Sunday, September 6, 2009

Chain: I fight authority. . .

If my sixth-grade English class could go for 30 days without one student turning in a late assignment, our teacher – Mrs. H. – would let us have a free day. Free days were awesome; it was the only time we could eat gummy worms and listen to the Beastie Boys in class.

Shortly before Christmas, Mrs. H. gave the class an assignment to write a short story using words she had posted on the board. When she gave the assignment, however, I was home with strep throat. Without the list of words, I was unable to complete the story. She counted it late, ruining the chances of my class getting to celebrate a free day before the holiday break.

Of course, my classmates blamed me. I cried to my mom. My mom complained to the principal. The principal talked to the teacher. The next day in class, Mrs. H let us have a free day. Unfortunately, no one knew we were getting a free day that day, so no one brought their gummy bears or ghetto blasters (yeah, it was the 80s). I still took the blame.

I declared a personal war with the teacher, refusing to place the necessary commas and capitalize proper nouns. Of course, there were consequences to my obstinacy. I didn’t do too well in her class, but it made me feel better and it helped me develop an I-don’t-care-what-you-say-I’m-doing-it anyway attitude that has been a blessing and a curse.

(To this day, I find myself breaking the Oxford comma rule out of spite. Mwhahahahahah!)

Rule breaking is the topic for the blog chain Kate started last week. Eric posted before me.

I never really thought about it before I started reading everyone else’s responses, but there are a lot of different rules writers are advised to follow.

First there are the grammar and punctuation rules. Sandra hit the nail on the head in her post when she said writers must know why the rules are there before they begin breaking them. (That story was just for her.)

Then there are rules regarding story construction. There’s the rule about where to place plot points, the show-versus-tell rule, the don’t-use-any-dialogue-tag-other-than-said rule, the exclamation-points-and-all-caps-are-taboo rule, the use-flashbacks-sparingly rule, and what else am I forgetting?

The nice thing about being writers is that we have the freedom to break rules without putting anyone’s life in jeopardy. (Try doing that in a hospital or pharmacy. Er, on second thought, don’t try it.)

But there may or may not be other consequences we have to face for breaking the rules. I may have a lot of trouble finding an agent or publisher for Long Road because of the rules I’ve chosen to break.

Long Road is an inspirational story, but I’m pretty sure CBA (Christian) publishers wouldn’t touch it with a 40-foot-pole because 1.) Nick, the hero, is Catholic (not because of my beliefs, but because of the character itself); 2.) My characters are potty mouths; 3.) There’s a sex scene that’s integral to the plot; and 4.) It's pretty dark.

I can’t change these things without jeopardizing the authenticity and integrity of the story. I’m aware of the odds stacked against this story, but it’s the road I've chosen to travel with it.


Let's hope it doesn't lead to a dead end.

What rules are you willing to break?


Check out what Christine has to say.

16 comments:

christine said...

I just love your take on this topic - and the opening story was great. I can remember some similar situations in my early education.

Man, what is there left to say....Hm...

jules said...

That was totally unfair, and I like your method of retaliation. That's really funny.

I break the rule where you're not supposed to start a sentence with "And" occasionally. I feel like it add emphasis sometimes!

Cole Gibsen said...

Here here! Fabulous post! And I completely agree - the rules were made to be broken :D

Sandra said...

Thanks for the story! Hasn't the Oxford comma suffered long enough, though? ;)

Sometimes you need to break the rules to tell your story the way it has to be told. Good luck with your novel!

B.J. Anderson said...

Sigh. I'm pretty sure I break rules I don't know about, because there are so darn many of them!! I really like exclamation points.

Mandy said...

Excellent post. I particularly agree that breaking rules can be a problem when trying to secure an agent. I've wondered so many times... "is this going to be a deal breaker?" But the narrative voice is soooo important. Don't you owe it to your story to at least follow that rule? Of course.

ElanaJ said...

Excellent post! And that is a fantastic story about your teacher.

Eric said...

Awesome post. You know, I never did have a ghetto blaster, even when it was in style. Anyway, nice story. I had a similar bout of fun with an English teacher when I was a Junior. Thanks for sharing though. Oh, and one of the good things about not knowing the rules is not having to care if you break them. It's a bit of anarchy maybe, but it's fun.

Sarah Bromley said...

A little defiance is a beautiful thing. Great post.

Rosslyn Elliott said...

Stick to your guns. It doesn't do any good to be published if you've compromised what you really value about writing. :-)

Annie Louden said...

Hooray! I love the story of your teacher, and I'm glad you stayed true to your novel despite the odds against it in the market.

Rebecca Knight said...

Great story, although now I need gummi worms!

Kate Karyus Quinn said...

Love the anecdote at the beginning - and what a mean teacher to hold being sick against you!

I also like your point about sometimes needing to break rules to serve our story, but worrying that in the end it might hurt our chances of being published - I guess sometimes we just need to take that chance.

Shaun Hutchinson said...

I love your story...and gummy worms. Down with the man!

Mary Lindsey said...

I went to a writing contest judges' meeting today and they actually addressed this topic to some degree. They advised the judges not to count off for situations when writers intentionally break the rules...fragments etc. Well, duh!

Great post. I love the revenge against the teacher story. :)

Black Pete said...

I'm an adult literacy instructor as well as writer, so I'm immersed in the whole grammar thing. If you'll pardon my not having read the story in question before weighing in, I will nonetheless say a few things.

First off, there is an underlying, logical reason for the whole grammar bit: communication where body language, tone of voice, etc is absent. In other words, if all you have in front of you is the writing, and if you are an English speaker who doesn't live where you live, then the words you read need to be clear and understandable. The goal (however unreachable) is known as Standard English and that is where the rules (and I include spelling there) come from. The idea is for English readers anywhere to be able to understand each other.

Are the rules always logical, sensible, even worth keeping? No, they're conventions (and they're called that in Standard English). Are they arbitrary? Yes, sometimes. Ought we always to follow them?

No.

I just broke the "complete thought" rule with a one word answer, but the one word is probably more effective here than a complete sentence.

Rules are there to anchor the breaking of the rules, something we all do when we speak our language. Spoken English is dialect, and I for one would not have us all speak Standard English any more than I would have us all eat salami for three meals a day.

But the presence of dialect suggests a very good place to break the rules: quotations. Your characters will all speak dialect, so render it as closely to speech patterns of your characters as is possible, breaking the grammar rules into fragments as you do. If you're telling a story in first-person singular, then your narrator will probably speak in dialect. The trick, I'd say, is to balance authenticity with clarity. And it is, in my view, always a balancing act.

One last thing: the punctuation is a device not only signaling where a sentence stops, pauses, belches or farts, but where your poor tired brain can take a split-second break before continuing on (the comma, in other words). Like the comma in whole numbers (every three digits, if you care to look), punctuation makes reading easier for us. Used properly, it can even be a guide and enhancement to the rhythms of the words.

There, I've weighed in. bak 2 brakin th rools .