Saturday, November 10, 2012
In The Name Of The Law
There is a novel that was written in 1957 and this novel has sold millions. It has remained in print continuously in the intervening years. Last year the book reached #4 on the Amazon Bestseller list.
It is a thick tome and it's prose is ponderous. There are points in the novel where the storytelling just stops so the author can make an extended sermon come from the hero's mouth. This book was universally deprecated in terms of the writing, the morality and the politics it espoused. The repentant Soviet spy Whittaker Chambers called it a remarkably silly book.
It is Atlas Shrugged and it flouts innumerable the principles of good writing while being condemned by conservatives and liberals.
I don't think it is because it is a dystopian novel. Nor do I think it is because of its libertarian politics or the amateurish objectivist philosophy of Ayn Rand. I think Vernor Vinge's ungoverned stories are better libertarian work.
I think that in this case the novel says something a particular slice of society wants to hear. Maybe not majority of society, but a slice nevertheless. You'll note that one can sustain a lot of book sales appealing to minority opinions.
How about another story that's too long to fit in one volume, but three. In this novel the author goes to the trouble of inventing two different languages. He contrives a backstory that encompasses thousands of years and a half-dozen human and non-human races. Yet it has remained in print for decades.
The Lord of the Rings is also a work that violates conventions. And it also has its own appeal that has kept it in print for decades. Does everyone like hobbits, orcs, and elves? Some do not. Can you imagine being an editor looking at this manuscript in the early 1950s?
Where Rules Work Best or Least
These are extreme examples. You might be thinking, Ayn Rand or J. R. R. Tolkien got away with breaking the rules. This is not the case. When you don't understand the "why" behind the rules, you are a fool not to follow the rules, because you won't understand why you could or couldn't get away with it.
So, learn the rules and understand the rules. Learn why the rules are there and what benefit they lend to your prose. If you understand the domain where the rules provide benefit and where those benefits peter out, you'll be able to flout them.
Ayn Rand spends a lot of words in preaching by her protagonists. And preaching is a turn off--except to choir members. You can get away with preaching to the choir. Some people really, really believe the same thing you do and they want you to validate their opinions and hear you elaborate upon it.
Sometimes rules overrule rules.
However, the primary reason why you can break rules is that they run counter to other rules. Consider the law of gravity. It pulls iron filings toward the tabletop on which they are placed. Iron filings in the presence of gravity don't go flying upwards. But what if you pass a magnet above those iron filings, then they'll go flying upwards.
Just as the law of magnetism overrules the law of gravity, there are instances where one of the writing mantras will be overruled by another writing mantra. The usefulness of physics derives from the fact that you can exactly calculate for force due to gravity, and the force due to magnetism. From there you can calculate which force is larger and then predict whether the iron filings lie on the table or go flying up toward the magnet.
Writing is analogous to this even if it isn't exact. As you are writing, you'll encounter situations where you'll choose between alternative courses of action. These choices may go against the writing mantras we've seen. Hopefully, that's a minority of the time. And hopefully, you'll be aware of the places where the rules don't work or where the rules get overruled by other rules.
The main thing is that these writing mantras aren't a set of restraints as much as a framework you can build upon and use to gain leverage on writing problems.