author did this in his last book.”  Yeah.  And did it work?  Did the author do so on purpose to achieve a specific effect, or was he merely sloppy, or worse, ignorant of his craft? 

As an example, Point of View shifts are rampant in new writers’ works.  Ninety-nine percent of the time, these writers don’t understand viewpoint rules in the first place, and must learn to work in Point of View correctly, which takes a lot of study (and often a lot of screaming to boot).  And then I’ll recommend some book that breaks the rules effectively to give a broader understanding.  Carlos Fuentes’ GRINGO VIEJO shifts viewpoints not only during scenes, not even just in paragraphs, but often within a single sentence.  Told in stream-of-consciousness, the read is quite difficult.  But it fits the subject matter perfectly—which too, is very difficult.  On the outside, the book is an action/adventure story, which one would think should lend itself to straightforward telling.  In actuality, however, the themes are much deeper, much more complex, and speak to the human psyche—which is, in itself, a rather difficult read.  Rest assured, however, that Fuentes knew what he was doing.

So the point here is that as a storyteller, your job is to use what works.  That’s the bottom line, and the only thing that truly matters.  In order to use what works, however, you must understand the correct form, why one way is correct and another an infraction, and then come to see the nuances underlying each.  Only then do broken rules work. 

How do you know if to break or not to break rules is effective?  You know.  That’s the paradox of this sort of creation.  Once you’ve put in the blood, sweat, and tears to really learn your craft, that other side of the brain kicks in and you “feel” your path, having an internal sense of the right one.  Esoteric, yes.  But then, this is a creative endeavor, no? 

It’s a long process.  One that will make every hair on your head turn gray (if you don’t pull them out first). As I’ve said before, when it comes to doing this job well, writing really IS rocket science. 

Susan M. Malone is a Contributing Editor to Authorlink.com, a multi-published author, and owner of a successful editorial service. Ten books she’s edited have been published or sold within the last three years. Check out her listing under Editorial Services, and email her at aaasuz@aol.com