Saturday, December 4, 2010

Crazy-specific rules

I've maybe talked a little here before about my faith in the necessity of stupidly arbitrary rules in writing, and in other art. I was talking with a friend about this and I thought, "You know, there's got to be a post in that."

People talk about what a bad drummer Meg White is but a) I'm pretty sure she could manage better if she wanted and b) the point of having her there, literally the entire reason Jack White has her is so there's limitations. Have you heard this guy play guitar? I mean have you heard him solo live? It's ludicrous. He can do pretty much anything. The ability to do anything, even in the realm of something as ultimately trivial as guitar, is totally crippling.

This makes sense if you think about God. Maybe the first time I suspected there was no such thing was when it occurred to me -- whatever the first time was that I thought this -- that if God were infinitely good he ought to make everything else infinitely good. This is a sticking point for lots of people. The logic of an omniscient god is too much to take: if we live in a world with more or less rational physics, and if he designs our bodies and places them in that world, in what sense can we be said to have free will? And so on. Can God make a sandwich so big even he can't eat it? If he's really omnipotent the answer has got to be yes. And yet it has no meaning.

Can God make a suede shoe so blue he can't lift it? The sentence is meaningless. And yet it begins with "can God," so the answer is yes if God is omnipotent. So we've got a problem. (Yes, I am a very literal person sometimes. Give me a break.)

Anyway, the point is: in the absence of constraints your choices lose all meaning. You need a way to make decisions, which means a mechanism that eliminates the vast majority of possibilities before you even consider them. I recently required my students to write poetry according to arbitrary rules. It improved their poetry dramatically. Here are some of the rules I have followed at one point or another in my writing. (I don't follow a lot of these now -- I found others.)

  • No adverbs.
  • Where an adverb would typically be used, it is not only acceptable but awesome to substitute the adjectival form -- especially if it breaks the sentence a little. (I've mostly dropped this one, though I retain the option.) 
  • Where a "that" or a "which" or other conjunction can be dropped without reducing clarity, drop it -- even (especially) if it breaks the sentence a little.
  • Borrow structures from academic and/or biblical language when you want to establish distance.
  • Subject verb object is THE sentence. 
  • One clause per sentence where possible, and, failing that, clauses joined by twists of logic or illogic are preferable to clauses joined by graceful literary swivels. 
  • One syllable, two syllables, four syllables: Good. Three syllables: Bad. 
  • Beyond four syllables sound is rarely a concern, given that if you're using a word beyond that range you must need it pretty badly.
  • No sentences beginning in "X felt" or "X thought."
  • Many, many sentences beginning with "X wanted."
  • Objects exist when they are used or examined. They are otherwise forgotten.
  • It is usually preferable to end on what you thought would be the third-to-last line.
  • End a sentence on one or two syllables where possible.
  • Avoid the construction "X was Y," where Y is an adjective: mention these things incidentally in the midst of active sentences, as in, "Z brandished the Y X," where Z is a character, X is an object, and Y the adjective that modifies it.
  • There's always time for more simile. (I had to lighten up on this one -- it got a little crazy.)
  • The more tenuous the claim to reality or truth of a given sentence, the more confident/authoritative its delivery. 
  • Some colors are better than others: primary colors, anything that can be immediately recognized with aid of one adjective or noun. (Powder blue, shit brown, etc.)
  • Always mind the shape of the mind's mouth as it reads.
  • And the mind's lungs, too.
  • Lots and lots of white space most of the time, partly to set up the absence of white space as something meaningful.
  • Fragments are fine, but only if it doesn't sound "cool."
  • Any grammatical jury-rigging necessary to make a sentence feel "now," regardless of its temporal relationship to the rest of the story, is not only allowed, but entirely necessary.
  • It is acceptable to say what "will" or "would" happen to any object or person at any given time so long as it essentially happens in the reader's present -- that is, no foreshadowing, only announcement of future events that then, having "happened" for the reader, are not later elaborated on or otherwise returned to.
  • A comma splice is acceptable wherever a period would be more disruptive to meaning.
And so on. I could probably do a bunch more, will put them in comments as I think of them, if I do. These rules are important to me not because I think they are "right" -- as I've said, I frequently abandon them, consider it a necessity to do so -- but because they help me reduce the options available to me in a given scene. Tracking tone, character, plot, setting, style, pacing, and so on is nearly impossible, and if you've got the option of writing any sort of sentence or paragraph at all on top of that it all gets to be too much.

My goal is generally to reduce the field of possibilities such that I can manage what is left -- such that I am not even entirely aware of managing them, in fact, but find my way as a practiced musician playing a half-remembered song. I've said before I see my job as being primarily the placement of periods and commas. That's not always true, but it feels true when I'm at my best.

What rules do you write or create by?


  1. Mine (which I may repost after thinking about and explaining it more):

    titles are important

    Words get their meaning from other words

    sentences need to exist a little

    Who is not important, but what is

    what needs to be clear mostly

    sentences get their meaning from other sentences

    everything is a simile and a metaphor

    pronouns are definitely in the top 5 most important parts of speech

    prepositions are the only part of speech that need to be specific

    adverbs are possibly the most fluid part of speech and maybe should never be underestimated

  2. My only rule is to read what I write over a lot, and to only write what "grows." As in, I've got an initial few sentences, and I just keep reading those sentences over and over, and if I don't touch them after like 20x, it's OK, I just keep going. Eventually an alteration or addition will spontaneously occur to me, and I will put that in. And then I re-read until another thing spontaneously occurs. I like to think of the obsessive readings as "watering," as in a garden, and I get to just sit there and watch it develop. Sometimes this is a fast process, and sometimes it isn't at all (overall I think I work at a decent speed), but it is the most thrilling for me, and so I've kept to it. . .

  3. Another one I just remembered: I try to divide chapters in a novel into short, medium, and long chapters, with the ratio between them being 1:2:4. In other words, the short chapters might be four pages, the medium chapters eight, and the long ones sixteen. This tends to erode in revision, but I keep it where I can because a) it helps me know how long to make a scene, and b) it helps the reader know how long things will take.