October 23, 2015 / 4 Comments

Yeah, That’s True, Except…

            Okay, this is late.  A week and a day.  Do you want excuses?  I was away at New York Comic Con and then came home to layouts I needed to go over, on top of all the things I just needed to get caught up on. 
            So, that ate up some time.  Sorry.
            Anyway, I’ve mentioned this idea before, but a few recent blog posts and comments I’ve seen made me want to bring it up again.  If we’re going to talk about writing, we need to agree that any such discussion is going to get broken down into either rules or advice.  Or drinking, but that’s not relevant right now.
            Right now, I’d like to talk about the rules.
            Rules are things that all of us, as writers, have to learn.  No questions.  I need to learn what words mean and how to spell them.  I must have a firm understanding of grammar.  A solid grasp of structure is required.  Characters have to hit certain benchmarks. You may notice these things come up again and again when discussing good writing.  There’s a reason for that, and it’s not that professional writers and publishers and editors are all jerks.  Learning the rules means study and practice and failure and more study and more practice and more failure. 
            Why do I bring this up?
            See, I brought up the rules because they’re a good lead in to what I actually wanted to talk about.  Exceptions.  Those cases where the rules don’t apply. Some people love exceptions.  They approach them two different ways, but usually to get the same result.
            Allow me to explain.
            The thing about rules, as so many people have said, is that I have to learn them so I can understand when and where and how to break them.  Because all the rules are breakable.  Never doubt that.  Pick any rule I mention above, or any other rule I’ve ever blabbered on about here.  Mention it in the comments and I’m sure some of the other folks here can give a dozen examples
            Now, some folks think if the rules can be broken anyway, well, why should I bother learning them?  Richard Matheson and Daniel Keyes wrote stories with lots of spelling mistakes. Cormac McCarthy and Peter Stenson don’t use much punctuation.  If they don’t need to do all this, why should I bother learning it?
            Y’see, this mentality means I’m looking at the exceptions, not at the rule.  Yeah, I can point to a handful of stories that break the rules, but I can also point to tens of thousands that don’t.  More importantly, I can point to hundreds of thousands that broke them and were rejected for it.
            Here’s another way to think of this.  Driving a car means following the speed limit.  The exact numbers vary from state-to state, but we all acknowledge that driving in a school zone requires that I travel at a certain speed. So does going through a residential area or traveling on a freeway.  Makes sense, yes?
            An experienced driver knows there are situations where I can flex those rules, though.  There are times I can go a little faster through school zones or residential areas and not worry about it.  In all honesty, I’ve driven over seventy on the highway next to a police officer and only gotten a raised eyebrow.  A lot of you probably have similar stories.
            And yet… none of us are assuming traffic laws and speed limits no longer apply to us.  We just know how to work within the framework of the laws and when we can step outside of it.  We know the rules and we know how and when to break them.
            Contrast that with the guy who goes roaring through a residential area at 70mph in the middle of the day… and then gets annoyed with the officer who pulls him over.  He’s assuming he’s the exception.  He’s doing the same thing I did, but… he’s really not, is he?
            I can’t start with the assumption that I’m the exception.  That the rules or requirements don’t apply to me.  I’m always going to be bound by the same rules as every other writer, and I’m going to be expected to follow them.  Until I show that I know how to break them.  If I don’t know what I’m doing or why, I’m just a monkey pounding on a typewriter, unable to explain how or why I did something and also probably unable to do it again.
            Also, monkeys do not get paid well.
            Now, there’s another mentality I’ve encountered a lot of online.  This is that other way of viewing exceptions that I was talking about.   They’re the folks who use the exception to the rule as a means of dismissing the rule as a whole.  For example, you say every writer needs editing.  Except, I say, Yakko published his book without editing and it did very well.  Ipso facto, writers do not need to edit.  That rule’s out the window and can be ignored. I could probably give a dozen examples of this without trying, I just don’t feel like writing them all out.  Besides, you’ve probably seen them, too.  Everything I mentioned as a rule up above—and dozens more—there’s someone, somewhere right now arguing that’s a stupid rule that this exception proves doesn’t matter.
            Now, to be clear again, I’m not saying these exceptions don’t exist. That’d be silly—they clearly do.  But it’s important to understand that they are the exception. They’re the unusual rarity, not the common thing.  That’s why we’ve heard of them.  Just because there were a hundred news stories about a writer who turned in a handwritten manuscript on yellow legal pads and got it accepted does not mean the publishing industry prefers handwritten manuscripts or legal pads.  We’re only hearing about it because it’s such an oddball thing to happen.
            Now, I try to point out such things when I can, and I think I’ve been pretty open all along on the ranty blog that exceptions do happen.  But I don’t really push them. Honestly, if I had to offer or explain every exception to every rule, this blog probably never would’ve made it past the second or third post.  And each one would be the equivalent of thirty or forty pages long.  This is kind of a teaching 101 thing.  As I said above, you learn the rules, then you learn the exceptions to the rules. 
            Y’see, Timmy, exceptions don’t disprove the rule—they prove it.  Always.  If not editing or handwritten legal pad manuscripts actually demonstrated that these rules don’t matter, then shouldn’t we be seeing hundreds of examples?  Maybe thousands?
            And yet, we don’t.  The majority of our examples are still people following those basic rules.  And flexing them here and there where they can.
            So why do some people do this?  Why do they convince people to ignore the rules?  We could probably debate that for a while.  Regardless, it’s kind of like looking at a thousand cancer patients, finding that one person who spontaneously went into remission, and then loudly declaring no one needs chemo or to get those growths removed—cancer cures itself!  First, it’s just plain wrong. Second, it belittles the 999 other people who are all struggling to do things the right way and undermines the folks trying to help them.
            Exceptions are great.  They’re why all of us can do so much as writers.  But exceptions can’t be my excuse not to learn.  All these rules have developed over the decades for a reason, and they apply to all of us.
            No exceptions.
            Next time, I’d like to take a quick minute to reveal something.
            Until then… go write.
April 22, 2011

