Breaking the Rules of Writing Fiction

Know the rules well so you break them effetively.
— Dalai Lama (not really)

I recently read an excellent piece by Mary Robinette Kowal entitled: "The Cost of Breaking the Rules." She writes about a transformative experience she had when she attended Orson Scott Card's boot camp. In Mary's words:

Before boot camp, I felt as though I could write a good story by accident, and afterward, as though I could write one on purpose. Card explained the rules and how fiction worked so clearly that it had gone from being a mysterious process to being something repeatable.

But when Mary returned from the boot camp, she re-read Card's Ender's Game and found that Card broke many of the rules he taught in his boot camp and in his non-fiction titles Characers and Viewpoint and How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy. So what's the deal with that?

Mary goes on to conclude that Card broke his own rules knowingly and with purpose, that part of the genius of Ender's Game is how skillfully Card flips those rules in a purposeful way and that it works. Similar to the quote at the top of this post (which is not really by the Dalai Lama despite what Goodreads says), he knew the rules and then broke them.

Though I've never attended Card's boot camp, I've read the two books Mary mentions, and I had a totally different reaction as a younger man: I hated Card's rules. Every time I sat down to write, I heard his voice in my head telling me my world-building and magic systems were crap, were childish, were not going to work. For years, his books paralyzed me. 

So four years ago when I decided to get back on the novel-writing train, I purposely ignored books, blogs and classes, trusting in my own voice and the things I'd learned in more than a dozen books and three collegiate courses on writing fiction. I finished two manuscript drafts this way, free of the nit-picking voices in my head.

Last year I attended the Writing Excuses Writing Workshop and Retreat after listening to the excellent Writing Excuses Podcast the past couple of years. Mary was one of the instructors, and her classes were as transformative to me as Card's had been for her. I also learned a lot from the other instructors and consider that the best week of my renewed writing career. Eight months post retreat, I believe I'm a lot better writer, and all three of my manuscripts have benefited from Mary's touch. 

My perspective was different this time. Having written two full manuscripts, I had the proper mindset to absorb Mary's excellent instruction without crippling the genesis I need to create stories. 

Back to the point: I believe it's better to understand the rules before you break them, to have our genre and other norms burned in our brains. But I also think a lot of writing advice can be applied too literally, assuming that just because Orson Scott Freaking Card said magic systems have to be a certain way, that magic systems have to be a certain way, because, well, he's sold a lot of books. 

I think it's easy to assume that success follows understanding, but that's not always the case. And though Card's rules buoyed Mary and helped her become a better writer, some of the same principles helped to drive me away from writing. 

So while learning about your craft is essential, it does not replace actually practicing the craft. Once I'd stretched myself, Mary's advice (and likely Card's had I discovered it later) improved my approach without stifling the muse.