Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Rules vs Skills

Melly's comment in my post about Rules, made me have a deep and profound thought - that is that people often confuse skills for rules. (So thanks to Melly for getting the wheels turning!)

Everyone needs skills for the job they're trying to do, whatever that might be. In the past, I had to be able to read statutes, decipher judgments and write briefs as a lawyer. In the present, I have to be able to figure out how to turn on the stove, know the difference between salt and sugar, and various other things if I want to cook anything edible.

All that is meant to lead to the point that writers need certain skills, too. Our skills might not be as easily defined as others, which is why the fuzzy boundary between rules and skills often becomes completely illegible - I find it easier to find the line of separation when I think of these skills as building blocks.

For example, grammar is a building block. You have to know the rules of grammar (which does have rules) if you're going to break them.
Writers, especially fiction writers, break grammar rules all the time. Most of it is done instinctively in pursuit of telling a good story, but I think you should still make the effort to learn those rules. It's not sexy or easy, but it's a skill you should have. How are you going to argue against someone if they accuse you of writing in passive sentences if you don't know what passive sentences are?

Another different type of writerly skill is the ability to motivate yourself and get it done. Writing is not a group affair. You may have critique partners or beta readers, but it's your butt in that chair day after day, night after night.

The third example takes us closer to the writing itself - knowing what point of view is. It's your business how you write, whether you like to stay with one character or head-hop, but knowing the possibilities, knowing what you can do should you feel so compelled, is a skill, part of the building blocks of writing.

It's when people say that you should do X with POV that they're taking what is a base skill and trying to turn it into a rule. The same goes for climaxes, backstory dumps and world-building among other things. A writer should know what these things are. What they then decide to do with those building blocks is up to them.

Agree? Disagree? Any deep and profound thoughts of your own?


Susan Abraham said...

Aahh...and I still remember the quaint charm of your writing table, Nalini. The design of that itself was a precise skill.

Nalini Singh said...

Alas that table is currently labouring under WAY too much stuff! I have barely enough room for my laptop. Must tidy. Must tidy. Must...

Milady Insanity said...

Sounds about right to me. I'm adding this to my Writers links for today. :)

Gabrielle said...

I think for every rule ever stated, you can come up with the name of a writer who broke said rule and did it exquisitely or boldly and made us love them. Which is just another case of "it's not what you do but how you do it."

However, I think every writer should make sure they understand what's behind the "rules," what the reasoning is and how it can help or harm their writing. Sometimes I think "rule breaking" is equal to lazy writing.

F'instance, I *hate* headhopping. I hear writers say "But I want people to know what all my characters are thinking." 2 things: 1. as a reader, I want to get into the main characters and stay with them (that's with romances and women's fiction; if you're talking an ensemble piece such as Armistead Maupin's "Tales of The City," sure, I'm happy to be with different people. Although, he doesn't headhop, he gives characters their own chapters.)

And 2. as a writer, you should be able to show me--or give me a very good hint--what each character is thinking *without* going into their head.

Practice your craft, understand how to use the tools presented to you, *then* decide what you're going to do. And do it with joy and verve!

Cynthia E. Bagley said...

I found after writing essays and poetry that fiction is a "whole another beast." I feel less confident when I write in this style. :-)

But in poetry, I had the same conversation about skill and rules. I think that knowing the rules and at first using them is important in the development of a poet or writer. It is through the use of form that the idea can fly. I have found that if you have a good idea that a villanelle or sonnet can enhance the idea through the use of restraint. AND, free verse if written right has its own form.

I really hate it when someone says they are inspired to break all the rules and them come up with something tired and cliched. Also about grammar, breaking the rules there is "at your own risk." Is it better to break a rule and make it noticable???? or use grammar and make it unnoticable. (gosh the spelling does not look right)

The writing should be invisible to the story.

Just a few thoughts.

Emma Sinclair said...

OK, this may be long and rambling so I'll apologize in advance.

I'm visiting a friend now who is a college professor. She's teaching her students APA style (American Psychological Association - which most scientific papers are written in here in the states at least).

The focus of what she's doing is mainly APA style meaning citations and things like that, but helping her with some of them, it's amazing to me the poor grammer skills of some of these people. People don't know how to use comma's correctly, don't quote correctly, etc.

All of the APA style in the world doesn't matter if there isn't that basic subset of skills. It still makes the paper impossible to read.

So, in relation to writing - if people can't even construct a sentence correctly, all the single POV's in the world aren't going to make the book better.

Nalini Singh said...

Thanks, Milady. :)

However, I think every writer should make sure they understand what's behind the "rules," what the reasoning is and how it can help or harm their writing.

Gabrielle, I couldn't agree more. You must know what you're messing with before you start messing with it!

BUT, I also think writers need room to breathe. I learned to write very instinctively, without knowing the rules, so the whole creativity aspect needs to be embraced too, not buried under learning too much craft vs actually writing.

Nalini Singh said...

The writing should be invisible to the story.

Yes! Yes! I love the way you put this, Cynthia.

Nalini Singh said...

Emma - totally! Certain building blocks are essential. And I don't think that contradicts my thoughts about allowing creativity room to breathe.

Of course (putting on my devil's advocate hat), you could say that if you have a powerful enough story to tell, it doesn't matter how many mistakes you make in the telling of it. People will listen regardless.

Gabrielle said...

Nalini--me too! I had *no* idea what rules were when I started writing at 13. I just wrote for the sheer pleasure, taking all my cues from books. Then, some time later, I learned about "rules" and they almost crippled me. Now, I know the "rules" but more than that, I take into account what actually makes a good story. And sometimes that's definitely not the "rules."

Cynthia, I agree to a point. To me, it's like figure skating. You'll always get the couple who's out there waving their arms around, looking flashy, until you realize there's no basis for it. And then you've got the couple who has practiced and practiced and practiced, so that their base moves are almost invisible, and they're so elegant that just a small hand move takes your breath away (see Gordeeva & Grinkov for an example :-) ).

So I agree that the writing should be invisible to the story in that you should never stumble over the prose, but then there are some commercial fiction writers (such as Barbara Samuel) who slip in a turn of phrase that leaves me breathless.

Melly said...

Oh, perfect!
I like the distinction you make betweent skills and rules. You nailed it and put in much better words what I've been trying to say.

rdl said...

very interesting stuff. i think you should expound more on the things you touched on in the last paragraph; i'd love to hear more. found you thru melly, will be back when i can read more.

Nalini Singh said...

Thanks, rdl. I think I'm going to let things ferment a bit more before holding forth again.