Friday, March 20, 2009

No Exceptions. None. Usually.

A week or three back I was browsing over the responses I get here. Luckily there’s only six or seven of you reading this, and I’m sure you’re all busy writing your own stuff, so it didn’t take long.

Anyway, I noticed an interesting thing. One of the most common forms of response here was the “Ahhhh, but...” They weren’t as emphatic or strongly worded as some of the ones you often find on most message boards, but they were there. Salt and peppered throughout the ranty blog.

If you can’t figure it, the “Ahhhh, but...” response is when someone counters a point with contradictory information. For example, I could say “Writing a blog will never help you get a film deal,” and someone could leap forward and say “Ahhhh, but isn’t that just what happened to Diablo Cody, writer of Juno? Not so smart after all, are you, Mister-wise-writer-guy?”

In even simpler words, the “Ahhhh, but...” response is when people point to the exception in an attempt to disprove the rule. Usually, they’re doing this to show that someone else did it the easy way, so we can’t fault them for trying to do it the easy way as well.

Now, let’s be clear on one thing—there are always exceptions to the rule. Always. Anyone who tells you that something is 100%, never-question-it always wrong can be ignored. Especially if they shriek “no exceptions!!”

Here’s the catch... exceptions to the rule are very, very rare. Exceptionally rare, you could say. That’s why they’re the exception and not the rule. For every person who sold the first draft of the first novel they wrote, there are millions of people who did not. Yeah, Kevin Smith got into Hollywood with a successful, low-budget indie film, but tens of thousands of folks have tried the same trick with no results. And, yes, Diablo Cody made a screenwriting career out of her blog—and that’s one out of how many blogs on the internet? One out of ten million? Fifty million? More?

That’s why most people trying to give you useful information, like myself, tell you to stick with all the established rules. It’s a longer, harder, and more frustrating path, but it’s still your best bet at success. Sure, I could sound a lot more positive and cheerful a lot of the time. I could say everyone’s a special snowflake, don’t worry about doing things wrong, and we should just do what feels good because we’ll all get published or produced some day. The overwhelming odds are, though, that I’d be doing all of you a disservice with such statements.

So, here’s my bit of advice for you, and it’s one I hope you’ve seen underlying most of the stuff I’ve said here since the first post you may have read.

The best thing you can do is assume you are not the exception to the rule. No matter how clever, how witty, how perfect your writing is, do not think of yourself as the one person who gets to ignore all the established standards. The absolute worst thing you can do is scoff at the rules and think they don’t apply to you. No matter how vastly superior your work is, always consider yourself working from the same level as everyone else.

The reason you should assume this is because the person reading your work is going to assume it. Nobody goes to a Friday the 13th film thinking it’s going to have an Oscar-winning metaphor for the Israel-Palestine conflict in it. You don’t pick up a Stephen King book for a tearjerker romance. And, personally, I’d be a bit shocked if Charlie Gibson decided to perform the ABC Evening News as an opera some night. We all have certain expectations we’ve built up, and these expectations all tend to fall in line with the rules.

Does that mean all these things won’t happen or can’t be done? Not at all. Your writing may be so utterly, mind-bogglingly spectacular that no one notices the abundant typos. The structure could be so rock-hard the reader will forgive and forget those atrociously dull opening pages. It’s even possible the idea is so fiendishly, unbelievably clever that nobody will pick up on the fact that every character is a paper-thin cut out carbon-copied from the cast of Heroes (not first season Heroes, mind you... I’m talking about fourth season Heroes)

However, here’s the one thing you can absolutely count on. The moment we notice that Jason Voorhees is now dressed in the colors of Hamas, see that Camp Crystal Lake has been bought out by a wealthy Hassidic group as a spiritual retreat, and read all this through a forest of misspellings and misused words... oh, at that moment we’re all going to groan. Our collective eyes will roll and the thought will cross all our minds—Dear God, I should probably just give up on this right now.

That’s what you’re fighting against when you want to be the exception to the rule. Your audience. They’ve seen attempts to break the rules again and again and again, and the overwhelming majority of these attempts have been simply awful. Remember, the exceptions are rare. Very rare. So when you veer away from the rules, everyone is going to go with the numbers and assume your work is simply awful, too.

In which case, it’s only throwing gas on the fire if you just swaggered in, tossed down your manuscript, and announced it to be a work of staggering genius. Those two things combined will pretty much guarantee your manuscript goes in the large pile on the left, regardless of how good your writing may get around page thirty or so.

A nice, simple rule of thumb. If at any single point you find yourself questioning if something matters—assume it does. Does my main character need to be developed more than this paragraph? Will a reader care that I misspelled forty or fifty words? Do I need to make that part of the story clearer? Should I bother to look up the exact format rules for this?

Your default answer for all of these questions needs to be yes.

Again, this doesn’t mean it can’t be done, and there’s always that chance someone might sit through Friday the 13th Part XII: Dredel of Death and walk out saying “Wow... you know, I never looked at the Middle East in those terms before. It’s so clear now how foolish we’ve all been.” I mean, forget Oscars, we’re talking about a Nobel Peace Prize for Jason this time around. It’s hard for established writers to pull off that sort of thing, though, so aspirants really need to be aware of the very, very steep climb ahead of them if they go in thinking the standards don’t apply to them.

You shouldn’t be scared to do something new, because if you break the rules—break them well, mind you—you’ll get noticed and rewarded for it.

Just remember that a lot of people break the rules because they don’t know what they’re doing... and you don’t want to get lumped in with them.

Next week, we’ll discuss the fact that not all explosions are exciting, and a great deal of drama is not dramatic.

Until then, go write.

1 comment:

Rakie said...

usually when i say 'ahhhhh, but...' it's to suggest i agree with you in essence but would like to make myself look clever by arguing, at which point i tend to lose my way and ramble on in the hope no one reads comments anyway.

and yes, this comment is a case in point. ;)