interviews / writing rules

Natalie asks the bad boys…

…how they break the rules.

overly manly man 2If you’ve taken creative writing classes, you’ve learned—perhaps the hard way—many of the writing rules and conventions. You’ve
probably sat in a workshop and had that out of body experience when you realize that you’ve done exactly what you “shouldn’t”, i.e. a story that starts with a dream sequence, cheesy adverbs in dialogue, too many abstractions in a poem.

A popular interview question for famous writers is, “What are your rules for writing?”  George Orwell’s are quintessential. Zadie Smith has some good points. The New York Times online has a blog dedicated to writing rules.

But all great writers break the rules. I posit that a writer comes into his or her own when they learn to twist, quash, snap rules—consciously or unconsciously. So I asked some of my male writer friends how they go about doing the wrong thing when writing.

Will Johnson on grammar out the window

WillA few years ago I read “Children of the Sea” by Edwidge Danticat, which is a story about Haitian lovers during a civil war. The thing that made the biggest impression on me was the pairing of two wildly different voices. one of which didn’t utilize proper spelling, grammar or capitalization. I just liked how it looked on the page. I decided to try to write an antiphonal story in the same format, but instead of lovers I chose a father and a daughter (Rick and Darby) as my subjects. This ultimately turned into my story “Sea to Sky”, which won The Fiddlehead‘s 2011 fiction prize. For some reason, removing all grammatical considerations from the father’s voice freed me up to explore the way he would actually express himself. Now I’m adapting that story into a full-length book of the same name, and an excerpt of that manuscript recently came second-place in This Magazine‘s Great Canadian Literary Hunt. In this story, I only use Rick’s voice. I consider him to be my most successful creation, and I would have never been inspired to create him without seeing Danticat do it first.

Jay Torrence on feeling like a rule breaking God

jay torrence 3I feel that way when I manage to write something for the stage that I can’t wait to perform (or make someone else perform), out loud, in front of other human beings in a room. It might not be a rule that I’ve broken but it is for sure a sense of expectation that I’ve defiled. Or a new territory that I can’t wait to be forced to explore on stage. I stare at my computer screen and laugh out loud or weep accordingly and always it is followed by an acknowledged ridiculousness of the moment and my place in the trenches. If I get a few of those every month or so, it is a satisfying fuel.

Bill Radford on structural contortions

Bill Radford, HeadshotI’m hesitant to break rules for the sake of breaking rules. I did that a lot when I started, and I usually produced things that felt broken.

Generally, I don’t think of rules; I think of structure. And structural archetypes like the hero’s journey are hallowed because they work. Each step does something. The thrill I get from playing with structure is finding a way to satisfy a step in an unusual way, or switching the order to fit the story. For example, in my thesis, I had “refusal of the call” come after meeting the mentor. In my current manuscript, I conflate “the supreme ordeal” with “plot point one.” I’m still hitting steps, and I know what they’re doing, but it feels more fitting to the particular stories, and it feels fresh.


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