Recently I hosted a panel at the SCBWI-Carolinas annual conference that was basically just an open forum for unpublished authors to ask the published members of the chapter anything at all about the business, the writing life, craft — anything! At the end I made a comment about exceptions that I think I mangled so I wanted to take the chance to clarify what I meant.
I think there are two sides to the “exceptions” coin. On the one hand there are a lot of people who talk about the “rules” of writing such as never use adverbs, never start with a dream, don’t use fragments, beware the verb “to be” in its many forms, etc etc. There are tons of these “rules.”
But what I’ve found is that the only true rule in writing is that there are no rules. There are hugely successful authors who use fragments, who write in first person present, who open books with dreams and litter their pages with adverbs. What I think is important is finding your voice and being true to that. I also think that a lot of authors can get caught up in worrying over minor craft rules which leads to distraction.
I’m not saying that you shouldn’t be aware of things like the use of adverbs or proliferation of is/are/were but I’m saying that you should consider these rules as part of the larger picture of establishing voice and tension and story. When someone says “You can’t start a book with a dream,” perhaps you should consider the advice but if that’s the only way your book can start then go for it. Often these rules are just masks for larger issues — using adverbs often means there’s more telling than showing; using is/are/were might indicate a passive character; starting with a dream might be too jarring for a reader when the dream ends. It’s important to understand these underlying considerations and not just blindly follow the “rules” that come out of them.
We should all strive as authors to stand out and be exceptions in our writing.
At the same time, there’s the other side of the exception coin which is that there are actually some “rules,” that can be important. For me these are things like following submissions guidelines when querying an agent, keeping in mind word counts for various genres, being professional, etc.
And yes, there are people who have “broken” every one of those rules and have become wildly successful. But there are a whole lot more people who followed those rules to success and it’s important to see both sides of the situation. If you’re following in the path of someone who was an exception then it’s important to realize that there might be more roadblocks in the way because of that. This is when I tend to use the expression that if you think you’re the exception to the rule you should buy a lottery ticket.
Let me reiterate, I’m not saying that exceptions are bad, just that the path might not be as easy and it’s important to be aware of that and take it into consideration.
But how do you tread the line between being an exception and ignoring exception? To me the key is that if you’re going to break a “rule” then you need to first understand that there is a rule, second understand why there’s a rule and finally understand why you’re breaking it. If you’re breaking a rule because it’s convenient then you should probably reconsider. But if you’re breaking a rule in service to plot, story and voice then that might be a reason to push forward.
Those are my (still slightly garbled) thoughts on rules and exceptions. As always, I’m willing to have my mind changed, so what do y’all think?