Beware the Bellboy

You’ll have to excuse me for running a bit late. My old laptop came to an unexpected end on Monday night and I lost the first draft of this post. Believe me, it was far more witty and insightful than what you’re about to read.

That being said…
As the story goes, there once was a young carpenter here in Hollywood who wanted to be an actor. He had trouble getting parts. The problem, according to his agent, was that the young actor sank too deep into his roles and never got noticed. He’d gotten a small supporting role as a bellboy and just vanished into the background. The agent pointed out that one of Tony Curtis’s first roles was playing a grocery store clerk, but he dominated the scene. “You looked at that guy and you knew he was supposed to be the star,” said the agent.
“I thought the point was you were supposed to think he was a grocery clerk,” said the frustrated actor.
And that young bellboy grew up to be Harrison Ford.
Who, let’s all be glad, also had enough sense to stop making Indiana Jones movies after Last Crusade.
(la la la la la la la la not listening la la la la la la la)
This fun observation by Mr. Ford hammers home a problem I’ve seen with a few narratives. It’s not uncommon for fledgling writers to center the narrative around a character and then tell a story that’s far beyond the scope of said character. nailing down the perspective a story is being told from is tough, and picking the wrong one can leave the story painted into one corner after another. This comes up most often in two forms—a first person person story and an epistolary story.
To recap…
In a first person story the reader gets everything through the eyes and thoughts of one of the characters. On the plus side, we get to know and see everything this character knows and sees. On the down side, we only get to know and see what this character knows and sees. First person is a very limited viewpoint. We don’t get the suspense of us knowing something’s happening that the character doesn’t know about. This also means we can’t be privy to extra detail, nor can we have any doubt if something did or didn’t register with the main character. To Kill A Mockingbird is a phenomenal first person novel, as are Moby Dick, A Princess of Mars, and Stephen King’s novella “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption.”
(Yeah, there’s no the in the original title. Seriously. Check it out.)
An epistolary novel is told through “existing” documents. As the name implies, it was originally letters, but it can also include journals, police reports, newspaper articles, and even blogs or tweets or social network updates. By its nature, a lot of epistolary writing comes across as first person, but there’s a notable difference. This form is very episodic. There are gaps in it where the “writer(s)” didn’t have time or inclination to put things down on paper. Dracula is an epistolary novel, as is Fred Saberhagen’s The Frankenstein Papers, and Mr. King did a rather horrific epistolary short story some of you may remember called “Survivor Type.”
Now the catch for both of these forms is that once a writer chooses to use them, they’ve just put themselves into what can be a very limiting viewpoint. If Wakko’s my main character, I can’t see, hear, or understand anything if he doesn’t. His limitations are mine. If he doesn’t know what happened out on Highway 10 that night, I don’t get to know.
More to the point, it’s going to make Wakko crumble as a character if he’s constantly stepping out of his boundaries. When he does know what happened out on Highway 10, as a reader I end up puzzling over how and when he found that out. If he suddenly reveals on page 120 that he studied Goju-ryu karate in Okinawa for twenty years, I’m going to wonder why this never came up before. Since I’m inside his consciousness, inconsistencies stand out like flares and each one means I’m going to believe in him less and less.
