Jul 6, 2015

Ramblings on Writing Rules

I’ve always loved writing advice and writing rules. Okay, okay, so not always, seeing as I never  gave a hoot about this sort of thing before I got serious about writing. But since then, as far as entertainment goes, devouring blog posts about the craft has been up there with reading Jane Austen novels and eating dessert. And before we go any further, let me make it known that I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with writing advice.  (Unless, of course, it’s utterly lousy writing advice, in which case I’ll agree there’s a problem, or if the argument is that reading about writing is so fun one doesn’t get around to actually writing. *whistles innocently*) If I did, I wouldn’t be dishing it out.
However. I’ve semi-recently realized that my obsession with following writing rules has, in fact, had a negative impact on my writing, and a quick Google search reveals I’m not alone. There are a plethora of other great articles that discuss this phenomenon, along with possible courses of action to counteract it. My favorite, put out so frequently in some variation or another that I’m hesitant to attribute it to any one person, is: “I treat writing rules like the Pirate’s Code. You know, really more like guidelines.” A very fine point, that, but I’ve found it useful to go further and examine the roots of the matter,  and my hope is that my musings prove helpful to those of you in a similar pickle.
I think the roots of the matter lie in emphasis and prioritization. Hold those thoughts; it’ll take me a minute or fifteen to bring them full circle.  Often when I hear prioritization, what comes to mind is somebody trying to convince me that what they want to do should be my highest priority. When it comes to writing rules, that somebody is myself.  I insist -  to the point of editing out my own voice - that every single plot must be meticulously structured; that every single paragraph must be properly vetted; that every single dialogue tag must be replaced with an action beat. Hopefully it’s clear that while this path of rigid focus and perfectionism might improve my mechanics in select passages, it’s ultimately not a path conducive for growth as a writer. So how do I get off this path? Retracing my steps is a good place to start, so I guess that brings me to the question, “How did I get on this path?”
I don’t specifically recall the first time I read writing advice; thanks to elementary school Language Arts, I was exposed to it before I sought it. But, crazy as it sounds, I think elementary school Language Arts was where the seeds were planted, seeds that became ugly plants with the ‘roots of the matter’ I’m prattling on about. See, in fourth grade, I took a big standardized writing test designed to test students’ ability to meet certain standards. Standards ranged from things as basic as putting periods at the ends of sentences to things like “using vivid vocabulary” and “showing creativity”.  Outside the classroom, I learned  fancy words and imagination at least in part from books and family dinnertime conversations.  Inside the classroom, though, essay dates loomed, and in order to ensure that each kiddo could churn out a halfway decent five-paragraph paper by spring, more concrete and practical steps had to be taken. Word lists had to be memorized. Instructions for incorporating originality had to be obeyed.  It’s not that my fourth grade teachers were cold and cruel with no concept of a love for learning, oh no.  They encouraged discussion and curiosity and were overall pretty awesome people. But nevertheless, the lesson I subconsciously learned was that the art of good writing is conforming to a code to earn the approval of the Powers That Be.
By the time I was prowling around the internet for writing tips in middle school, I had embraced this idea unabashedly, except now my code came not from the state standards but from author blogs. Why did the principle take such a strong hold on me? Apart from early educational influences and the voices of the world wide web, one of the biggest reasons was that there was a period of time when I viewed areas of life through a lens of legalism.  I thought that to follow Christ was to live up to the standards and image of A Good Christian. I thought that the way to make friends was to fit in and impress people so much they’d enjoy my company. Across the board, spoken and unspoken rules held attraction in their consistency and promises.  Obey, and you’ll be okay.  Better than okay, even. If only you follow us, you can earn the title of brilliant or witty  or popular or angelically good.  With these mindsets running rampant, is it any wonder that they spilled into my writing process? That instead of keeping writing rules in their proper place as a necessary tool to build my stories, I’ve started making adherence to them the pinnacle of my ambitions so that I can bask in self-congratulations whenever I delete an adverb?
