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:
BREAKING THE RULES
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.