Sunday, November 13, 2011

Rule Following vs. Rule Breaking: A Debate

It's no secret that the odds are stacked against aspiring authors.  With so many published books out there and seasoned writers writing more every day, publishers are simply taking less chances on debut authors.  (And why would they?  Why take a risk with Johnny No-name when Stephen King is guaranteed to make your wallet fat and happy?)  But of course, all hope is not lost, and agents, editors, and authors are always giving aspiring writers tips to increase their chances of success.  The most common tip I've heard is to not rock the boat--to "play it safe" and follow all the standard writing "rules" to make sure your book is as polished and professional as it can be.  We writers then throw ourselves into workshops, classes, and conferences, desperate to learn what these "rules" are.  
From my experience, the "rules" consist of common, tried-and-true newbie writer issues like tense changing, weak dialogue, sagging plots, and HEAD HOPPING.  Eagerly, we writers eat up these lessons and hasten to eradicate such issues from our manuscripts, hoping that little extra shine will make our work stand out from the slush.  As an overachieving, rule-abiding, straight-A student throughout my entire life, you don't need to tell me twice not to do something before I'll avoid it like a peanut butter and tuna fish sandwich.  (Yuck.)  My logic has always been: follow the rules and the rewards will come.  But what happens when somebody shatters that logic and BREAKS THE RULES?
Recently, I picked up a 2011 children's novel by a debut author.  I'm not going to say what book it was, but it was published by a well-known house and even recognized as a Junior Library Guild Selection.  I had been super-excited to read the book and heard wonderful things about it.  But when I opened the first page, I found--to my utter horror--HEAD HOPPING!  And on page two?  More HEAD HOPPING.  And pages three through 300+?  HEAD HOPPING GALORE!  I furrowed my brow and frowned at my walls, puzzling, "How is this possible?  HOW IS THIS POSSIBLE?"
For all you non-writing folk, "head hopping" is when a 3rd Person Point of View story hops from one person's perspective to another (and another and another) all within the same scene.  It has been drummed into my head as a huge Writing No-No.  It has also been stamped into my "rule book" that if you want to tell your story from multiple characters' perspectives, then the proper thing to do is to break up each viewpoint by chapters and/or chapter breaks (you know, those "* * *" things).  When I found out I inadvertently did this in my own book (as we all do from time to time), I grabbed my writing rubber gloves and mop bucket and scoured the pages until those POV's were as squeaky clean as I could make them.  (And I guarantee, some spots still linger despite my best efforts--that's what critique buddies are for!)  But this debut author broke that rule--and neither their agent, nor editor, nor anyone else on the publishing staff, made them change it.
While I applaud this debut author for dragging themselves out of the dredges of the slush pile, I am perplexed.  Don't get me wrong--the book itself had an interesting story, likeable characters and vivid details--but this technical issue seemed to be a biggie.  And because this Writing No-No is on my radar, it made the book difficult to read.  For me, it was very hard to keep track of which character knew what secret and was plotting what scheme when I was in everyone's head.  And I mean EVERYONE'S head, not just one or two characters.  One chapter alone looked something like: Character A, Character B, Character C, Character A, Character D, Character B, Characters E,F,G, and then back to Character A.  My inner rule-follower screamed, "Not Allowed!"  But, this author got a book deal, earned glowing reviews, and seems to be getting along just fine without my precious "rules."  (Although, I can't help but wonder how the book would have turned out if someone on staff said, "Let's try a rewrite following just one or two characters instead...")
This situation has rocked the foundation of my writing code.  I'm starting to feel that the rules of writing are like the rules of Fight Club: Rule #1--There are no rules in writing.  Rule #2--There are no rules in writing.  (Rule #3--Writing is full of frustrating contradictions.  Arm thyself with chocolate.)  
So what's an aspiring author to do?  Follow those suggested "rules" like an obedient, good little writer, or scoff and say, "Rules, schmules--I'll write my book as I darn well please!"  (Or, as Captain Jack Sparrow would reason, "They're more like guidelines anyway.")  I'm honestly not sure which road is the best to follow, although I doubt I'll be forging my own rebel path anytime soon.  (I am more of a, "Rules?  Yes, please!" sort of person.) 
Cap'n Jack don't care much for rules.
What do you think about this conflicting situation for newbie writers?  Would you play it safe or blaze your own defiant path to publication?
 Note: Images are from Google.  Jack Sparrow and POTC quote are (c) Disney.      

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