One curious consequence of writing a book on writing is the inescapable sense of humility that descends during the process. (I’m under deadline this week for my next book on craft, this one titled The Compass of Character. I’ll discuss it at greater length in the weeks to come, but for now I’m simply invoking it as my excellent and not-to-be-questioned excuse for a relatively brief post today.)
As a teacher and author of writing guides, I’m obliged to present techniques and strategies for successful fiction. Techniques and strategies, however, require a generalized idea of how to go about things. Concepts such as character arc and three-act structure and backstory exploration inevitably conjure guidelines that demand attention if not strict adherence.
This how-to approach can become trivialized into “Five Ways to Make Your Characters Jump Off the Page!” It can also be maddeningly vague because the only rule is there are no rules.
The Rule of No Rules is especially on my mind of late. While collecting examples for the guidelines I discuss in my book, I was inevitably made aware of how any novel worthy of being called good, let alone great, somehow squirms out of the stranglehold of accepted convention like a slimy piglet.
Whether the author was simply following her instincts or observing a carefully constructed plan—usually based on turning some accepted idea of how to write on its head—the truly remarkable books I have used to illustrate certain points all too often reveal themselves to be not just illustrative but sneakily subversive of what I’m trying to say.
This may simply be a reflection of another accepted truth, that the best stories give readers what they want in a way they don’t expect. This in turn echoes another truth, that stories should be both impeccably logical and yet surprising. And yet how does one teach that? How does one teach: Follow the path to the cliff’s edge, then jump?
And yet over and over and over that’s what I have come to realize is the crucial thing I need to impart to my students. Yes, there are guidelines and conventions and THINGS TO KNOW. But there is also the inevitable and obligatory leap into the unknown. Absent that, whatever you write will most likely be derivative—and neither you nor your readers need that.
This is why I often begin my classes by humbly admitting that what I am about to present may or may not prove helpful. The best I can offer is a vocabulary and a set of rules, none of which is sacrosanct. They will provide tools but the actual construction of your story will inevitably require improvisation, adaptation, flying blind. It’s similar to the difference between practice and performance for a musician. Practice is where you acquire the techniques required to be able to surrender yourself to the moment as you create.
How you address the material in those moments of immersion is the actual stuff of writing. Yes, writing is rewriting and you can go back and clean up the messy bits. But it’s that feeling, impossible to convey to anyone else, of being “in the groove” that is the real measure of whether you’re doing well—not how much you adhere to principles of fine writing. Even in revision, learning to cut or reshape your words to honor that ineffable sense of flow is often what makes your manuscript engaging.
All of which returns me to that humble moment of truth with which I begin my classes, where I admit I have no absolute answers, just a few tricks and some advice disguised as a methodology. The best guidance, the truest guidance I can offer lies within a quote from Saul Bellow that I continue to cherish: “Writers are readers inspired to emulation.” I will never be your best teacher. Your best teachers will always be those authors and books that inspired your own desire to write.
The real education will begin when you return to a book you love, a book that inspired you, that made you think, “I can do that…I want to do that,” and read it with new eyes, eyes informed by what you have learned in your writing classes. When you understand how a book you admire both observes and defies the rules, subtly or blatantly, when you take that lesson to heart and make it your own, you will begin to feel the liberating confidence of real creativity. The edge of the cliff won’t scare you. It will beckon you forward. It will welcome you.
What books or authors inspired you to write? What lessons did they teach you? Have you returned to them lately as your study of craft has proceeded? If so, what new lessons did they provide? Did they reveal how they conformed to some guideline you were trying to understand better—like honoring three-act structure, or embedding backstory in behavior? Or did they defy some rule you thought was sacrosanct, and worked regardless?