Friday, April 6, 2007

Beware of Dictums, Commandments, And Rules - By Rob Walker

As a "rule" I understand where editors and even readers are coming from when they lay out Dictums, Ten Commandments, and Rules they want slavishly followed. Rules for Mystery Writing with a capital R, and I have been faced with them my entire writing career, spanning back to my college days in the early 70s. And "as a rule" I agree with them from top to bottom, but did you notice I dared begin a sentence with AND?

So yeah, as a writer I see every hard and fast and concrete rule as a challenge as well. Oft times a rule is a red flag to this author to break it or shake it up a bit, give it a new spin or twist, and oft times to break it in half! But to do so with some panache, you see. That is, break the rule or commandment in an effort to prove that no rule can chain down a good writer--or shouldn't put chains on your work.

In the hands of a real craftsman, any one of these so-called ironclad rules can be turned on itself and made to work positively ingeniously. Even a cliche can be tweaked to good use. I am speaking of breaking a rule in order to make the notion work both perfectly and artistically in favor of the story.

The novel form is an art form that can and does take many shapes,and if the author can say create a prologue -- nowadays said to be a definite No-No, a signal you are an amateur, etc. -- that is perfectly suited to the story, then by all means s/he should do so.

Changing the title heading to Chapter One may be advisable in today's climate but if it is a prologue, a prologue by any other name is still a prologue. Prevailing wisdom is also to write chapters a paragraph long. Careful of prevailing windsand windbags.

As for carrying over a criminal investigation to book number two as the case is NOT closed (kinda like life, ya know?) -- or not closed to the satisfaction of your reader, or your own creation--your character lead detective, as I've done with Inspector Alastair Ransom.
As has been done on Homicide, the great TV show among others. I've done broke dis rule and done did it successfully. So successfully for instance that Crimespree Magazine's Jon Jordan, having read book one and book two of my City Series absolutely loved it, even though it took approximately 70 pages of book two to conclude the case that is central to book one. Award winning author Ken Bruen had the same response and loved both books despite this "commandment" breaking I managed to pull off with great care.

In my Edge Series (just ripe for Jimmy Smits to play the part, anyone know him? know his people?) I broke the "Romance Rule #1" Thou Shalt Not get your two main characters in bed as it will "kill" the tension and end the story. I disagreed, believing the spark-ridden relationshipbetween the edgy Lucas and the police shrink Meredith must only become more of a "Moonlighting" tension, more interesting after they had sex, and it was tenfold. Yes, I dared do what Moonlighting dared not do. At the exact middle of the 4-book Edge series, I had them give into lust and passion. For two more books they had to deal with the aftermath of their "mistake" and in the end love bloomed along with the Aurora Borelis.

Such commandments as these and others, sage advice generally, such as no dialogue only scenes, or nodescript only scenes, no "blowhard" characters simply make me want to jump in and prove myself the exception to the rule.

I ask can it be done regardless? Can you make it work? Henry Bosch, the snitch in Alastair Ransom's world is a blowhard but he does most of his blowhardiing in a fascinating way; it's who he is as with all characters--what he says and does and thinks is who he is, and what others say and do around him and think of him supports who he is.

Dictums, Rules, and Commandments are worth paying closer attention to; you pay close enough attention, you can put them to work for you. If turned on their head, such rules can be a catalyst to orginality and nerve.

Couple of years ago I wrote PSIBlue...before Medium appeared on TV and was promptly given a commandment from my then agent in NYC that said, "No editor in NYC wants to see the two words detective and psychic put together ever again. Shelve the book and go on to another project. Two weeks later Medium appeared on TV and since then you see the proliferation of interest in the paranormal detective. Careful of absolute certainties.

Fortunately and smartly Echelon Press saw the value of PSI Blue, and I'd taken the advice to send it to no NY publishers. Karen Syed at Echelon saw the fresh twist on an old standard. So when someone tells you that no one wants another say Vampire novel or that Horror is dead, beware. Hard to keep those monsters down and if your vampire novel has a new, fresh premise or twist or both as in all the vampires are wearing white this season or if you are Orson Scott Card and you pen Lost Boys, all rules and all bets are off.

My most recent horror novel has been at #1 at\shorts serialized novels for a year. Why? It explains spontaneous human combustion, has a monster and apandemic, and an ineffectual man leading a nation into darkness. The setting is almost entirely East India although I was told no one wants to read about India. I am still being told no one wants to read about Cuba but that's just a red flag to me.

ROB WALKER - Shadows in the White City -- occupying a shelf near you now! Rush as the shelf life of a ppo is about 7 days.


Deb Larson said...

I'm glad to know there is another "rule breaker" among us!
Loved your blog ... and agree whole heartedly.
Deb (DL Larson)

Terri Stone said...

Bravo Rob! I'm so glad you are back. Well, you never really went away - but you know what I mean. Maybe we should change the name of this blog to The Rule Breakers.

Looking forward to seeing you again at Love Is Murder for the 10th anniversary, if not sooner.

You are so right about Echelon. Isn't Karen Syed a gem of a publisher!