Friday, October 23, 2015

Yeah, That’s True, Except...

            Okay, this is late.  A week and a day.  Do you want excuses?  I was away at New York Comic Con and then came home to layouts I needed to go over, on top of all the things I just needed to get caught up on. 
            So, that ate up some time.  Sorry.
            Anyway, I’ve mentioned this idea before, but a few recent blog posts and comments I’ve seen made me want to bring it up again.  If we’re going to talk about writing, we need to agree that any such discussion is going to get broken down into either rules or advice.  Or drinking, but that’s not relevant right now.
            Right now, I’d like to talk about the rules.
            Rules are things that all of us, as writers, have to learn.  No questions.  I need to learn what words mean and how to spell them.  I must have a firm understanding of grammar.  A solid grasp of structure is required.  Characters have to hit certain benchmarks. You may notice these things come up again and again when discussing good writing.  There’s a reason for that, and it’s not that professional writers and publishers and editors are all jerks.  Learning the rules means study and practice and failure and more study and more practice and more failure. 
            Why do I bring this up?
            See, I brought up the rules because they’re a good lead in to what I actually wanted to talk about.  Exceptions.  Those cases where the rules don’t apply. Some people love exceptions.  They approach them two different ways, but usually to get the same result.
            Allow me to explain.
            The thing about rules, as so many people have said, is that I have to learn them so I can understand when and where and how to break them.  Because all the rules are breakable.  Never doubt that.  Pick any rule I mention above, or any other rule I’ve ever blabbered on about here.  Mention it in the comments and I’m sure some of the other folks here can give a dozen examples
            Now, some folks think if the rules can be broken anyway, well, why should I bother learning them?  Richard Matheson and Daniel Keyes wrote stories with lots of spelling mistakes. Cormac McCarthy and Peter Stenson don’t use much punctuation.  If they don’t need to do all this, why should I bother learning it?
            Y’see, this mentality means I’m looking at the exceptions, not at the rule.  Yeah, I can point to a handful of stories that break the rules, but I can also point to tens of thousands that don’t.  More importantly, I can point to hundreds of thousands that broke them and were rejected for it.
            Here’s another way to think of this.  Driving a car means following the speed limit.  The exact numbers vary from state-to state, but we all acknowledge that driving in a school zone requires that I travel at a certain speed. So does going through a residential area or traveling on a freeway.  Makes sense, yes?
            An experienced driver knows there are situations where I can flex those rules, though.  There are times I can go a little faster through school zones or residential areas and not worry about it.  In all honesty, I’ve driven over seventy on the highway next to a police officer and only gotten a raised eyebrow.  A lot of you probably have similar stories.
            And yet... none of us are assuming traffic laws and speed limits no longer apply to us.  We just know how to work within the framework of the laws and when we can step outside of it.  We know the rules and we know how and when to break them.
            Contrast that with the guy who goes roaring through a residential area at 70mph in the middle of the day... and then gets annoyed with the officer who pulls him over.  He’s assuming he’s the exception.  He’s doing the same thing I did, but... he’s really not, is he?
            I can’t start with the assumption that I’m the exception.  That the rules or requirements don’t apply to me.  I’m always going to be bound by the same rules as every other writer, and I’m going to be expected to follow them.  Until I show that I know how to break them.  If I don’t know what I’m doing or why, I’m just a monkey pounding on a typewriter, unable to explain how or why I did something and also probably unable to do it again.
            Also, monkeys do not get paid well.
            Now, there’s another mentality I’ve encountered a lot of online.  This is that other way of viewing exceptions that I was talking about.   They’re the folks who use the exception to the rule as a means of dismissing the rule as a whole.  For example, you say every writer needs editing.  Except, I say, Yakko published his book without editing and it did very well.  Ipso facto, writers do not need to edit.  That rule’s out the window and can be ignored. I could probably give a dozen examples of this without trying, I just don’t feel like writing them all out.  Besides, you’ve probably seen them, too.  Everything I mentioned as a rule up above—and dozens more—there’s someone, somewhere right now arguing that’s a stupid rule that this exception proves doesn’t matter.
            Now, to be clear again, I’m not saying these exceptions don’t exist. That’d be silly—they clearly do.  But it’s important to understand that they are the exception. They’re the unusual rarity, not the common thing.  That’s why we’ve heard of them.  Just because there were a hundred news stories about a writer who turned in a handwritten manuscript on yellow legal pads and got it accepted does not mean the publishing industry prefers handwritten manuscripts or legal pads.  We’re only hearing about it because it’s such an oddball thing to happen.
            Now, I try to point out such things when I can, and I think I’ve been pretty open all along on the ranty blog that exceptions do happen.  But I don’t really push them. Honestly, if I had to offer or explain every exception to every rule, this blog probably never would’ve made it past the second or third post.  And each one would be the equivalent of thirty or forty pages long.  This is kind of a teaching 101 thing.  As I said above, you learn the rules, then you learn the exceptions to the rules. 
            Y’see, Timmy, exceptions don’t disprove the rule—they prove it.  Always.  If not editing or handwritten legal pad manuscripts actually demonstrated that these rules don’t matter, then shouldn’t we be seeing hundreds of examples?  Maybe thousands?
            And yet, we don’t.  The majority of our examples are still people following those basic rules.  And flexing them here and there where they can.
            So why do some people do this?  Why do they convince people to ignore the rules?  We could probably debate that for a while.  Regardless, it’s kind of like looking at a thousand cancer patients, finding that one person who spontaneously went into remission, and then loudly declaring no one needs chemo or to get those growths removed—cancer cures itself!  First, it’s just plain wrong. Second, it belittles the 999 other people who are all struggling to do things the right way and undermines the folks trying to help them.
            Exceptions are great.  They’re why all of us can do so much as writers.  But exceptions can’t be my excuse not to learn.  All these rules have developed over the decades for a reason, and they apply to all of us.
            No exceptions.
            Next time, I’d like to take a quick minute to reveal something.
            Until then... go write.

4 comments:

Rakie said...

someone the other day countered the "yeah, but--" argument with, "yeah, but i've got a friend who ignores the 'do not feed the bears' signs and nothing bad has happened to him yet." It seems sensible to at least know why rules are there. :)

(welcome back btw!)

Virtual Stranger said...

I still like to use Vesna Vulovic, the flight attendant who fell over six miles (and survived!) when her plane was destroyed.

And yet... I still think parachutes are the way to go if you're going to jump out of a plane.

Thanks. Good to be back and getting caught up.

Michael said...

I'm a little late to the party but I feel compelled to point out that we had a whole post about rules, rule flexing, and rule breaking and not ONE reference to the scene between Morpheus and Neo in the first Matrix movie. Low hanging fruit and all that.

I am very disappointed.

Virtual Stranger said...

Damn it, you're right.

I'm not even good at being a hack...