March 21, 2009 / 1 Comment

No Exceptions. None. Usually.

A week or three back I was browsing over the responses I get here. Luckily there’s only six or seven of you reading this, and I’m sure you’re all busy writing your own stuff, so it didn’t take long.

Anyway, I noticed an interesting thing. One of the most common forms of response here was the “Ahhhh, but…” They weren’t as emphatic or strongly worded as some of the ones you often find on most message boards, but they were there. Salt and peppered throughout the ranty blog.

If you can’t figure it, the “Ahhhh, but…” response is when someone counters a point with contradictory information. For example, I could say “Writing a blog will never help you get a film deal,” and someone could leap forward and say “Ahhhh, but isn’t that just what happened to Diablo Cody, writer of Juno? Not so smart after all, are you, Mister-wise-writer-guy?”

In even simpler words, the “Ahhhh, but…” response is when people point to the exception in an attempt to disprove the rule. Usually, they’re doing this to show that someone else did it the easy way, so we can’t fault them for trying to do it the easy way as well.

Now, let’s be clear on one thing—there are always exceptions to the rule. Always. Anyone who tells you that something is 100%, never-question-it always wrong can be ignored. Especially if they shriek “no exceptions!!”

Here’s the catch… exceptions to the rule are very, very rare. Exceptionally rare, you could say. That’s why they’re the exception and not the rule. For every person who sold the first draft of the first novel they wrote, there are millions of people who did not. Yeah, Kevin Smith got into Hollywood with a successful, low-budget indie film, but tens of thousands of folks have tried the same trick with no results. And, yes, Diablo Cody made a screenwriting career out of her blog—and that’s one out of how many blogs on the internet? One out of ten million? Fifty million? More?

That’s why most people trying to give you useful information, like myself, tell you to stick with all the established rules. It’s a longer, harder, and more frustrating path, but it’s still your best bet at success. Sure, I could sound a lot more positive and cheerful a lot of the time. I could say everyone’s a special snowflake, don’t worry about doing things wrong, and we should just do what feels good because we’ll all get published or produced some day. The overwhelming odds are, though, that I’d be doing all of you a disservice with such statements.

So, here’s my bit of advice for you, and it’s one I hope you’ve seen underlying most of the stuff I’ve said here since the first post you may have read.

The best thing you can do is assume you are not the exception to the rule. No matter how clever, how witty, how perfect your writing is, do not think of yourself as the one person who gets to ignore all the established standards. The absolute worst thing you can do is scoff at the rules and think they don’t apply to you. No matter how vastly superior your work is, always consider yourself working from the same level as everyone else.

The reason you should assume this is because the person reading your work is going to assume it. Nobody goes to a Friday the 13th film thinking it’s going to have an Oscar-winning metaphor for the Israel-Palestine conflict in it. You don’t pick up a Stephen King book for a tearjerker romance. And, personally, I’d be a bit shocked if Charlie Gibson decided to perform the ABC Evening News as an opera some night. We all have certain expectations we’ve built up, and these expectations all tend to fall in line with the rules.

Does that mean all these things won’t happen or can’t be done? Not at all. Your writing may be so utterly, mind-bogglingly spectacular that no one notices the abundant typos. The structure could be so rock-hard the reader will forgive and forget those atrociously dull opening pages. It’s even possible the idea is so fiendishly, unbelievably clever that nobody will pick up on the fact that every character is a paper-thin cut out carbon-copied from the cast of Heroes (not first season Heroes, mind you… I’m talking about fourth season Heroes)

However, here’s the one thing you can absolutely count on. The moment we notice that Jason Voorhees is now dressed in the colors of Hamas, see that Camp Crystal Lake has been bought out by a wealthy Hassidic group as a spiritual retreat, and read all this through a forest of misspellings and misused words… oh, at that moment we’re all going to groan. Our collective eyes will roll and the thought will cross all our minds—Dear God, I should probably just give up on this right now.

That’s what you’re fighting against when you want to be the exception to the rule. Your audience. They’ve seen attempts to break the rules again and again and again, and the overwhelming majority of these attempts have been simply awful. Remember, the exceptions are rare. Very rare. So when you veer away from the rules, everyone is going to go with the numbers and assume your work is simply awful, too.

In which case, it’s only throwing gas on the fire if you just swaggered in, tossed down your manuscript, and announced it to be a work of staggering genius. Those two things combined will pretty much guarantee your manuscript goes in the large pile on the left, regardless of how good your writing may get around page thirty or so.

A nice, simple rule of thumb. If at any single point you find yourself questioning if something matters—assume it does. Does my main character need to be developed more than this paragraph? Will a reader care that I misspelled forty or fifty words? Do I need to make that part of the story clearer? Should I bother to look up the exact format rules for this?

