Sunday, October 15, 2006

Ranting About Rules

Homestretch of the repostings.
Rant ahead, proceed at own risk.

Here and there on writers' message boards and on writers' blogs, I keep seeing people discussing the same or similar things with different terms or phrases and sound like they disagree. I remember when we had to stop a discussion of pov of at least a few days on one of the AOL writers boards to establish a common set of terms. To the surprise of many of us, it turned out more of us were agreeing than disagreeing about writing third person pov. We were just using different words to describe or label the various permutations.

A few posts caught my attention today.

This on Storytelling about characters needing to change by the end of the story. Sound advice, but which characters? Protagonist? Others? I remember when I read A Confederacy of Dunces and was struck by how the main character was more catalyst than protagonist and hadn't really changed by the end of the story, while others did because they were affected by his actions. Is this an example of a writer breaking a rule? Or simply a different way to write than the norm?

Or here, where Sara comments on a comment one of her earlier posts received. She added this disclaimer:
"Rules of thumb are not graven in stone. They are guidelines. Every one of them has been broken, and broken successfully. I am just one more writer who was a teacher, with one approach. I have had some success with these rules as my point of departure."
And that's when I started to get twitchy. Especially when I see the quote at the top of her blog:
"There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are." (W. Somerset Maugham)
Are all the writers blogging now claiming to have discovered rules that eluded Maugham?

Rules or guidelines? At work, as I've mentioned here previously, we use them very differently. Rules are well, regulations, things you must do to make sure policy is maintained. Guidelines are things you might want to do because they're good ideas. Procedures are how you implement the rules.

The dictionary isn't much help. From Merriam-Webster Online:
"Main Entry: guide·line
b : an indication or outline of policy or conduct

1 a : a prescribed guide for conduct or action b : the laws or regulations prescribed by the founder of a religious order for observance by its members c : an accepted procedure, custom, or habit d (1) : a usually written order or direction made by a court regulating court practice or the action of parties (2) : a legal precept or doctrine e : a regulation or bylaw governing procedure or controlling conduct"
The key in the above is that guideline is a mere indication while rules are prescribed laws or regs. A bit of hair splitting, but bear with me. Please.

And to me, there are no rules (other than those of grammar, punctuation, and spelling and the one about actually writing something at some point). Guidelines aren't there to be broken because they aren't required in the first place. You simply don't have to follow them. You get to choose which you use. They're tools. You don't use a screwdriver when you want to pound a nail into a piece of wood. You use a hammer. Yet both tools are in a carpenter's toolbox. And yeah, I can get very anal about this because it gets to the heart of the issue I've blogged seemingly endlessly about, the problem many of us had/have as newbies when we don't know how to differentiate guidelines from rules and perceive them all as things we should/must/need to do in order to produce publishable writing.

As for using words or terms the same way, it's not just about what we mean when we say tight third; it's about what we mean when we say rule or guideline. The worst that happens, I believe, with the former is possible confusion over pov. With the latter, it can cause a writer to get tripped up trying to do something that doesn't work for them. It can lead to frustration. And all the disclaimers in the world won't change that for many folks who are looking for that magic formula that doesn't exist and won't see anything but the rule or guideline they'll take to heart. Especially when the disclaimer uses the terms interchangeably.

End of rant.

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