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Thread: Breaking All the Rules in Writing (or How to Stand Out From the Crowd)

  1. #1
    Publishing Mentor dsieg58 is a Premium Member
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    Breaking All the Rules in Writing (or How to Stand Out From the Crowd)

    BTW, All my posts in this section (Publishing Forum) are MY OPINION. I wanted to make sure this was out there. And my opinion changes with circumstance and is not always 100% consistent in 100% of all situations.

    There are no absolute, laid down laws in writing the English language. There are exceptions to any rules that are laid down. All of it is inconsistent and quite confusing. Which brings me to this post...

    One of the rules in breaking the rules, or standing out from the crowd, is to know WHICH rules to break, WHEN it is OK to break them, and WHY you're breaking them.

    You read the books, go on the forums, talk to other writers, they are so caught up in doing things "the way it is supposed to be done" or the way it "has to be done" to get published, that writing is so regimented, so formulaic, it's like lemmings all flying in formation. For people (writers) who are supposed to have original ideas, and be able to express them, why is it then we are supposed to stay in lockstep with everyone else? (Oh no...You can't do THAT, you'll NEVER get published....Lions, tigers and bears!) In other words, the best you can hope for is to sound like everyone else.

    I've got one word that sums up my feelings on the subject: Bullshit.

    Backstory: Stephen King when he was starting out (1970's) was one of the first people to write dialogue exactly the way it was actually spoken. In his case he was using Maine vernacular, slang, and accents. I'm from the State of Maine, so for me it was a joy to see it in print. My point here is, spoken English (At least American English) is hardly ever grammatically correct. We use slang, contractions (Which don't exist) verbal sentences which have no punctuation or even subjects, nouns, or verbs. Our meaning is clear by the cultural context, and we don't need to explain it to each other. Nor do any of us care that it isn't "correct" English. (I know, all the ESL teachers are groaning...but you KNOW it's the truth)

    His critics had a hey day on him, I mean they just ripped his fiction to shreds...for years. Critics would not give the guy a break, book after book. Even now, a few haven't forgiven him. For breaking the rules of grammar, and not writing dialogue like an English professor explaining the virtues of time/space quantum mechanics.

    One I remember in particular called King, "The death of the English language." (Somehow, Mankind was able to survive) All the critics called him a hack. Not a single one endorsed his work...for years! AND HIS READERS LOVED IT. Loved that someone was finally talking in books they way THEY actually talked, and not like their 7th. Grade English teacher with a stick up their ass. They bought his books in droves. The rest is history. The style King pioneered is now commonplace. Now, no fiction writer would dream of writing dialogue the way it was taught in school.

    Here's my point: Steve was a pro. He also WAS an English Professor. (University of Maine at Orono) He knew perfectly well what he was doing and all the apple carts he was going to upset...and did it anyway. I don't really like the guy's fiction, but I love his literary balls. (I'm not sure if that came out right.)

    If you're writing non-fiction there are conventions and unwritten rules you're expected to follow. Why can't you write non-fiction that reads like a novel, or at the very least, entertainingly? Instead of dry, dusty, textbooks from the last century? The more technical the subject, the more the dry tone is expected. Or you're just not to be believed, or taken seriously. I do it, in my nonfiction, write it such a way that anyone can understand it, poke holes in it, laugh about it, and purposely stay away from anything which feels academic. I've had lots of academics who use my books as classroom texts. (Matter of fact, a university just bought a set of books as I'm writing this) Because they are usuable, readable, as well as factual.

    I've had many more who were detractors, went on the forums for my niche, and denounced them as "heresy" (One guy actually used that word...are we still burning writers at the stake? Because I've got some critics, I'd like to draw and quarter) and simply couldn't get beyond the fact that I could care less if it was "peer reviewed." It's almost as much fun to needle these guys. I'm not saying you fabricate the facts in nonfiction, I'm saying you present them in an entertaining fashion. I write the "Idiot Guides" to biofuels. (Figuratively, not literally.) It works. It's been making me a decent living since 2006.

    If you're writing fiction, there really are no rules anymore. As long as you know when, where, and why to break the rules.

    When? When it serves the point of the story, more than the rules do. (See SK example above)
    Where? Where it creates the most bang for your buck, when used with the point above, or where is it necessary to keep the story consistent. (Again, see SK example)
    Why? Because there is simply no other way to write the story, or because your muse insists on it, or because you like being a trouble maker.

    Then sit back, watch the fur fly, and watch all the lemmings go straight off the end of the cliff, twittering to each other about what a bad boy you are. Done correctly, you get to go straight to the bank and cash the checks. It's really kind of entertaining.

