Sunday, September 16, 2012

My notes from the KSP Panel on 'Breaking the Rules'

I'd like to thank Carol Ryles for inviting me to be a panelist. It was actually fun. Thanks to Guy Salvidge, Lee Battersby, Martin Livings, JB Thomas and lastly, Stephen Dedman who belatedly joined us from the audience after I invited him up at the first quarter mark (naturally with the panel's full support). There were some laughs (Lee was once a stand up comedian), we discussed writing techniques, dialogue punctuation and also the work of some great writers, such as Michael Chabon, Glen Duncan, Will Self, Joyce Carol Oates, Harlan Ellison, Kelly Link, Angela Carter and China Mieville. We also ventured into the 'what's ins' - currently zombies and werewolves - so I was glad that I could point out Angela Beamer's The Loving Dead for special attention (she was in the crowd too and participated in a later panel that I missed due to the West Coast Eagles final).  The jury was out on The Road - Guy and I loved it - and I could see that Lee appreciated Cormac McCarthy's deliberate stylistic choices but we'll leave discussion of the novel's 'worth' for another time.

Our final consensus for the panel was that any 'rule' can be broken if it improves the story. 

I slap-dashed together some notes up on 'Breaking the Rules' the night before the panel and all thirty copies went quickly afterwards, so I'll paste them at the end of this post for those that missed out. I am late, apologies.

After the panel, my bookaholic behaviour continued unabated (although I prefer to think of myself as a bibliophile). I bought Lee Battersby's newly released The Corpse Rat King, Angela Beamer's The Loving Dead and Ticonderoga's Belong (ed. Russell B Farr). Martin Livings kindly gifted me his novel Carnies too.

As for my current reads, I've just finished A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry, which was excellent, although hard hitting, tissue worthy stuff and I am now on Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon, a delicious, easily devoured, old fashioned tale of adventure. 

Below are my notes as promised: 


Many writers obey the rulebook like it is some deity requiring proskynesis. For many (because it is many rather than a few) the canons they are taught through creative writing classes or guide-to-writing textbooks are so utterly adhered to it becomes a criminal offense to drift from their beloved commandments.

My biggest tip is: Break a rule now and then. Be the crim, it’s far more exciting. And besides, what’s the time for petty crime? You’re not acting like a complete nutter.

Occasionally, telling is better than showing, as long as you do it well. Read some of the masters such as Joyce Carol Oates ( read Fossil-Figures, an exceptional story in which plenty is ‘told’), John Cheever, Will Self or the almost entirely ‘told’ but all-so-exquisite novella Memoirs of My Melancholy Whores by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Telling with significant details can work marvels. And it’s not just a ‘South American’ thing.

Some writers blend their voices to form a hybrid narrative. Ghastly! – I hear the writing-law-abiders scream (this is their equivalent to murder). Try the Bloody Chamber and you’ll be enchanted by Angela Carter’s gift for the hybrid narrative. No one blends first and third or even first, second and third voices as well as Angela did.

Meander a little during a ‘longer’ short story (I am not a flash fiction fan). What’s wrong with a bit of character development? What’s wrong with some other threads coming into play? What’s wrong with some layering? Getting from A to B is okay for flash and pulp but at times it can be as boring as flat lemonade. Some stories need some meat. Genre fiction doesn’t always have to be pulpy. You don’t always have to ‘start late and leave early’. Each story is unique.

Try multiple settings if it works. All my stories have them.

Even a protagonist can remain unchanged throughout if it seems right. Some of Kurt Vonnegut’s characters affect the world around them, or they in turn, as Vonnegut would say ‘are tossed into a pile of shit’. Yet many of Vonnegut’s characters themselves remain constant (not all of course) and are even recycled into other works. In William Kotzwinkle’s comical masterpiece The Fan Man, Horst Badortes does not really change his essence at all. And I challenge you to find a funnier novel (after you’ve acclimatised to all those ‘mans’).

A literary piece is entitled to have a ‘real’ plot. A genre piece is entitled to be ‘literary’. My favourite works often possess both a 'literary' style and a captivating plot. What’s wrong with having both?  Try some others not mentioned: George Saunders, Kelly Link, John Varley, Harlan Ellison, Gene Wolfe, Pat Murphy, Graham Greene, Michael Chabon, Glen Duncan, Karen Russell and Sherman Alexie.

Yes, as a ‘rule’ the ‘rules’ need to be followed, but don’t be afraid to be a rule-breaker for the benefit of a piece. All of my favourite writers are wanted men and women. There isn’t an offense they haven’t committed. So my tip is learn the basic ‘rules’ but don’t be a coward when it comes to doing whatever it takes to make your story original, vibrant and have some kind of aesthetic beauty in the prose.

A small dose of anarchy can be liberating. 


  1. "Show don't tell" is over-rated and can lead to such nonsense as " Serena stood in front of the mirror and saw a beautiful violet-eyed voluptuous girl as she ran a hand through her waist length golden locks". But newbies fresh from writing class will twist things out of shape not to break this or other rules. Sometimes, indeed, a few lines of tell is enough and better than taking pages to "show".

    I can tell which of my slush stories have come from a writing class after reading two or three paragraphs. :-)

  2. Hi Anthony, Glad you enjoyed the panel. Sorry I didn't get to hear it, as I was still doing last minute set up business. Being a steampunk writer, breaking the rules is one of my favourite topics and I find that when I get my work critted, my critters with backgrounds in history don't seem to have a big problem with me bending the big rules like dropping in anachronistic and impossible technology, hybridity or replacing real history with science fictional/literary history, but they often pick me up on little things like manners and ways of speaking, especially with my women characters. Usually I find it a challenge to get my own way by subtly showing the reader that I know the rules and I'm breaking them on purpose for a good reason. If I end up making it work, it feels great :)

  3. Interesting observations on writing classes, Sue. Rules do require tweaking or even outlaw-like behaviour now and then.

    Hi Carol. I would imagine that the steampunk genre is a minefield of anachronisms, particularly in terms of manners and speaking. It must be a satisfying when it all comes together.