Monday, January 10, 2011

Is Your Writing Good Enough to Break the Rules?

THIS IS NOT A REVIEW.  Now that we've established that...

I don't usually use specific books as examples of a point, but this book has had me chewing over the issue of 'rules' in fiction writing since I first picked it up:

The book is Caroline Overington's Ghost Child (you can find it on Amazon here). 

Ghost Child is the story of the manslaughter of a five-year-old boy in his own home. It is so rife with conflict, tension and suspense, I couldn't put it down. Overington drew me through the story with overlapping narratives that pressed the fascination and horror deeper with each page.  It was done so skillfully that I didn't immediately realize the first half of the book (approximately) kept me asking question after question.  The second half of the book kept answering them until, finally, I reached the end and closed the cover filled to brimming with equal parts grief and satisfaction.

Now, I have to tell you straight: I love the cover of this book, hate the title, knew nothing about the author and only picked it up because it was recommended to me by someone whose taste in books I trust (score one for word-of-mouth marketing).

But here's the thing:

The story is told.  From page one to page end, it's told (not shown!) in the truest sense of the word.

And (get this!) it switches Point Of View every single chapter.  True, the author returns to a couple of central characters more than once, but still... 

From a technical perspective, this book breaks two major bastions of the debut novelists' stable of commandments. 

I'll admit, there were moments in the early chapters that my internal editor cleared his throat.  (Yes, my internal editor is male... go figure).  But I was so enthralled, he never got past the first syllable before I was entrenched in the story again.

Why?  Because it works.

Girl can write.  She's not a Niffeneger (there were moments of clunk, or past-tense-ity I could have done without).  She's not a Cornwell (having worked for Police myself, I felt the crime aspect could have received more attention to imprint the reality of the situation a little earlier in the book).  But, Girl. Can. Write.

She knows people.  And in this book you meet a feast of characters, each one so real and unique, it's impossible not to identify with the individual - even when you dislike them.  Each tells the story to the reader as they see it - their own personal piece of the pie unfolded in their own personal words.  Literally. 

As the reader you feel like you're sitting across the table from someone while they tell you (a journalist?  The Coroner?  It's never stated who they're talking to) what they saw.

It's important to point out, this is not a "Help! A murderer is coming!" book. This is a "I feel sick because that sounds like my neighbor / friend / colleague" kind of book.  It's chock full of social commentary, honest prejudice, and shines a very bright light on the effectiveness (or otherwise) of the foster-care system.

If I told you what I'd learned from this book, you'd think I'd read an activist's propaganda.

Am I getting through yet? 

This.  Book.  Works.

It isn't perfect, and it isn't Hollywood (i.e. 'pretend' perfect).  It's just good, solid writing.  And I know, without a shadow of a doubt, I could never have pulled it off. 

I don't know Ms. Overington's story, or her editor.  But I do know, this was a risky approach.  And because she makes it seem simple, I'm sure a bunch of writers have read this and thought "I can do that!"

But I am not one of them.  Because I'm starting to learn the rules and realize how incredibly hard it is to deliver on them.  Breaking them?  That doesn't just take guts, it takes an inherent grasp of the proper techniques to the point that an author can layer 'good' writing into 'bad' practice. 

I'd highly recommend buying this book and studying it.  It's an example of what a person can do with everything outside the box - after they've mastered everything in it. 

But, think long and hard before deciding the rules don't apply to you. Because if you're going to go your own way you've got to write a better book than the guy who did follow the rules (if you want anyone else to pay you for it, at least).

That's the conclusion I've drawn, anyway.

What do you think?  Do you know 'the rules'?  Do you follow them?  How important do you think they are in the grand scheme of your writing?


  1. Excellent! I certainly enjoyed this post. It all comes down to good writing. Period. The better the writer the more rules he/she can break.

  2. "It's an example of what a person can do with everything outside the box - after they've mastered everything in it."

