Here's to Breaking Writing Rules—Rebels With a Cause or Rebels Without a Clue?
For the past several years, I’ve always begun the New Year with predictions of what the publishing industry would or wouldn’t do in the year to come. But this year? I’m being a rule-breaker and taking a different perspective—one I believe has greater impact and longevity. Algorithms rise and fizzle, publishers go out of business, change paths, or change rules. Heck, Amazon changes its mind more than my mother trying to pick a restaurant. So…eh. Not going there this year.
Unlike the days of early artists, we live in a light-speed society where something can fall flat or catch fire in an instant. This is an exciting time to be a writer.
We are in a New Age of the Artisan. When I give advice to young people about a future career, I simply want them to ask these simple questions. Can what I do be outsourced to a low-wage worker in another country? Can it be broken down into a procedure/manual and reproduced? Can it be done by a computer? Can I do/produce something consumers WANT that ONLY I can do, and do it really well?
I believe the future belongs to the artists and the rebels.
Breaking rules. We all want to do it and, to be blunt, we should. I’ve dedicated most of the craft posts on this blog to teaching fundamentals, why they are important. If we don’t understand the rules, then we aren’t taking our profession seriously.
We can be Rebels with a Cause or Rebels Without a Clue 😉 .
First, to be a really GOOD rebel, it helps to study successful rebellions of the past. This is all highly redacted because this is a BLOG, but I hope it will educate and inspire you…
The Old Way
In the era before the Impressionist artists we now adore so much, artists could only live (survive) by being commissioned by wealthy patrons. Unlike today, paintings and images were extraordinarily rare. A human could live out an entire lifetime without ever seeing a painting.
Most regular people only saw paintings/images in churches or cathedrals. Visual art was planted almost exclusively within the realms of royalty and the very wealthy.
Thus, if an artist wanted to be PAID, he would paint what consumers wanted. Portraits were super popular (since Selflies hadn’t yet been invented). Artists would paint grand horses, breathtaking and realistic landscapes, religious pieces, etc. Why? Because YES it was art, but it was art that made money.
The Impressionists who are now so famous were actually very revolutionary, and at times? Extremely unpopular, ridiculed, and destitute. Though classically trained under the masters of the time, they wanted something fresh…different.
Thus, artists like Monet, Renoir, etc. began playing with color and light. Instead of something so realistic it might be a vision witnessed in person, they sought the haze of unreality, perhaps the look of lilies floating on water in a dream instead of life.
Another CRAZY notion these rabble-rousers had was to paint things that were very ordinary—women washing clothes in a river, landscapes of the docks with ships unloading wares, a peasant girl guiding geese along a path.
THE HORROR! Who would want to look at these fuzzy images of peasants and docks and REGULAR PEOPLE?
Well, apparently a lot of people, just not immediately.
Artists back then aren’t so different than today. If we want a “surer” bet for making money? We write what people want. The trick, though (especially for The Digital Age Author) is to write what people don’t yet KNOW they want.
We’ll talk more about that later.
Picasso painted in the accepted classical style before he reinvented art as people knew it (and if one studies his work, it is clear he built in Impressionism and Post-Impressionism).
Hemingway learned how to write the “accepted” way (journalism) before he harnessed his training as a reporter and used it to strip fiction down to the bare form he’s now renowned for.
Elvis sang in church before becoming the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Even Ludvig Von Beethoven broke rules. He continued to maintain the basic Classical traditions of form yet he infused much more melody, rhythm and harmony, thus stretching the musical “vocabulary” of competing composers of the time.
The point I’m making here is READ. Read craft books. Understand the basics and fundamentals so much they are a part of you, then? Have some fun. Break some rules.
We Take Rule-Breaking for Granted
Writing Forms and POV
The novels we now enjoy DID NOT exist until roughly the 18th century. Even then, we wouldn’t particularly recognize them or like them. But, then again, storytelling has been evolving for thousands of years.
Stories were originally communal story-telling, expressed around a campfire, committed to memory or a cave painting, and handed down orally.
Later, humanity experienced the rise of the epic poem (works like The Odyssey or even Beowulf). Fast-forward and lots of religious writing, including works like Paradise Lost or Dante’s Inferno.
Then we see an explosion of poetry, plays and the invention of sonnets (an Italian guy named Pertrarch) then later that version of the sonnet reinvented into the Shakespearian Sonnet, which includes three quatrains (set of four lines, every second line rhymes) and a closing couplet (set of two rhyming lines).
Shakespeare, that rebel.
But each generation learned what was HOT during their time, then built their own visions atop the old. Pamphlets, shorts, and serials were actually the precursors to the novel (think Sherlock Holmes).