It’s easy to spot this line of thinking with the nitpicky rules one worries about in line edits, but the more I dig the more I see how pervasive it is. Too often I take sound tidbits and twist them into something stifling.  “Give the main character a good goal” becomes “Pick a ‘cool’ character goal that has what writing gurus would deem acceptable potential, never mind whether your heart is deeply invested in the story that would stem from it”.  Because of my craving for people to praise my premise, I lose sight of my love for writing with passion.  “Make the main character likable” becomes “Obsessively scroll through Goodreads and compile a list of characteristics reviewers want to see more of and pet peeves that are sure to land your heroine with labels like whiny and passive and angsty, and correspondingly construct a lead playing perfectly into the everyone’s expectations”.  Writing the right kind of character starts to seem more important than writing a character I care about.
Clearly the feat of fulfilling every aspect of the mythical Perfect Writing Formula is impossible, but let’s reflect for a moment on how absurd it would be if someone were actually happy about achieving this. It’s akin to a cook getting more excited about following recipes than making food. Of course there are recipes tried and true that include the key ingredients of a cake, but when was the last time you made a cake, tried a piece, and considered the confection a success because you used exactly three cups of flour and a tablespoon of sugar? The problem with coming to that conclusion  isn’t that three cups of flour and a tablespoon of sugar are bad things to put in the batter, or that you shouldn’t take pleasure in a job well done. Rather, declaring the inclusion of sugar and flour the highest priority forces you to accept that cake is nothing but a few elements thrown together, and it robs you of the reason you put sugar and flour in there in the first place: to have a cake with a sweet taste and the right texture.
By putting undue emphasis on methods someone decided one needs to follow to write a book, I risk forgetting that the crucial part of a novel plotting worksheet is the space I fill with snippets of my own story, and forgetting what it is I’m really after. If I long merely for recognition of my ability to hop through hoops, I might as well put my pen down here and now. Because I believe good writing can be and should be so much more than that. I believe it can be a force of power and beauty. And I believe that it should imitate life.  If we reduce our art to a collection of techniques and tricks, it instead imitates a machine, cold and predictable. It can do no more than mindlessly follow specifications.
I never aimed to write books mechanically, and I’d hazard a guess that those of you who walk this path with me didn’t, either. The good news is, that’s where this path leads, not where it starts. Before I wanted to write a narrative essay that would get me a top score on the fourth grade writing test, before I wanted to write a book that would get me billions of dollars and a spot on the bestseller list, I just wanted to write a good story. (Of course, I don’t think that should be my only end in writing, either, but that’s a discussion for another post.) I’ve retraced all my steps, and now it’s time to start taking new ones. And so we're back to asking, "How?"
I wish there were a nice checklist of things to do to become less legalistic, or a  step-by-step manual for becoming less method oriented,  but there’s no escaping the fact that it’s my core emphasis that has to change. Just as I need to make knowing God my priority instead of my prowess at keeping a Bible reading schedule, and just as I have to focus on loving others and forming genuine connections them instead of obsessing over what they think of me every other second, I must also make sure the question concerning a part of my manuscript is “Does this serve the story?” instead of “Does this follow the rules?”.  Showing-not-telling is great if it strengthens a scene, but not if all I’m showing is filler that makes the pacing drag. Cutting a modifier is the right thing to do if it makes a sentence more concise, but not if it detracts from the meaning I was trying to get across. And if something contributes to the voice of the piece, it stays.
If I can pay attention to these things, then maybe I can be reminded that good writing consists of something greater than tight descriptions.
Maybe I can learn to let my humor and heart and experience flow into my writing to be refined rather than trying to use a list of rules to somehow brute-force a book into being what the world thinks is funny, touching, and true to life.
And maybe I can realize that imbibing all the writing advice in the world won’t help me if I have nothing to say.  
If you relate, have something to add, or feel compelled to inform me that this post is the reflection of a fool bumbling her way to the obvious in a roundabout fashion and trying to pass it off as wisdom, you're welcome to share in the comments! However, I'll be in the car all day today and tomorrow, so I won't be the speediest in replying. 

- Miri Williams

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