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Thursday, May 20, 2010


Swimming in Words: Sometimes It's OK to Break the Rules

I have signed up for my third summer as a volunteer stroke and turn judge for my children's swim team. Recently, I went to the mandatory meeting, was handed a print out of several pages of the league's rules and regulations. As soon as the meeting started, my brain promptly switched gears to focus on the rules and regulations of creative writing.
In writing, we are often told to follow the rules. To send a pitch, include this. For a letter of introduction, include that. You'll look like an amateur if you do this; a pro if you don't. Write what you know. Don't use flashback. Use flashback. (I think you get my point!)
Writers in school or in their profession often start with the edges where we dare not cross over. The more comfort one can draw from the rules and the structure, often the more freedom one feels to break the rules. Sticking a toe over the edge. Testing the waters.
When in graduate school, one of my professors was Stan Colbert, who often regaled his classes with his experiences as an agent. Colbert explains that he represented Jack Kerouac, who came to the Sterling Lord agent with a 120-foot scroll that was his early manuscript for "On the Road."
Yes, a scroll. Even in the 1950s, I'm pretty sure "submit manuscript on a scroll" was not in the how-to manuals on succeeding as a writer.
During my revision, I have sometimes tried to capture the rules--following them to try to tease forth the best revision I can. For example, in the early part of the novel, I've been told not to use a flashback. But with each revision (and I've now lost count which revision this is), I've yet to find a strong way to explain one character's current state without slipping in some flashbacks.
When talking to a friend about this, she dropped the names of some books that use flashbacks. Published books. Books that ran the gauntlet and still saw publication without following all the rules.
So, for swimmers and writers alike, my point is: follow the rules, as much as you're able. But, as you grow and become stronger and more confident, there is some wiggle room.

What rules do you feel like breaking today?

Elizabeth King Humphrey, a writer and creativity coach, is in the midst of the 2010 WordCount Blogathon at The Write Elizabeth.

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Blogger Donda said...

Funny. I have never thought about the rules when I am reading; and I read a lot. Does the average reader really pay attention to rules or even realize there are rules? I think a good author is one that can draw you in, keep you interested and p#$$ you off that you have reached the end. I think the rules just crushed my pipe dream of ever being a "real" writer.

6:11 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth King Humphrey said...

An average reader may not pay attention to the rules, but they are there.
I agree, a good author is one who draws you in and keeps you interested. They also know how to use any rules to their advantage...or bend them well.
Don't think of rules crushing any dreams, but as guidelines to help plot and craft your narrative.
Thanks for your comment!

7:36 AM  

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