If one reads early novels, psychic distance was VERY…distant. Almost everything was written in omniscient POV. In my opinion, this was reflective of the age. People didn’t travel. They waited months for letters. News of a war came often after the war was over and the dead buried. It took months or years to travel to distant places, and the world was very disconnected.
This is why many early novels are guided by a God-like narrator.
Also, since many writers were paid by the word, novels were padded more than a freshman term paper (War and Peace). There was LENGTHY and tedious description because it was necessary. People didn’t have the kind of access to information we now take for granted.
People who had enough education to read and enough money for books also had A LOT more free time.
Additionally, the Image Revolution (brought about by the invention of film and photography) had yet to happen. Unless one spent a hundred pages describing a whale, no one (aside from those living on the coast) would know what the heck the writer was talking about.
This is also why we see authors like Mark Twain writing some characters’ dialogue in pure vernacular. Someone in England would have no clue what someone from Mississippi sounded like.
During the Industrial Revolution, we had an explosion of technology. Photographs, newspapers, telegraphs, trains, steamships, etc. connected humans more than ever, thus writers once again broke and rewrote rules. They began closing the psychic distance and leaving out now-common details.
In the 1800s third-person shifting hadn’t yet evolved. It wasn’t until radio, film, and later television accustomed audiences to shifting scenes that we see can the distinctive rise of third-person. First-person also became far more popular.
Because humans were more connected and closer, they wanted to be CLOSER to characters as well.
Writers like Hemingway stripped away the excess down to only necessary words. He broke rules of overwriting, believing that all the “superfluous” details took away from the essential human story.
As we progress into the 20th century, we see the rise of close-third. Today, close-third and first-person are very popular. Why? We are a Reality TV Generation. We’re spoiled with intimacy. Omniscient would feel alien and cold to many of us.
Breaking Rules of Genre
All early sci-fi, gothic, fantasy writers broke the rules of what people wanted to read. Like painters who no longer wanted to create works of reality, these authors dove into unreality. Jules Verne, Mary Shelley, Tolkien? All rule-breakers.
Genre, to be blunt, was invented by those who sold books. When physical books started appearing in bookSTORES, book SELLERS needed a way to know where the heck to shelve a story to help potential customers locate what they might want to read.
Genre was also highly political.
Horror was a VERY popular genre until the slasher films and gore-porn of the late 1970s and then the 1980s tainted the entire genre. Then we began to see horror “disappear” and labeled under other “genres.” “Supernatural” for instance.
****But, as an aside, gore-porn like Texas Chainsaw Massacre also broke rules. We were a nation reeling from Vietnam. The rules of horror before had been, “Wait until daylight and you’re safe.” TCM threw that away. We were NEVER safe EVER.
Speaking of breaking rules, I bet this is the first blog you’ve read that talks about Beethoven, Renoir, Hemingway AND Texas Chainsaw Massacre. 😀
What to Do With The Digital Age
In The Digital Age, humans consume more information in a week than our early ancestors did in a lifetime. We are connected globally 24-7. We’re exposed to all kinds of ideas, information, myths, cultures, subcultures, etc.
Strict genre is blurring as brick-and-mortar stores give way to digital bookshelves. Writers also have access to new audiences and emerging markets.
When we study the works of artists of before and even today, we can see areas where we might try something new. Since we are no longer chained to making it through Gatekeepers of NYC? We have a lot more freedom to be artists.
Now, I will say that breaking rules, while fun, has a price. People might not “get” it for a while. We need tough skin. We also need to make sure we are being artists and not amateurs. All art still has structural rules that need to be followed to maintain integrity. Rules are meant to be a foundation, not a straight-jacket.
For instance, architecture is art, but it must merge with rules of engineering or all we’re left with are pretty but deadly bridges, injuries, lawsuits, mold problems, and leaky, unsafe roofs.
Aesthetics are fabulous, but architects are commissioned to build a bridge that cars can safely traverse…not a billion-dollar sculpture. As writers, we produce books, so we must still have a story or we don’t have a book.
Next time, we’ll explore some more contemporary rebels and maybe even brainstorm some ideas about how we can reshape our art and bring fresh new ideas to our readers. We’ll even talk about the writing business, because business must also be creative and evolve or it will die.
Remember, if artists HADN’T broken rules, we’d all still be memorizing stories and painting on cave walls 😉 .
What are your thoughts? What “artistic” rebels do you admire and why? Do you like it when a writer defies conventions and surprises you? What are some artistic ideas that have fallen flat and why? Did they confuse you? Bore you? Deviate too far? The ones you liked, what was different that intrigued you?
I LOVE hearing from you!
To prove it and show my love, for the month of JANUARY, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).
I will announce December’s winner later (probably next blog) when I have had some SLEEP.
For those who need help building a platform and keeping it SIMPLE, pick up a copy of my latest social media/branding book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World on AMAZON, iBooks, or Nook.