Individualism has really the higher aim. Modern morality consists in accepting the standards of one’s age. I consider that for any man of culture to accept the standard of his age is a form of the grossest immorality. – Lord Henry, The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
My last article on the Bullshit Arbitrary Writing Rules generated some healthy debate; however, sometimes I feel that my position on such matters is often misinterpreted, so since I am in one of those peculiar moods at the moment, I would like to take a second or two to explain my position with regards to writing rules and writing conventions, which are not to be confused.
Those who know me understand that while I am an advocate of Artistic Anarchy, I am also a staunch supporter of the rules. I would never suggest that a novice author ignore the rules, and by rules, I mean true literary theory. Barring any innate gift, the vast majority of us writers must actually learn to write. We do that by thoroughly grasping the grammatical rules and by exposing ourselves to and discussing at length the techniques developed over time by other great writers. Those storytelling techniques are the foundation for what is known as literary theory. Those are the real rules, and every writer needs to know them before they can even dream of developing their own style and voice. Where the confusion lies for most new writers is that it is difficult to distinguish sometimes between real practical theory and what we call the writing “conventions” of the time.
Writing conventions change over time and they have nothing to do with art. Writing conventions, though sometimes grounded in actual theory, are really just fad and fashion. Writing conventions are about creating a consistent product that falls in line with the current trends. If the current publishing trend is for minimalistic writing, then the vast majority of mainstream writing guides will lean heavily towards those conventions and will often label them as guidelines or rules. Rules they are not, and without a proper understanding of real theory, conventions can cripple the artist by placing unnecessary and arbitrary restraints on the words. Not to mention that the conventions of the day do not guarantee success. If that were true then these writing guides, touting nothing but the current conventions, would be producing best-selling authors every second.
Understanding the conventions of the time is helpful if you are deliberately trying to write to sales trends or specific genre trends, but learning the conventions is no substitute for learning the actual craft. Stripping your work of all adverbs and passive voice will not save a manuscript that has failed in theory. And that is why these conventions are so arbitrary. Taken out of context and then subsequently taken too literally, they can destroy a burgeoning new voice. Authorial voice and style must be free of conventional limitations in order to grow. If everyone listened to the conventions of their day, we would not have modern poetry or modern art or new narrative styles like those that came out of the beat era.
Some might argue that the “conventions” are a good start for novice writers, often likening them to training wheels, but here is the problem with that logic: Training wheels might give you confidence, but it is a false sense of confidence, because in reality, you have not mastered the mechanics of riding a two-wheeled bike. Riding a four-wheeled bike is not the same, and the only way you can master the two-wheeled bike is to discard the training wheels and learn the real mechanics of a two-wheeled ride. Novice authors need to learn the theory so they don’t become overly dependent on conventions that could fall out of favour at any moment, or even worse, misinterpret the convention thus creating a lifeless, flawed, and grammatically unsound manuscript. I have seen authors misguidedly conjugate every verb in their manuscript using simple past tense because they didn’t understand the theory behind the “consistent tense” convention, and what they wound up with was a grammatical minefield. Or those authors who do a seek and destroy, cutting all words that end in “ly” without really understanding the grammatical difference between an adverb and an adjective, not to mention that all adverbs do not end in “ly.” Or when was the last time you heard the term Show don’t Tell followed by an in-depth explanation of what that actually means. Story telling is about showing “and” telling, and not all exposition is telling.
So the point I am trying to make when I get all assholes and elbows about the current writing conventions is simply: If you blindly follow the writing conventions without a thorough understanding of the literary theory behind them, then you do so at your own peril. My advice to all novice authors is to learn the grammar rules, learn the craft, learn the theory, and then later, once you have a firm grasp of the real rules, you can then, if you choose, modify your manuscript to fit the current conventions with some degree of confidence. There is a lot more to POV than First and Third person. There is a lot more to everything. Knowing the practical theory is the difference between an average writer and a great writer. We all want to be great writers, and that takes patience and stamina and the will to understand the craft beyond the trendy conventions of the time. Those are the books I want to review: the books authored by writers who understood the theory and risked moving beyond it.
As a bonus, for those who are not sick to death of my diatribe, I will continue this discussion from a reviewer’s point of view next Thursday.
Note: This is only my personal opinion and does not reflect the opinion of the other Pod People. Reader mileage will vary.
Cheryl Anne Gardner