    I hope this helps,

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    like lemmings all flying in formation
    The mind boggles... They'd look a bit like clipped-wing flying squirrels.

    I agree wholeheartedly. Did you ever read the piece Isaac Asimov wrote in order to practise the kind of English his examiners insisted he use for his doctoral thesis? I'm delighted to see that there are now several eminent mathematicians and scientists who write intelligibly and entertainingly about esoteric subjects - I hope that this will start to reverse the trend for kids to avoid taking maths and sciences.

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    Publishing Mentor dsieg58 is a Premium Member
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    I thought lemmings flew? No? (See there I am, breaking the rules again.)

    No, I never read Asimov. I can't even get into Star Trek. I did get into Heinlein for awhile. (Stranger in a Strange Land) But if you examine a whole lot of writers, (Or anyone who makes a mark in their field) they all became famous by breaking the rules, or the conventional wisdom of the day.

    Mario Puzo at the start of the "Godfather": "Behind every fortune, there is a crime."
    Even in the world of business (Maybe especially in the world of business) you have to break the rules if you want to get ahead.

    Gandhi said, "First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win. That pretty much sums it up.

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    Lemmings are small rodents, usually found in or near the Arctic, in tundra biomes. They look a bit like little guinea pigs. The story that huge herds of them are given to running over cliffs is now disputed...

    I have read and enjoyed several Heinlein books, including Stranger in a Strange Land. Asimov wrote quite a bit of lay science/maths stuff, and a series of entertaining short stories told as after dinner tales at a club. A prolific writer, not just restricted to sci-fi.

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    Publishing Mentor dsieg58 is a Premium Member
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    Well, I guess that makes sense. If they flew, it wouldn't matter if they went over a cliff, would it?

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    Stephen King when he was starting out (1970's) was one of the first people to write dialogue exactly the way it was actually spoken.
    Hmm. An interesting point.

    How about Mark Twain? Or Hemingway? Or Raymond Chandler?

    Mike

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    Publishing Mentor dsieg58 is a Premium Member
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    Not to mention Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and Steinbeck. Oh, they all did it, and I'm sure King got the idea from reading them. But there was a difference.

    King was unpublished, and unknown. When you're an unknown, publishers don't want to take chances in the marketplace, because people look at what critics say. Back in the 1970's you didn't have Amazon where you could go and read 100's of reader reviews. If you wanted a review you went to Time Magazine or the New York Times. Critics held the power of life and death. Which was why what he did is relevant. Being true to his writing was more important to him, than the flack he surely knew he was going to get. Today, no one really cares what the critics have to say.

    When you're already famous, it doesn't matter. The other writers were famous in their own right, and beyond reproach at that point. There was no (literary) courage involved. (The way King is now...he could print his weekly shopping list and it would be an instant best seller, and he would be hailed (again) as "America's Greatest Living Author.")

    The point of the post isn't about who did what, or when.

    The point is about taking chances with your writing, and when to do it.
    The secondary point is, all the great authors did it, they broke the mold for that day and age, which is how they became great authors. I was only using King as a contemporary example.
    The third and last point, is that we're all conditioned as writers to not take chances with writing, because we "won't get published". This approach instills fear into writers instead of originality, leading to mediocre writing. Take a look at any genre today. They all look, feel, and sound the same. When looking at the examples who rose above the din, clearly the opposite is true. It was originality, and stepping outside the limits of the day which sets them apart, not adhering to the status quo.

    But I could equally have used many others, for example, Clive Barker. He was the first to publish "Literary Horror." (Books of Blood) He single-handedly raised horror from an obscure "kiddie" genre into an art form. (You could also say H.P. Lovecraft or Poe did it before him, but they died broke and unknown) Elmore Leonard went one step further than King, he wrote entire stories that consisted almost completely of dialogue, and used dialogue itself to move the plot along, not using the characters or description to move the plot forward as everyone did and does. The list is endless.
    Last edited by dsieg58; 23 June 2013 at 12:18 pm.

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    New Member Mentor JimWaller is a Premium Member
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    In business terms, HOW an author breaks the rules is his (or her) U.S.P (unique selling point). It is what makes the author stand out from the crowd. It is why a consumer should buy from the author rather than the competing authors. Would you agree?
    Help bring Janice home My mother-in-law was hospitalized while on vacation (holiday) We're trying to bring her home.

