Recently I read James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential. This is a phenomenal book, as anyone reading this blog probably already knows. It’s epic and crazy, filled with distinctive characters and wicked twists. I devoured it--really addictive stuff.
It got me thinking about writing and rules. Some of the rules I follow are things other people told me (like only use “said” as a dialogue tag, don’t use adverbs, etc.), but many are self imposed. When I'm writing or revising, I'm not even necessarily aware that I'm following these rules. It’s more like I write with certain constraints without realizing it.
Ellroy broke three of my rules when he wrote:
1) A ridiculously complicated plot
2) A book that stank of research
3) A lot of monologues posing as dialogue.
Yet this made no difference. In fact, I think without breaking the first two, the book would have been much weaker.
One response is that we're mere mortals and Ellroy is a genius and, therefore, he can get away with this shit.
I disagree. Because if that was the case, he would've succeeded in spite of breaking these rules. But I think he succeeded because he broke the rules.
An epic book like this one demands a plot with a lot of moving parts--the reader is supposed to get lost and confused. Though the research frequently shines through (he even includes fictional newspaper articles and police reports written in the style of the time), this helps create a living, breathing world for the book to happen in. Even the monologues work well because they drive home each character's voice, which is essential when you have so many characters wandering in and out.
Ellroy knew what he had to do to tell his story and he did it. He didn't pay attention to any artificial constraints. (Of course, I have no idea what Ellroy's intentions were or if he even considered these factors--I'm just coming up with possible reasons for why he did what he did.)
I could use a bit more of that Ellroy spirit. Sometimes I eliminate material solely because it violates a rule. Don't get me wrong--I'm sure this has often made my work more readable. And for beginning writers, constraints are helpful. But at what point does it become writing "safe"?
What rules do you follow? Do they you think they help your writing or hinder it? Are you willing to break them from time to time?