I recently read a book where the narrator goes to great lengths to tell us she has no writing ability. Oh, like anyone who graduated high school she knows the bare mechanics of how to write, but she’s not at that level that she’d consider herself a writer. Why, not counting work memos, this is probably the longest document she’s ever committed to paper (or computer memory). So hopefully we, the readers, will go easy on her as she tries to record the events of the past few days.
Said narrator then launches into a flourish of vivid metaphors, purple prose, elaborate sentence structure, and parallel constructions. This went on for the entire book. The vocabulary was the kind of stuff you might hear tossed around by Harvard alumns trying to outdo each other at literary conferences.
She did not come across as someone who never expressed themselves through writing.
Definitely didn’t sound like a grocery clerk.
Just as a quick note—some writers have managed to pull off stories where a first person character who should be ignorant of certain facts manages to convey enough information for the audience to understand what’s really going on. Perhaps he or she has some knowledge that goes against the character we’ve seen so far. We’ve all seen stuff like this. The illiterate guy who manages to describe a stop sign, the Neanderthal girl who explains a pistol, or the bellboy who it turns out has a degree in chemical engineering so he can help thwart a terrorist attack. You can get away with this once or twice, but it’s a device that wears thin fast so you shouldn’t be depending on it for an entire book.
Now, there’s a somewhat-related problem that tends to crop up in epistolary work. Some writers litter the journals and letters there creating with typos and misused words. The idea here is this makes the documents (and thus, the characters behind them) seem more real because they contain the kind of errors that real people make, especially folks who aren’t usually writing for an audience. And, let’s face it, it also spares those writers from learning how to spell or bothering to do any sort of editing.
The catch here is that any typo is going to knock a reader out of the story. It’s going to be an even bigger hit if the reader stops to figure out if this was a deliberate mistake or just… well, a mistake. Like up above when I used there when it should’ve been they’re. All of you stumbled on it, and a few of you probably stumbled even more as you paused to figure it out if, being the sneaky bastard I am, I was doing it for a deliberate effect. And I was. And you still stumbled and paused.
A great example of doing this correctly is the book Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes. It’s the epistolary story of a man named Charlie who’s mentally challenged. If you felt cruel, you could call him severely retarded. The book, in theory, is a journal his doctors have asked him to start writing. It’s painful to read. Charlie can barely spell, has only the barest understanding of grammar, and no real idea how to express himself.
His doctors are giving him a series of treatments and surgeries, though, and as the book progresses the journal entries become clearer and more elaborate. At one point they actually get close to going the other way—Charlie has become so smart he’s taken over the enhanced intelligence project and is using his journal for research notes and brainstorming. Now the journal’s almost unreadable because it’s so advanced! The language he uses becomes one of the elements Keyes uses to show the reader how much Charlie is changing.
So one of the big tricks with these two formats is to create a character who’s believable and relatable, but still has the abilities, intelligence, and experience to deal with whatever challenges the plot may throw at them. A cheerleader may be great for figuring out who ruined homecoming, but not as much for an assassination plot. A Nobel-prize winning physicist isn’t going to be much help at harvest time. The trans-warp drive on a starship is probably going to be out of the range of the guys who work at Jiffy Lube.
Choose your character wisely.
Next time, I was going to blather on about the world we live in. Or, at least, the one we thought we were living in.
Until then, go write.