    Great statement. We've got to learn the rules before we're entitled to break them. I look forward to the day. :)

  3. I was reading about the composer Eric Satie recently. He was brilliant when he began composing and in fact, he quit University because he broke so many basic rules of composition that he drove his instructors (and himself) mad in the process. When he was in his late 30's or early 40's I believe it was, he returned to University because he realized that he NEEDED to know the rules if he was going to be effective at breaking them.

    Raw talents and impulses are of course, amazing gifts...but the maturity it takes to work hard at a craft, understand it, embrace it and then make the choice to break rules is honoring to those very rules rather than merely rebellious. It is vital to writing that speaks to us deeply and lives on past us as authors.

    thanks so much for this!

  4. Another fantastic post! One of the things I've learned as a writer is that yes, you must spent vital time learning the tricks of the trade (which are utterly innumerable, to be sure) before you begin to break even the slightest rule. And we're not talking simple grammar rules. STORY STRUCTURE!

    In my opinion, too many authors remain within a particular story structure and try not to break out of it EVER in their hopefully lengthy careers. That said, it is important for most aspiring/debut authors (I would dare say ALL) to work within the realm of traditional storytelling. There's so much to learn that CAN be learned, and as writers we should be patient and take the time to learn what constitutes a good story.

    And the further down the line, try something as risky as Neil Gaiman's GRAVEYARD BOOK, a novel entirely comprised of short stories. Definitely not something a first-time novelist, professional or otherwise, should attempt. Even J.K. Rowling and Stephenie Meyer (yes, I included her, because she's talented) wrote their first published novels according to conventional storytelling methods.

    And then broke them later (e.g. GOBLET OF FIRE/BREAKING DAWN).

  5. Humility is a virtue--I know this. But sometimes, just occasionally, mind you, I really want to hear a writer say, "I'm awesome, and I can break the rules because I have the confidence to do so." Confidence is rarely something you see with writers--defensiveness that comes across as arrogance, yes, or the kind of humility that says, "I can't do it because I'm not good enough, not like those other writers out there." I say we all might as well try, right? We could all humiliate ourselves, but who cares? Our new-found confidence will help to pick us up again. Confidence is the key! And, hopefully, confidence will get us in stride. Rhythm and flow are the two most important characteristics of good writing. When our readers are carried away on the flow of words, they won't stop to notice all the broken rules. O.K. That's my rant for the day. I'm still looking for that confidence, myself. Have a great day. :)

  6. I absolutely LOVE it when this topic comes up in my creative writing classes! Usually, the arguement comes down to one question...Did you mean to break the rules or was it an accident? If you meant to do it, then way to take the risk! If you didn't mean to do it, then it is back to the books. Does this arguement sound like BS yet? Yeah, that's what I thought! In the end, I agree with YOU! It's not whether you meant it or not, it's whether it worked or not. Thanks for showing me that someone else knows that!!! I hate it when people are awarded for being smarta** while people who run by instinct are condemned. I feel this author ran with her instinct, knowing her readers would be entranced enough not to let the "rule breaking" get in the way.

    AubrieAnne @

  7. All good comments, guys, thanks.

    Jill - I know what you mean, but I think confidence - unless it's founded on expertise - is nothing more than enthusiasm.

    Personally, I think we only grow when we try new things and stretch ourselves. But there's a difference between having the guts to fail, and believing in yourself in error.

    I think many novice writers (including myself, in the past) want to just jump ahead and not really LEARN the craft. The problem is, you end up using MORE time to achieve a less enviable product overall.

    The point of the post is to encourage novice writers to rein in impatience and weed out self-deception.

    Let's get real. Let's learn. Then let's break every rule in the book - really well. :)

  8. Wonderful post Aimee! And wow do you have me wanting this book.

    I have to admit that I could use some help with the whole impatience and wanting to just constantly jump into the deep end, but it makes perfect sense to know the rules to effectively smash them to pieces.