I’m in a writing group that’s been going on for years now. Normally we follow a certain schedule (if you’re interested in how our Garden Group operates, see this), but recently I’ve decided to shake things up a bit. I asked everyone in the group to tell me a rule he or she generally abides by. I explained it doesn’t have to be a rule in a prescriptive sense—I didn’t want this to be something the writer felt must be written in stone, especially since most of us know those rules are rare—but, I said, it can be. Each writer gave the following:
- Write from one POV at a time. Show, don’t tell.
- Give authenticity of space, sense of place.
- Be sure to have a tight plot and believable, likable characters. Write something that can be read on an airplane while at the same time giving a deeper commentary. Shoot for realism…in other words, no idealized characters.
- Use all the senses.
- Nail the voice first, then worry about the plot.
(The last one was mine.)
Then I proposed that we continue to do our regular novel submissions and critiques, but with these we’ll submit very short rule-breaking exercises based on the above. The point of the exercises is not to write something publishable, but to see what can be learned from rule-breaking and from each other. For example, I feel pretty confident about rule 4, but 5 and 8 (mine) will be really hard.
Here’s the agenda (the third author’s rules had to be broken down into several exercises):
- Write in omniscient. Tell, don’t show. (Of course, you must show to some degree, but do a great deal of telling.)
- Write in whatever POV or tense you like, but give NO sense of place. You can give other sensory details, or not. Try to think of what would justify doing this.
- Don’t write a tight plot. Sounds easy, right? But here we want to focus on how to write a story with trajectories that don’t quite add up. How might this work?
- Write an evil protagonist. A veritable villain with no redeeming qualities, not even a sad, broken childhood to explain our villain’s character. Pure. Evil.
- Write a beach read. Don’t be deep, no greater commentary, nothing intellectual. Imagine you’re writing the next best seller and your agent tells you not to go anywhere near literary. You’re gonna make a ton of money. Movie deals. You might hate yourself a little…or not? Can this work?
- Write something with a big point, without any aim to please a general audience. It can be scholarly or not. The tone is up to you.
- Don’t use senses in an evocative way. You can let the reader know the story’s taking place in a grocery store, but you have to leave it at that. We’re not looking at the flowers in the grocery store, not seeing the color of someone’s shirt, not hearing the cash register…unless these are crucial for the plot.
- Write a tight plot (keep it simple, maybe even cliché, since this is only a quick exercise) and the voice should be not only secondary, but utterly bland. Since “voicelessness” is impossible, think of someone who’s conventional, not someone who bores you to death (since this would actually count as a strong voice).
So far we’ve gone through the first three rule-breaking exercises, and here’s what I’ve learned so far:
Omniscient + Tell, Don’t Show.
Telling worked best when the telling had either a strong narrative voice and/or told of very specific and interesting details. In longer works, telling is often used to move the story forward without having to read about people opening car doors and doing boring things to get from point a to b. Here, telling served a different purpose, yet it turned out not to be a big problem.
Omniscience, however, creates distance, which was problematic in a short writing exercise. There simply wasn’t room to dip into the inner thoughts of multiple characters without “head hopping.” The way to avoid head hopping is to either avoid dipping into a close third person, or use that close third person to purposefully create a sense of chaos. Controlled chaos. The voices of the characters must be distinct both from each other and from the narrative omniscient voice. I felt we all came close to pulling this off, but we all needed minor tweaks to clarify.
Note: We all wrote dark stuff.
No sense of place/No authenticity of space
This exercise seemed to be the most difficult so far, at least for me. I tried to use the setting as a minor point of tension, a little question in the reader’s mind: “Where is this person? What is she doing?” I tried to avoid describing the room, sticking closely to my character’s thoughts. I wrote from the POV of a woman involved in the Milgram experiment (banality of evil, compliance to authority.) Unfortunately, everyone guessed this was the Milgram experiment and they imagined the location/setting without my having to describe it. I imagine if I’d chosen to write something more original, I might’ve gotten away with it. But hey, plots are hard to come by. For an exercise, I figured it’d be all right to steal.
Others chose to establish a setting, then alter it in a way that wasn’t expected. They ended up writing surrealistically, and that led to an unreliable narrator. The two combined can work, but only for short bursts. Surrealism is difficult to pull off, and I find it much easier to take when I know I can trust the character generally, and I know that what I’m reading is an altered state.
Since these exercises were “short bursts,” the writing turned out to be interesting and, in my opinion, new territory for these writers.
Note: We all wrote dark stuff.
Don’t write a tight plot.
The joke was inevitable: “I do this all the time! This exercise will be easy.” Doing this successfully is a different matter.
What came out of this was interesting. I ended up doing something very similar to another writer—I kept a thematic consistency to make up for the lack of plot. You get the outlines of what could happen with all the dangling threads based on consistent mood and theme.
One writer commented that the imagery seemed richer than our usual writing.
Another writer noted that the reader fills in the gaps, that the lack of plot encourages a more active participation on the part of the reader to make sense of the story.
I ended up writing something slightly out-of-the-box for me. I tend to write about the mundane, and I did it here too, but this time I played around with POV in a way I hadn’t before.
Note: We all wrote dark stuff.
The common denominator: Dark stuff. We haven’t figured out why. My hypothesis is that, in a writing exercise, we don’t take ourselves too seriously. This gives us license to go there.
Another thing I noticed is that many of us wrote way more than a few paragraphs. Some even submitted the exercise as a short story.
What are your writing rules/tendencies? Have you ever tried to break them?
If you feel so moved, feel free to share your rule-breaking exercise in the comments. You can break your own rule or use one of the above as a prompt. (I’ll share one of mine in the next post.)