Friday, August 7, 2009

Breaking the Rules

I've recently been reading some of Fred Saberhagen's older novels. I find I really get sucked into them, particularly the Book of the Gods series, but I can't help but simultaneous reflect that he seems to be breaking the rules - or at least flying in the face of what most people would now tell you is 'good' writing or storytelling.

For a start his writing weaves between omniscient view point and first person, rather than staying in one PoV. And there is a lot of telling going on. A lot. I feel little direct connection with the character. For example In the Arms of Hercules, I find it hard to get into Hercules' skin at all (no pun intended - he is invulnerable to sharp-edged weapons). There is a vaguely stated aim of trying to talk to his father (Zeus), and when his family is killed there is a very good explanation of how it devastated him, yet I don't really *feel* it.

Despite all this, I just keep reading. Even though its insulated by a layer of passive storytelling, the witty banter and razor-sharp insight into human nature that comes across keeps me going.

Hercules lurches from one adventure to another without any real overall purpose at all, and yet I find its a page-turner for me. I can't seem to put my finger on why.

David Eddings wrote about his approach to writing in the forward of a book giving various snippets of background material on the Belgariad. Not that I'm that into David Eddings, but I am fascinated by these sorts of autobiographical insights -- its one of the things I love about Locus magazine and their regular features on authors. In the book Eddings talks about the '100 page ramble' that starts off his books. 'It takes me that long just to clear my throat'. Yet later he says that if you make it through the first 100 pages 'I've got you!' He puts this down to his use of mythic elements. Now I'm not sure that I buy this, since I don't get hooked into David Eddings -- too long winded and with not enough sense of character imperative for me. But is Saberhagen using this 'mythic element' approach?

What Saberhagen does convey well is the sense that its a story. His voice is very much the sort of voice of someone talking across the fire at night. Rambling a bit, maybe putting into their own reflections and insights into the story every now and then as asides.

It makes me wonder what really makes a page turner. JK Whatzername seems to break plenty of rules as well. At first glance you'd think any editor reading the series - particularly the later books - would send them straight back with a plea for intensive editing.

Anyone got any insights to share?


Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Chris, another unnamed author rambled something awful. It was page 286 of her first book before the plot actually began. And book two was even worse.

Yet, her books were incredibly successful and have been made into movies. Oddly enough, they work better as movies because there was only enough plot for a short story and most movies only contain that much plot.

Anonymous said...

Margaret Atwood?

The original Harry Potter was only a couple of hundred pages or I would have hazarded a guess at Rowling.

A LOT of successful writers tell for pages and pages, repeat themselves and have characters reeling off speechs.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Rowena. Maybe my problem is I'm trying to make sense of it!

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Anton. You're right about JKR, she seemed to get more long-winded with each of the latter books. I can remember being amazed that an editor let Order of Phoenix past without a severe chop - and yet - that probably one of my favorites for that series.

Actually I started on Harry Potter with the first movie, which I loved. Although I could not understand the fuss. Having grown up in a family of 11 I would have killed for that cupboard under the stairs.

When I read the first Harry Potter book I didn't really get too excited about it. I think I enjoyed the latter books more.

Dave Freer said...

If you've got it you don't have to obey the rules to be successful? There are two things here. 1)The Picassos - picasso was a very competant bog-standard painter. his success (if you like that kind of thing) was that he knew what the rules were and broke them. On the other hand you have the natural talent that never learned the rules and is still bloody good (Saberhagen?)in spite of it. Which begs the question... how good were/are they potentially if they actually obeyed the rules. Of course there is the category 'I know the rules but i think I'm too bloody good to have to obey them...' an author in this category once gave me hell about my use of passive voice. I run to about 3% passive voice. She runs to 14%...
I said thank you very much, politely. Good control, eh?

Amanda Green said...

Chris, a couple of thoughts came to me as I read your post. The first is that it seems more and more of the "names" get away with breaking the rules -- and without being sufficiently edited -- simply because they are names. I don't know if the publisher relies on the name to sell the book, no matter how good it is, or if there are editors who are too scared of/in awe of the "name" to edit him they way they would you or me. JKR is one such example, but there are numerous others as well.

My second thought was that I hate "rules" when it comes to writing because everyone has different takes on them. I've been told not to write in first person because no editor will buy it. Others say to write only in first person because third person-whatever is oh so passe. Dialog tags or no dialog tags? Prologue or not? It all gets so confusing and frustrating.

I think the key for those starting out -- like me -- is to write the best we can, keep our fingers crossed and fall into a pile of luck. Actually, that probably applies to everyone except a very few writers. Follow the rules except when you need to break them, write the best story you can and be very, very lucky.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Dave. Interesting point. It reminds me of musicians who claim they need drugs to be creative, when of course they just make a wreck out of every aspect of their lives and consciousness. In that case I can't help but wonder what they might have been capable of producing if they had been straight and fully functioning. Eric Clapton is a great example - obviously talented, but in some of his recordings, boy, his playing sounds terrible.

Its an interesting why to think about it. What sort of work would these guys be capable of if they added the elements we now recongise as effective storytelling - and combined with the natural talent they display. Really food for thought.

Of course this does not work for the Picassos. I wonders - what did the critics of the time think of Picasso? Was is success derived from breaking tropes that the critics disliked, making him the 'fresh new boy'?

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Amanda. I can remember when I first started out, completely clueless, and began sending out material from my lonely garret to various publishers. Most - of course - got no reply, but one publisher took the time to reply to my hopelessly over-winded cover letter with this little gem:

"A known name is a chief marketing asset"

i.e. in subtext - You are not one of them, go away.

That one always stuck in my head.

I think you're right about sticking with it. One of Sarah's post comments about how many stories and novels she had completed before she somehow 'broke' the barrier is a real inspiration.

Just got to go find that pile of luck to fall into - damn, left it around here somewhere . . .:)

Kate said...


If you ever find the luck, share some? Seriously, there's a completely different set of rules for a Name than there are for us mere mortals toiling away in the trenches. People like JKR or LKH or Stephen King can do things that would get us bounced unceremoniously from the slush and ordered never to darken the doors of that institution again - because they are Names.

On the flip side of that, they've done their toiling, too. The list of rejections for the first Harry Potter book reads like a "who's who" of publishing.

Knowing the rules and knowing when to break them for maximum effect matters, but ultimately the only real rule is "do whatever makes the story better"

Dave Freer said...

To extend what Kate said - I keep saying to people - you want to role model your writing on xyz bigname?: Fine but do it on the book when they weren't a big name. Or better find someone who battered their way up slowly and them became a Name (almost against the editors expectations or possibly wishes ;-)) and model on their early books.