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    Publishing Mentor dsieg58 is a Premium Member
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    In business terms, HOW an author breaks the rules is his (or her) U.S.P (unique selling point). It is what makes the author stand out from the crowd. It is why a consumer should buy from the author rather than the competing authors. Would you agree?
    What a great point, Jim. Right on target.

    Yes, I do agree. Maybe even, the HOW is the most important part. But the "How" is also nebulous, not easily defined, and created by the changing attitudes of the environment. Meaning, I agree 100%, but I have no idea on how to expound, or explain, on how an author (or any artist) KNOWS, or can define, what U.S.P. they should have, or "how" they should break the rules.

    Going back to the King example, King knew the times were changing. He was (I assume, I don't know) listening to his students and reading the fiction of the day, that the old rules (of dialogue and fiction) no longer applied, or weren't working. (Changing attitudes and environment) But HOW did he KNOW what and how to do it? (Does that make sense, or is it gibberish?) I have no idea. It's in the land of the Muse, and the Muse doesn't explain himself to anybody.

    I'm working through my own (fiction) demons right now about "how" to present a controversial character. (With Chabrenas help) And the "how" of doing it could very well make, or break, the story. If I don't do it correctly, it will probably ruin the entire story, or at the very least, water it down to the point where it is no longer relevant or "Breaking the rules." Chabrenas picked up on the "how" of my indecision immediately.

    This is an interesting thought I've never considered before. You're an artist, right? Can you describe in words what Picasso's U.S.P. was? Or, even more to the point, do you think HE could?

    I guess you can do it generally, as in "Stephen King's USP is that writes horror fiction, using everyday characters, mainly set in the State of Maine." or "Michael Crichton mainly writes techno thrillers around emerging technological innovations gone wrong." In each case, if you asked the author, they would (probably) be the first one to dispute it. King would say "What about The Shining, (Colorado) or The Stand?" (Nebraska)

    Yet neither one does Crichton (Or King) any justice. Crichton was constantly pushing the envelope and breaking social taboos with his fiction. In the novel "Disclosure" he took on feminists in the workplace, when no one had the balls to challenge them. In "State of Fear" he took on environmentalists and global warming. (Very convincingly too) You might not have agreed with his conclusions, but you couldn't fault his research, or drawing the considered opinions he drew, or HOW he chose to present it. In "Jurassic Park" he took genetic engineering to its logical conclusion exposing the fallacies of the current scientific thinking, using "Chaos Theory." He was ALWAYS challenging academics for being brain dead and closed minded, when they were supposed to be leading the fight for knowledge and research. He took on the medical establishment in his early work. He took on abortion. (I forget the titles) All sacred cows. And went against the prevailing opinion of the day every single time. He was a contrarian and could pull off offending the prevailing opinions in a way that entertained as well as educated. He was also one extremely intelligent dude. He is a perfect example of what this thread is about.

    So yeah, "How" you do it, belongs at the top of the list, and may be as important as all three under it combined.
    Last edited by dsieg58; 24 June 2013 at 12:11 am.

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    New Member Mentor JimWaller is a Premium Member
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    I think that in a way, part of why it is so hard to describe the "how" of breaking the rules is that is is so close and personal to the writer (or artist). What I mean is that is may be such second nature that it becomes automatic and therefore doesn't register with the conscious mind. If I were to ask you how you breathe, without doing any medical research into the process, your first response might be, "I just breathe." I hope that makes sense.

    On some level, how you write is an expression of who you are. Granted one has to try to adopt and adapt the thoughts and manners of the various characters, but on some base level, there will probably always be an element of who you are as the author. Even a character that is the complete antithesis of who you are will probably have something in common with you as the author. We write what we know.

    As an artist, much of the same applies. Regardless of what I paint, there is some element of myself. I think it is part of why we form the attachment to our work and begin to think of them as our children. That little piece of ourselves that will carry on after we have "slipped loose this mortal coil".

    Just as a writer writes what they know, an artist paints what they know. That familiarity allows us to open a window onto that which may have been overlooked by others and express through our work what we find to be unique or different or interesting.

    Going back to the King example, he may have been fascinated with the style of dialogue one finds in Maine, and that may have led him to follow the course he has taken. I can't speak so much for writers, but I know many artists like to explore what interests them.

    I personally have done a lot of exploration with finger painting as I find it interesting what I can create with my fingers. I may not be able to achieve the same levels of detail as when I use brushes, but there is something about the tactile nature of it that intrigues me. I'd imagine writers like to explore in their own way. That exploration can lead to how you break the rules in your own unique way.
    Help bring Janice home My mother-in-law was hospitalized while on vacation (holiday) We're trying to bring her home.

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