Your default answer for all of these questions needs to be yes.

Again, this doesn’t mean it can’t be done, and there’s always that chance someone might sit through Friday the 13th Part XII: Dredel of Death and walk out saying “Wow… you know, I never looked at the Middle East in those terms before. It’s so clear now how foolish we’ve all been.” I mean, forget Oscars, we’re talking about a Nobel Peace Prize for Jason this time around. It’s hard for established writers to pull off that sort of thing, though, so aspirants really need to be aware of the very, very steep climb ahead of them if they go in thinking the standards don’t apply to them.

You shouldn’t be scared to do something new, because if you break the rules—break them well, mind you—you’ll get noticed and rewarded for it.

Just remember that a lot of people break the rules because they don’t know what they’re doing… and you don’t want to get lumped in with them.

Next week, we’ll discuss the fact that not all explosions are exciting, and a great deal of drama is not dramatic.

Until then, go write.

June 13, 2008 / 1 Comment

The Rules

One of the challenges with writing is that it’s something you can only learn by doing. You can take classes, read books, and study examples, but at the end of the day the only way to improve your writing is to write. I’m not saying all that other stuff is bad, but remember my single, simple rule—find what works for you.

As you study the act of writing more and more, you’ll begin to discover countless hints, tips, and tricks. Each one has its own faithful followers, and some of these folks will swear by three or four more of these ideas. After awhile, you’ll find a large number of people fall into one of two camps.

First, there are those who think of writing as a mechanical process. They’ve broken it down to a hard, cold science with no talent or experience needed. There are set moments and beats and page counts and pacing and all of that. All paragraphs are three sentences minimum, seven maximum. Scenes are never longer than two pages. Introduce your main character by page six, and your first plot point by page eleven. Your conflict by page nine. Your antagonist by page fifteen. Action begins on twenty with a major turning point on page fifty-three. These are the folks who will quote Syd Field to point out the flaws in your screenplay, or use the MLA Handbook to explain why your novel will never be published.

These folks, by and large, are wrong.

At the extreme other end of this are the folks who think none of this matters. They’re the ones who broke the rules, tossed the guidebook out the window, and still roared past the finish line. Kevin Smith. Diablo Cody. Cormac McCarthy. Robert Rodriguez. These writers started from scratch, winged it, and came out on top. And, of course, they’ve got legions of students and online fans who all say “Well, if they did it, of course I can…” Page counts don’t matter. Formatting doesn’t matter. Spelling and punctuation don’t matter. What matters– the only thing that matters– is the pure, raw creative genius and letting it shine through, because that’s what people will see on the page and that’s what always matters. If you constrict yourself in any way with rules or guidelines, you’re just hampering your muse and diluting your talent.

These people are also wrong.

I’ve been lucky enough to attend conferences twice now where I got to listen to a very well-spoken agent by the name of Esmond Harmsworth. He gave a wonderful little talk the first time I saw him on ten rules for writing a mystery novel, and he set down some basic commonalities that all such stories have as far as location, characters, and complexity. What was even more interesting, though, was when he started talking about breaking these rules.

You see, if you follow every single rule for writing a mystery novel, a screenplay, or even a blog post, you’re following a formula. As in, a formula story. It’s where anyone with the slightest bit of experience can predict X, Y, and Z when all they’ve seen so far is A, B, and C. If you’ve watched a movie or television show where you can immediately guess who the murderer is, who the girl’s going to end up with, or how Captain Scarlet’s going to stop the missile launch, it’s probably because the writers are following a formula.

Now, that being said, you’ll notice there’s a lot of formula stuff out there. Formula is not necessarily bad. It’s the foundation and the ID card of every genre, and it’s the common thread that lets all of us access material. Hundreds of writers make really good livings writing novels, television shows, and movies that follow a formula.

Am I saying all formula is good? No.

Every now and then something comes along that breaks all the rules, twists every expectation, and is still magnificent. The novel (if it can be called such) House of Leaves is a prime example. Trying to even define that book is a whole separate post. It’s got a cult following and has been a bestseller in several countries (and several languages) for the past decade.

Does that mean any writer can do whateve they want? Nope. Especially not an unpublished, unproduced writer.

As a writer, you need to know what rules you need to follow and which ones you can get away with breaking. Which means you actually need to know what the rules are and how you’re breaking them. Study your chosen format. Study your chosen genre. Be aware that if you’re going to break a rule, you need a reason, and it can’t just be “because I felt like it.”

The vast majority of the stories you read will follow most of the basic guidelines for their form. The memorable ones will break a rule or two. The truly spectacular ones will break three or four. And in very, very, very rare– exceptionally rare– cases some writers may get away with shattering the rules altogether. The real trick is knowing why and how.

And if you don’t know why and how, don’t assume you’re the exception to the rules.