I follow a lot of writers over on Twitter (and I’m friends with two or three of them), and it’s not unusual for a lot of them (and me, too) to occasionally toss out storytelling advice of one kind or another. As best you can in 280 characters, anyway. Or a longish-thread. Sometimes it’s random encouragements or self-care reminders. A fair amount of time it’s basic guidelines or rules. It all depends on what sparked this particular bit of Twitter-musing.
When we’re talking about guidelines that talk usually revolves around publishing–the business side of things—and how it may affect our writing. Manuscript length. Genre definitions. The preferences of a certain agent or editor.
If someone’s talking about rules, it’s usually stuff every writer eventually has to learn. I need to know what words mean and how to spell them. I’ve got to have a solid understanding of structure. A firm grasp of grammar. My characters will need to measure up in certain ways. The stuff that we see come up again and again, oddly enough, when we talk about good writing.
And the sad truth is, learning the rules generally means study and practice and failure. Followed by more study and more practice and more failure. And eventually some success.
Now, as you’ve probably guessed, anytime someone offers advice like this… there’s pretty much always someone who argues against it. They’ll mention an article they read about someone who did it differently or another tweet they saw about an editor who bought something that didn’t follow the guidelines. In short, they’re pointing to an exception to the rule in an attempt to disprove the rule.
A lot of the time, oddly enough, these folks are doing this to justify their own opinions and preferences. I don’t like statement X, or what it implies, so I’ll find an example where X isn’t true and use it as proof that X is never true. Therefore, my opinions and preferences aren’t wrong.
Now, let’s be clear on one thing—there are always exceptions to the rule. Always. Anyone who tells you that something is never-question-it, 100% always this way can be ignored. Especially if they shriek “no exceptions!!” I don’t care who they are or how many million copies they’ve sold (or not sold, as is more often the case)
Exceptions to the rule are very, very rare. You could say exceptionally rare. That’s why they’re the exception and not the rule.
I mean, sure, there’s a double handful of authors who sold awful manuscripts filled with horrible spelling, bad grammar, and not the slightest clue about formatting. But the vast majority of those manuscripts never made it past the first reader for an agent or editor. We can point at a dozen or so people who sold their first book because they knew/ were related to/ were sleeping with the right people. But there are tens of thousands of writers (probably hundreds of thousands over the years)who broke in by taking their time and writing really good books. And, yeah, maybe I can point to a few people who sold the first draft of the very first novel they wrote. But I can also point to the tens of millions of people—actual, literal millions—whose first draft submissions were rejected.
Now of course, the downside of this is… well, it means most of us aren’t the exception. We’re all in the majority. And nobody wants that. Nobody likes the thought of eventually breaking in, we want all the success and recognition now! We want to be the exception!
And maaaaaybe we are. Maybe what we’ve done is good enough that it doesn’t matter I broke a ton of rules and guidelines. But we definitely shouldn’t assume we’re the exception. Because that’s where things get dangerous. Just ask Vesna Vulovic.
(yes, I’m going to tell this story again)
For those of you who never heard me explain this at the Writers Coffeehouse (either at Dark Delicacies or Mysterious Galaxy), Ms. Vulovic was a flight attendant back in the early ‘70s. And in 1972, the airliner she was working on was bombed in mid-flight. She was trapped inside the plane’s hull as it plunged over six miles to the ground.
Vesna didn’t die. She fell 33,000 feet to the ground and survived. In fact, she was only in the hospital for a couple of months before being discharged. She recovered for a bit longer, but ultimately she was… fine. She ended up with a limp. That’s it. Seriously. She just died a couple of years ago, in her mid-sixties.
So… anyone here want to assume they’re that exception to the rule? Feel like taking that chance? Sure, the vast majority of people would die horribly after a six mile fall—I mean, assuming our hearts didn’t explode during the fall—but Vesna did it so I guess it probably applies to everyone, right?
What? No takers?
As I was saying, it can be dangerous to 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 pretty much 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.
Now, again, I’m not saying exceptions don’t exist. That’d be silly—they clearly do. But it’s important to understand they are the exception. They’re the unusual rarity, not the common thing. That’s why we’ve heard of them—because it’s such an oddball thing to happen. Like, y’know, surviving a six-mile drop.
But exceptions can’t be my excuse not to learn those rules and guidelines. All these rules have developed over the decades for a reason, and they apply to all of us.
Well… the vast, overall majority of us.
Next time… I’m kinda drawing a blank to be honest. I’m about to dive into something new and that’s occupying a lot of my headspace is right now. Feel free to toss suggestions or requests down below, and if I don’t get any, I guess I’ll come up with something.
Until then… go write.