Rule Follower or Rule Breaker?

Many reports of Elmore Leonard’s recent death included mention of his 10 Rules for Writing.  This list is something I often use as part of a classroom discussion on differing approaches to writing, but it also brings up thoughts on rules, ie, to follow or not to follow.

Following the rules will keep things tidy but...
Following the rules will keep things tidy but…

For some people this is exactly what they’ve been looking for all their writing life.  A fool-proof list of do’s and don’t’s and all they have to do is follow the rules and they have a bestseller on their hands.  Other writers are yelling noooooooooooooo at their screens, you wlll not stifle my creativity… I refuse to live in a dictatorship!

Most writers probably fall somewhere in between, because while some rules may fit into your own ideas of form, structure, characterisation, etc, others may go completely against the grain.

For example, EL’s Rule No. 5. Keep your exclamation points under control.  You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.  For me, this makes absolute sense.  Exclamation points are like someone wearing a T-shirt with the word Sexy printed across their back – they’re just trying so hard to convince you that it makes you instantly doubt their claim to said sexiness.

However, EL’s Rule No. 1. Never open a book with weather, seems a little authoritarian, especially when you consider:
May in Ayemenem is a hot, brooding month.  The days are long and humid.’  The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy.
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.’  1984, George Orwell.
‘To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth.’  Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck.
That said, if you are going to open with the weather make sure it’s damn finely written weather, or you’ll end up in dark and stormy night territory.

...sometimes you need a creative break-out
… sometimes you need a creative break-out

One thing I’ve learned as a teacher and as a writer is that following the rules has its place, as does breaking them, but that everyone’s place is different.  I’m only just beginning to get the courage to do some rule breaking myself, and I posted a while ago about my longing for A Satnav To Life, a way of finding the path that’s right for me before I make mistakes.  One good thing about rules is that if you find yourself going down the wrong path, you can use them as signposts to help you find your way back, and this means next time you see one of those smaller pathways that suggest uncharted territory, you won’t be afraid to venture down.  Rule breaking, the unknown, the possibility of failure, these are all conditions where original voices and daring ventures begin, enabling you to imagine stories that you and only you can create.  And this, after all, is why we write in the first place.

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