Thursday, November 5, 2009

Some Thoughts About Rules

One day when I was in high school, it was raining; the teacher was out of the classroom for a few minutes, so I climbed out the second-story window onto the roof of the adjoining one-story part of the high school, to dance in the rain. The boys shut the window and wouldn't let me back in, so I was caught by the teacher when she returned and I had to go the principal's office. (So far, this was the inspiration for the opening scene of Dynamite Dinah.) When I got there, the principal said (and this is the part I didn't put in the book), "You think the rules don't apply to you because you're smarter than everybody else." Well, I probably did think just exactly that. I expected him then to say, "But the rules apply to everybody, however smart they art." Instead he said, "But I've looked up your IQ, and it's just average"!!! Can you imagine any school administrator saying such a thing today??

The strange part is that, as a writer, I love rules. I adore rules. I make them up all the time for myself. In my novels each chapter has to be 10 pages long. In a chapter book, each chapter has to be 5 pages long. If it's 4, I add something; if it's 6, I cut something. A picture book cannot be over 1000 words - most of mine have come in with a word count in the 990-range. I teach workshops on rules about point-of-view, presenting it as being the end of the world if these rules are broken. You simply cannot have an entire novel written in the point of view of one character and then switch out of that point of view for one scene only simply because it's convenient for you as a novelist to do this. This flagrant violation of the rules for point of view simply cannot be allowed to be.

Then I took an online writing course last year from writing guru Dennis Foley. He said there is only one rule for writing - one rule only.

Here it is: "Don't bore the reader."

That's it. The only rule, according to Dennis.

So now I'm working on a chapter book and - gasp - I have a 7-page first chapter - and a 7-page second chapter - and then a 5-page third chapter. But I don't think any of them are boring. I think they're all funny and lively. I don't see anything I want to cut from the first two chapters or anything I want to add to the third.

And yet it feels wrong.

Or is it just right?

1 comment:

  1. That is my rule for teaching! Never bore. (But I definitely don't always follow it).