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Last night I went to see a high school performance of a play that I have now seen three times, A Servant of Two Masters. This is not a major play like Cats, and I hadn't sought it out, but coincidence or what have you led me to seeing this same play multiple times. The first time was at a community theater in Alameda, California, enough years ago that I didn't remember having seen it until the events in the play the second time were too familiar to be dismissed. The second performance was last year on a school trip (you bet I volunteered ;) ) to Ashland, Oregon to see a portion of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival that is ongoing there. And the third, as I mentioned, was a local high school. (read more on my new blog)

Also don't forget to check out the Interesting Links posts since you last paid a visit to Tales to Tide You Over.
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Through Arcane Rules and Procedures, We Persevere Because We Must

This comes as a spinoff from last week's post. In the comments thread, we had a little chat about how most writing rules aren't actual rules for all that the term is uses. New writers often promote them as absolutes when picking up almost any published book would show that's not true, while the phrase, "you have to know the rules before you can break them" is frequently tossed about. However, if they really were rules, there would be consequences (and fame and fortune from breaking them successfully is not what I mean ;)).

In driving, if you run a red light, the only question is whether you're caught. You are guilty. You have broken a rule. There's no way around that fact.

In cooking, if you substitute salt for sugar just because you feel like it, someone's going to notice, and not in a positive way.

But in writing, that's not true. Some of the experimental fiction works prove even the basics, like punctuation and capitalization, are up for interpretation if you manage to do it well. There are no hard and fast rules in writing. Everything is subjective, with the only requirement for success being that you somehow catch the imagination when you do break the rules.

This is a very difficult concept for writers. Most things work on the basis of rules, not just driving and cooking in the examples above. As you gain knowledge of the rules, you automatically improve whether it's blacksmithing, piano, or the aforementioned driving.

But writing doesn't work that way. The rules are different for each writer, the dangers are different, and techniques that help one person can crush another. Even worse, there's no guarantee that with practice we'll improve. Some writers hit a plateau they can't get beyond and others peak early.

It conflicts with our understanding of life and the way things work.

The whole fear of "writing to a prompt" is based on real life where if I follow the same sewing pattern I'll end up with the same thing you do. But that's not true of writing. If we follow the same pattern, some of us will end up with masterpieces of the genre, others will end up with brilliant outliers, and still others' efforts will result in cardboard cutouts that make a reader cringe.

People scoff at romance and detective novels because they are formulaic. Those people are usually the ones who have not read any, or picked up one and dismissed the whole. Put Nora Roberts next to Holly Lisle next to Lucy Monroe next to Lynn Viehl in romance and you'd be hard pressed to figure out that they're writing the same genre. Take it even closer and choose seven Harlequin Presents novels by different authors. Some will be works of art, some will not. Some authors take the formula as a jumping off point, others stick to it rigidly. Some have a spark; others are decent stories but no more than that.

Writing is not rocket science.

In rocket science, if you put the same ingredients into the same mix, you'll get the same explosion. If you find a rocket design that works, you can replicate that design again and again and it'll still work.

In writing, even with the same author, you put the same ingredients in and get something different each time. I have certain themes that show up frequently in my works. However, the result of those themes varies radically and cross genre lines. It takes literary analysis to recognize the patterns; I know only because I have analyzed my works out of curiosity.

Authors who figure out a winning plot structure can use it again just like the rocket scientist, with one simple difference: no guarantee it'll still work, or even that it'll look the same. Successful writers take the same design and create something new every time. If a writer rubberstamps books though, they soon lose readers who despair of shelling out hard earned cash to read the same book with only the character names changed.

Writing taps into one of those places we do not understand, the hidden underpinnings of humanity that make no sense when brought to the light. When it doesn't reach into the swampy darkness, the writing comes out flat, cardboard, or even worse, bland. When it does, tears drip onto the pages, people stare as the reader bursts into uncontrollable laughter, or readers explain in detail why they hate someone to death, only to reveal that someone exists between the covers of a book.

Creativity is a mystical force. The muse is a mystical creature that none can explain or command. Creativity doesn't require practice as much as it requires nurturing. Muses are fickle and tricky, but can be wooed and bribed. Ultimately, most writers could do almost anything else, including minimum wage jobs, and earn more per hour than by writing. Forget any dreams of low stress, hanging out at pubs, sipping your tea with a finger curled as you scribble down the next masterpiece.

I've been a non-fiction editor/abstractor fulltime, I've run systems departments, and now I write and freelance. Of all of them, the editor/abstractor was the most relaxing. Systems and writing run neck and neck, and I never had to put myself in the place of an abusive, manipulating crime boss in systems ;).

This is one of the biggest struggles. We can't see the end of the trail because there is no trail. There is no promotion path laid out, no promise of an income, much less a raise, and no hopes that anything will ever get easier.

Every writer has to cut their own way, though they can borrow another's machete to make the process a little faster. There's no guarantee of success either in improvement or in accolades. And in the measures of modern industrialized society, all but the very cream of writers like Stephen King and J.K. Rowling are failures with regards to economic status and stability.

So...if we can't measure success by the hours we've put in, by the income we earn, by moving up the writing ladder, just what is it that keeps writers going? What makes us batter our heads against rules that aren't rules, against skills that might actually undermine our progress, and an environment where we have to crawl past the carrion bodies of other writers who couldn't keep going across the desert in hopes of an oasis at the other side?

Because we have to. Because to do anything else would mean denying our true selves. Because that way lies madness as the voices in our heads start breaking out into reality because we don't keep them confined in fiction.

Whether we love it or hate it, writing is a calling as true as any other, and not one that can be ignored.


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Margaret McGaffey Fisk

April 2017

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