Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The golden rule

After nearly four years of critique circles, I now have a tiny group of faceless critics living in my head. They sit at a rectangular table and bear swords in the form of pens with red ink (yes with the ink of my blood like when poor Harry learns the cost of telling the truth to a lying, selfish, good-for-nothing witch. No really, she's a witch).

Until recently, this critique group in my head was based on a limited understanding of what a story can be. Sadly, I have to take credit for those limitations because the critics live in my brain after all, and the only resources they have available are those I allow into the...brain room (my analogy just got weird). Reading, learning, thinking, and especially questioning what I've always believed to be true--these all affect my tiny critics, broaden their tiny minds. For a while, especially in the beginning before I'd begun to learn and stretch and question, the group was really strict and insisted I fit whatever I write into a formula. According to them, a story just couldn't work unless a+b+c led to the climax which led to the denouement which led to the possibility of a sequel. But guess what--it was all a lie! A lie I uncovered over time by reading really good books with meandering plots. A lie that may have only been embedded in my brain room and not yours, but a lie nonetheless.

That's not to say plotting is bad or that a+b+c is bad. It's just to say all writing styles don't fit the formula, nor should they. Just ask Charles Dodgson. Or the faceless army of storytellers through the ages, those mysterious authors of folk and fairy tales and the readers who love them. Just read Swallows and Amazons--nothing happens! Mary Poppins? Episodic and all about grown-ups! The Railway Children? Dream Days? The Wind in the Willows? Countless classics have no inciting conflict to motivate a protagonist to go on a quest! Some with no climax at all! And even better, half of those classics weren't even written for children, but children still read them and love them anyway!

There is no perfect formula. There are only good stories. Write backwards. Write forwards. Write inside out, upside down, with pictures, without pictures, with nothing but pictures. Write in three genres at once if you can manage it. Write a true story. Write a false story. Write whatever you want!


But there is one rule.

In all the classes and all the conferences and all the lectures and panels of academics and panels of publishers and panels of agents and small groups and big groups and award winning speakers and award losing speakers, the ONLY common piece of advice I've heard, the one magic rule to follow in putting the ideas from your head into words and sharing them with the world is this deceptively simple nugget of wisdom which must be followed exactly to the letter whether you've plotted or unplotted, whether you write what you know or don't know, whether you show don't tell or tell don't show, whether you're allegorical or metaphorical or phantasmagorical, the golden rule, the one rule, the Unbreakable Rule is this: Write well.