Thursday, June 9, 2016

When a Maxim is Just a Maxim

By Kim McDougall
Some rules of writing seem to be carved in stone. Don’t end a sentence with a preposition. Show don’t tell. Write what you know. Don’t split infinitives. Use capitals and periods. Blah, blah, blah. 
I’m writer, dammit. If I want to split my infinitive, I am going to happily, earnestly, spitefully split it!
So when is it alright to break the rules? I’ve been mulling this question for the past week, since I finished a new fantasy book with rampant head-hopping. I won’t mention the book or author because this isn’t a book review. For convenience’s sake, we’ll just call it “The Epic Swordsman,” by Johnny Rulebreaker. 
There is a big difference between head-hopping (when the point of view jumps from character to character) and an omniscient narrator. Omniscience is often the excuse touted by head-hopping authors to justify it. “Tolkien did it. Why can’t I?” Well, no, Tolkien didn’t head-hop. The Lord of the Rings was written with an omniscient narrator that stands back and looks at the story as a whole. Rarely, does he get right inside a character’s head to tell the reader what that character is feeling. Think of is like a Greek god standing on Mount Olympus and telling the story of the people he sees living below him. That’s omniscience. 
Johnny Rulebreaker is a blatant head-hopper. The point of view (POV) bounced around from character to character within the same section and often within the same paragraph. And these POV’s were quite deeply rooted to the characters, showing thoughts, feelings and observations.

Head-hopping is normally a big pet-peeve of mine. If a book is poorly written, I won’t finish it and head-hopping is a big determining factor for me. But, for some reason I really liked “The Epic Swordsman.” Somehow, the head-hopping worked. I didn’t get whiplash from the jerking points of view. I wasn’t taken out of the story (a big complaint about head-hopping) when the POV switched. It didn’t feel cheesy. 
So I ask the question: Is rule breaking bad if the reader still enjoys the story?
I have to go with no. Story is the only thing that matters. If you have a really great tale, with terrific characters and you can tell it in a way that engages the audience, go for it. Jonny Rulebreaker did and it worked for me. 
I decided to analyze why the head-hopping didn’t bother me in “The Epic Swordsman” like it did in other books. I came up with this:
A. The story depended on a misunderstanding between the main character and his friends. It was interesting to see how each character interpreted events differently. There was a purpose to the head-hopping.
B. The character voices were distinct. Each character was well-defined. So following the head-hopping train wasn’t difficult. That being said, I would have still preferred that the POV’s didn’t switch in mid paragraph. That took a bit longer for me to get used to.
Thinking about head-hopping got me thinking about two other writing “truths” that can be broken.
Show Don’t Tell
Anyone who has taken even an introductory course on the craft of writing has had this idea tattooed on their brain. Show don’t tell. Make the action happen now rather than relate it from a later date. Don’t tell me how the character felt or reacted. Show me the physical effects. Doing it right brings on the much lauded Deep POV, a state every author strives for.
That’s great most of the time. But once in a while, short and sweet is more important than deep POV. Sometimes, “Joe felt sick” can have more of an impact than “The room spun and Joe’s stomach clenched.” Just like in an action scene, short sentences can speed up the narrative, so can ‘telling.’ Used sparingly, this technique can add a sense of drama or urgency.
Write What You Know
This is one rule that I think should just be chucked right out the window. I have an odd rant on this topic here: But here’s the gist of it: 
Don’t write what you know. Write what inspires, terrifies or thrills you, what makes you clench your teeth or cry out loud. Write words you wish you said and about characters you wish you knew.

That’s all I got. Now get back to writing!
Kim McDougall is the co-founder and video producer at Castelane. She's coming up on her 500th video. Get in on the fun at Castelane - For the Prose.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Don't Write What You Know

Let’s call her Kate (secretly, my favorite name in high school). She’s fourteen years old, completely unaware of life barreling down on her. An idea pops her head. Where does it come from and why? Thankfully, she’s too green to question it.  She decides to write a story about fox hunting. 
She knows nothing about fox hunting.
Her innocence leads her to the library. (These were the days when a Google search was known as the Dewey Decimal System.) 
Kate researches, learns the jargon, the history, smells and sounds of the fox hunt. She writes a brilliant story, fresh with sentiment and overflowing with details. (Okay, it’s a mediocre story, but it’s her first. Give her a break.)

The story gets noticed by the powers-that-be: the editor of the school district’s student magazine, Fledglings. Kate thinks it must be a fabulous story to be published in such an august journal, but the truth is the editor didn’t have much fodder to choose from. Her peers are too bleary-eyed with hormones to worry about arts or literature. Few of them even notice her startling debut, and those only wonder why she would bother.
Kate does get her moment to shine when Mr. Walter Whitehead, English teacher extraordinaire, calls her into his office, something he has never done. He wears a purple silk shirt and his horn-rimmed glasses are attached to a long silver chain draped around his shoulders. Geez, you can't make this stuff up. 
Kate wonders why he wears the glasses, because he never looks through them. They perch on the end of his nose and he peers over the rims. His face is ruddy and flaky. He mouth is either an exaggerated grin or melodramatic frown. Never anything in between. Students say he has a beautiful young wife. Kate doubts it.

He asks Kate in his Shakespearean voice (Walter Whitehead is also the drama teacher) how she knows so much about fox hunting. Pride and fear tinting her voice, Kate tells him about the hours she spent researching the topic in the library. His smile plummets to a frown.

"From now on, you should only write about what you know. That, my young friend, is what separates us from the apes,” says Walter.

That is the end of Kate’s interview. All through math class and part of geography she ponders Walter Whitehead’s attempt at mentorship. She looks at her peers who sit with glassy eyes while the teacher drones on about plant-life in the Canadian tundra. Someone snores quietly. Others agonize over first love jitters and first heartbreak horrors, but with much less panache than Kate gives them credit for. 
Kate feels that now familiar urge to pick up a pen. She opens her notebook. The idea is coming…it’s almost here…yes…She writes:
What do you do with a drunken sailor when she’s your mom?
Because Kate has failed to learn a lesson from Walter Whitehead. Kate won’t write what she knows. She’ll write what inspires, terrifies or thrills her; what makes her clench her teeth or cry out loud. She’ll write words she wished she had said and about characters she wished she knew. And her future fans thank her.

By Kim McDougall
Kim McDougall is the co-founder and video producer at Castelane. She's coming up on her 500th video. Get in on the fun at Castelane - For the Prose.