Writing Rules Made to Be Broken: The Rules You Delight In
There's a distinctly rebellious air about the Muse and the Marketplace Conference this year. Come April 6-8 at Boston's Park Plaza, #Muse18 presenters will be letting loose on the writing rules that have held our manuscripts hostage for far too long. To kick off the conversation ahead of the Muse weekend, this year's Muse series explores the writing, publishing, and workshop rules, conventions, and accepted norms that authors, agents, and editors at the Muse love to hate—and why they'd love to see them broken. Some presenters will also offer their own rules or conventions that they want to see adopted in writing and publishing spaces. This installment comes from Tim Weed, award-winning author of A Field Guide to Murder & Fly Fishing. Tim will be leading the Muse sessions Dreams, Visions, and Hallucinations in Fiction (filling!), Beyond Conflict: Sources of Narrative Drive in Fiction (full!), and Essentials of Backstory and Flashback in Fiction (also full!).
There’s an unwritten rule that dreams have no place in fiction. Perhaps you’re aware of it. No? Then maybe you haven’t taken enough workshops. It’s pretty high on the list of fiction-writing no-nos.
I was reminded of this immutable fact not long ago and it filled me with
Imagine my relief when I revisited the opening of a novel I consider one of the greatest of the century so far, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. If you haven’t read it or don’t remember that opening, take a look. It’s a powerful passage of the kind only McCarthy could write, and it’s a key piece of tone-setting for all that follows. And, well, it’s a dream. (Muse presenter Xhenet Aliu also debunks this rule brilliantly earlier in this series.)
This experience made me wonder if there were other widely accepted writing rules worth interrogating. Adverbs, for example, are another big no-no, to be avoided except in the direst emergency. But if you pick up The Great Gatsby and flip it open to almost any page, what do you find? Adverbs. Lots of them. Apparently, Fitzgerald could have used a more rigorous editor than Maxwell Perkins. Either that or maybe all those adverbs were of some use in creating the novel’s nuanced characters?
There are other rules, too; I’m sure you’ve run into at least a few of them. No “head-hopping,” to cite another example: you need to find a consistent point of view and stick with it for the duration of the scene. (Just don’t tell Tolstoy. Or Arundhati Roy. Or Paulette Jiles, whose News of the World was a recent National Book Award finalist.)
Here’s another one: avoid backstory whenever possible; it only slows the narrative down. (Hilary Mantel must not have gotten the memo, but then Bring Up the Bodies is such a yawn, isn’t it? Not to mention the backstory-riddled novels of John Le Carré.)
Come to think of it, rules abound in creative writing pedagogy—rules about beginnings, endings, characters waking up, sex scenes, semi-colons, cellphones, the passive voice, show don’t tell, avoiding “static” descriptive passages, the list goes on. And for every rule, you can find the most exquisite examples of writing that ignores or contradicts it.
Look, writers are human. We delight in rules, because the more rules we know, the less we have to think. Rules make our job easier, right? Who needs to reinvent the wheel?
The problem is, being a writer isn’t supposed to be an easy job. Every story worth its salt is a kind of game created by the author—a game with its own set of complex, customized rules. Sticking to rules laid out by others will only hobble you.
As much as we might sometimes wish otherwise, there are no universal, hard-and-fast rules in writing; there are only rules of thumb, and even those are highly suspect. What is beyond doubt is that for writers, rule-breaking is the most indispensable of skills.
Tim Weed's first novel, Will Poole's Island (2014), was named one of Bank Street College of Education's Best Books of the Year. His short fiction collection, A Field Guide to Murder & Fly Fishing (2017), has been shortlisted for the International Book Awards, the New Rivers Press Many Voices Project, the Autumn House Press Fiction Prize, and the Lewis-Clark Press Discovery Award. Tim is the winner of a Writer's Digest Popular Fiction Award and his work has appeared in The Millions, Colorado Review, Talking Points Memo, Writer's Chronicle, Talking Writing, Fiction Writers Review, and elsewhere. He lives in southern Vermont, works as a featured expert for National Geographic in Patagonia and Spain, teaches writing at GrubStreet, and is the co-founder of the Cuba Writers Program.
Colwill is an instructor and manuscript consultant at GrubStreet, an associate editor at Bat City Review, and an MFA candidate at the University of Texas at Austin. After graduating a scholarship awardee of GrubStreet’s Novel Incubator program, Colwill found representation for her first novel, Before We Tear Our Selves Apart, with Robert Guinsler of Sterling Lord Literistic, which is currently on submission to publishing houses. She is the recipient of the Wellspring House Emerging Writer Fellowship, the Henry Blackwell Essay Prize, and a Crawley-Garwood Research Grant, and has received fellowships and support from Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, The University of Texas at Austin, Boston College, Kansas State University, the Anderson Center for Disciplinary Studies, and GrubStreet. She was a finalist for the 2019 Tennessee Williams Fiction Prize, the 2019 Reynolds Price Award, the 2019 Far Horizons Fiction Award, the 2019 Disquiet International Literary Prize, and the 2019 Lit Fest Emerging Writer Fellowship. Colwill’s fiction is forthcoming in Granta and is anthologized in Everywhere Stories: Short Fiction from a Small Planet (Press 53). She has served on the editorial team for Post Road magazine, The Conium Review, Solstice Literary Magazine, and Pangyrus magazine. Colwill is a founding member of the Back Porch Collective, a Boston-based group of writers. With members connected to Cuba, India, Albania, Atlanta, Bosnia, Miami, Jamaica, and the UK, they bonded over a common passion for global narratives and literature’s potential to create empathy and understanding across all geographical, political, and cultural borders. Hailing from Yorkshire, in the north of England, Colwill is determined to introduce the word “sozzard” to the American vernacular. For a full list of publications, projects, and services, please visit colwillbrown.com.See other articles by Colwill Brown