Tuesday, March 1, 2011

On rules, and breaking the hell out of them (and more on Blake Crouch)

(Just so you know, this post was started Monday. It is now Tuesday. THAT is my life.)

Friday night, I finished Blake Crouch's breakneck story, RUN. It's awesome. A review is coming post haste, as soon as I can find five spare minutes between editing photos and buying groceries. Likely tonight, part two of Castle isn't on (I have a rabid crush on Nathan Fillion), no one has a project due tomorrow, and I should be able to give the children enough Dimetapp to get them to fall asleep and stay asleep. (Children's Nyquil is pretty effective, too. Just sayin'...)

What I want to address now, however, separate from the proper review of Crouch's work, is the importance of rules when writing: learning the rules, understanding the rules, and then breaking said rules.

Here is a cursory list of rules UNrelated to writing that I have been fed randomly throughout life. Maybe you can relate to a few:

1. Don't stick a fork in a toaster that is plugged in.
2. Don't play golf during a lightning storm.
3. Always make sure to have at least one (1) tampon in one's purse at all times.
4. Use adverbs under threat of torture involving bamboo skewers and snake venom.
5. Never marry a man who, a week before the wedding (his second go-round at the altar, your first), tells you that he won't be a "real" cop until he's been married at least three times. Ummm...yeah.

In kindergarten (and possibly before if our parents didn't spend too much time at the golf club's Saturday-night Hit & Giggle with the concomitant hangover that lasts all day Sunday, sometimes into Monday), we learn the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have done unto you. We learn the rules of coloring in the lines and taking turns on the slide (Andy McCarthy didn't learn these rules. He used to cut ALL the time. Jerk face.) Cough into the crook of your elbow instead of your cupped hand; wash after using the restroom (please tell me you learned this one); it is mean to kick animals (especially beagles).

As we advance in our academic careers, teachers outline the rules pertaining to proper use of verbs and adjectives and commas and semicolons. If the teachers are awesome, like so many of mine were, we are taught how to take those glorious parts of speech and form them into melodic, complete sentences. Even if we're writing about the life and times of the common garden slug, we can, if we follow the rules, craft genius. A slug can sound quite glamorous if you put the words in the correct order and jazz up your prose with some interesting editorial on the viscous quality of slug slime. The potential is there. It's up to you to give it life.

But herein lies the dilemma: we become slaves to the rules. We are so worried about violating Strunk & White or even my own version of the bible, the Chicago Manual of Style, that the rules get in the way of our voices. I've heard it enough times in the creative writing classes and programs I've been involved with that it deserves repeating: Learn the rules, and then learn how to break them. With style.

Blake Crouch is one such writer who has done just this. His writing style, his "voice," screams at the reader through the pages. The sentences are incomplete. (I'll bet Word had a field day with all the green underlining to alert the writer to fragments.) The thoughts spill into each other, sometimes with such force that you're not sure if you will be able to keep breathing through the rest of the page. By breaking the rule about forming complete sentences, Crouch establishes a killer pace and visceral tension throughout the entire story, so much so that the reader will experience a physical reaction, likely in the form of a pounding heart, as he/she reads on. THAT is exactly what he wanted to do. The broken rules in his work set the scene for a kick-ass, throat-clenching blitzkrieg that forces you to keep reading. I dare you to put it down. (You'll pick it back up again. The dishes can wait. Tell your kids to eat Cheerios for dinner. Milk's in the fridge...)

The first time I came across this style of writing, where the author intentionally employed broken or fragmented sentences, was with Annie Proulx in The Shipping News. I didn't finish the book for a year because it drove me mental, all the starting and stopping and incomplete thoughts. That was before I was willing, or ready, to accept the notion that just because there are rules out there, shoved in my mouth like a bit, I don't have to be a bite down so damn hard. Blake Crouch obviously knows the rules--dude's got lots of books out there and has co-written with some heavy hitters--and he's an expert at making those rules his bitch. He's not a slave to them; he commands the rules to fuel the adrenaline rush that soaks into every single page. It works. The only bummer thing about it is, you'll finish the book so fast, you're going to want more. (Don't worry. Crouch has an impressive roster of titles from which to feed your need.)

Some writers want to toy with convention in an effort to be avant garde, and sometimes it works. We had a hearty discussion in a writer's group back in '07 about the use of second person ("you") as the protagonist in a story. The only time I've ever seen this work was in Chuck Palahniuk's Diary. Loved that book. I tried to write a short story in second person. It sucked. Big time. But, hey, I gave it a go. I'd be interested to read other second-person attempts, if you know of any that won't make my eyes bleed after the first three sentences. (My story made my eyes bleed. I ruined what could have been a saucy little tale by trying to be all tricky and clever. Dumb me.)

Another writer who has toyed with convention, successfully, is Chris Cleave in Incendiary. The whole fantastic story is told in the form of a breathless, ranting letter to Osama bin Laden, in the voice of a woman who has lost her son and husband in a terrorist attack. I didn't know what to expect when I picked it up back in '06, though the early reviews glowed. I bawled by the end. It was incredibly powerful.

The point of all this: Turn off your inner editor. Pick up an ax and do a little chop-chop-chopping of the rules. See what happens. Just don't be like that douche I saw at a writers' conference once, the guy who stood up when it was his time to address the speaker and went off on how he didn't have the learn how to spell or form sentences because one day, we'd all be standing in line to read his bestseller and to breathe his air, simply because he was THAT much of a genius. Did I mention he was a douche?

Now, go write something. I have to edit pictures from my headshot sessions last weekend before I have parents chopping down my front door with their pick axes. I leave you with my dear duck Jovie and her best friend Zuzu enjoying a spot of coffee at Duckbucks.

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