Thursday, May 6, 2010

Jack Sparrow's Writing Rules

Today is the first Thursday in a while I've had to myself. The interviews were fantastic, but I kinda missed Thursdays. *HUGZ*

Anyhoo, on to more pressing business. Tricia at Talespinning is hosting a contest. Stop by and enter.

Last week, Lydia Sharp asked How Firm is Your Handshake. She spoke about first impressions and things she didn't like to see right at the beginning of a novel. But she also gave a few instances where these things worked.

Let's here what Jack and friends have to say about the rules.

Jack Sparrow: I thought you were supposed to keep to the code.
Mr. Gibbs: We figured they were more actual guidelines.

I remember watching an NBA documentary, back in the days when I never used to miss a match, about the big name players and their signature illegal moves. Loved that Alley-oop? Bet you didn't realise he travelled. How about that beautiful fake? Totally didn't notice that he doubled when he did it, did you? Apologies to the non-bball fanatics among us; permit me to explain. These big name players all had these really pretty moves. People came to games to see them. That's what sold the $2000 front row tickets, these patented moves. But many of the patented moves had an illegal component in them.

What's a ref to do? Is he going to call them on it? And reduce them to actually playing by the rules? (Basketball, by the way, is a NON-contact sport. Look it up sometime.) Noone would come to the games. Those 5 and 6 digit salaries would be going through the window. All the endorsements would be worthless. Stadiums would shut down. People would be out of work. And all it takes to prevent this is for a few people to bend a rule or two.

At some point after you decide you're going for this writer thing,you start doing research. And you find list upon list of rules to follow.

Show, don't tell
Don't start with the weather
Don't start with dialog
Don't use adverbs
Avoid continuous tenses

Maybe you’re starting to feel like young Simba, up to your ears in people saying what you can and can’t do. Maybe you too, can’t wait for the day you’ll be King. Of the Publishing World at least.

Elizabeth: Wait! You have to take me to shore. According to the Code of the Order of the Brethren...
Barbossa: First, your return to shore was not part of our negotiations nor our agreement so I must do nothing. And secondly, you must be a pirate for the pirate's code to apply and you're not. And thirdly, the code is more what you'd call "guidelines" than actual rules. Welcome aboard the Black Pearl, Miss Turner.

Let me let you in on a little secret. Those lists and lists of rules? Readers don’t have those. How many times have you seen books with little literary or publishing merit make bestsellers lists? Why is that?

Because readers like them. They don’t analyse them according to any set of rules. They read them, and pass the word on to their friends, who buy their own copies and read them, and then tell their friends. Granted, this is a simplified version which doesn’t take into account the big wheels of the publishing machine, but, another little secret for you. Those rules that you revere so much, they don’t trump a good well-written story. If you know how to break them.

Jack Sparrow: [after Will draws his sword] Put it away, son. It's not worth you getting beat again.
Will Turner: You didn't beat me. You ignored the rules of engagement. In a fair fight, I'd kill you.
Jack Sparrow: That's not much incentive for me to fight fair, then, is it?

I've always been a rule-breaker. In high school, I was legendary for never being in the right uniform, and I had one teacher who would joke every time I showed at his class, "Look, it's a new student!" Yet, somehow, I was hardly ever in actual trouble. And I made it through high school (and university) with semi-decent grades.
Maybe I'm a rebel without a cause, but I refuse to be a rebel without common sense. The reason I was never in any major trouble was because I knew the rules. I knew the School Rules better than the teachers or the Principal. I knew how to break the rules in ways which would keep me out of trouble. I knew which rules were important, and which ones I could flout without causing much more than a nuisance.

If you want to break the rules, you have to do it the right way. First you have to know the rules. Don't expect that you can just do whatever and it's going to be cool. Know the rules. Understand why they're there. They tell you not to start with dialog. That’s because you don’t know who’s speaking, nor are you attached to them yet. But if your novel revolves around the shock of a nation finding out that their president's gay, by all means, start with him uttering the words.

Jack Sparrow: The only rules that really matter are these: what a man can do and what a man can't do. For instance, you can accept that your father was a pirate and a good man or you can't. But pirate is in your blood, boy, so you'll have to square with that some day. And me, for example, I can let you drown, but I can't bring this ship into Tortuga all by me onesies, savvy? So, can you sail under the command of a pirate, or can you not?

I know I’m full of shocking revelations today, but have another anyhow. Writing is not a science!

In science, every time you put the same variables together in a controlled environment, you get the same result. But in art, you can’t control half the variables, and what worked in 1990 might not work in 2010. What works in New York, might not work in Tokyo or Italy. Don’t believe me? Check out fashion. If I went anywhere else dressed like they do here in Japan, I’d be in a mental institution before I could get off the plane!

So, the moral of the story?
Do your research. Learn the rules. Read Elmore Leonard, Stephen King, Cliff Pickover, and whoever else you can find who’s written about writing. Understand each thing they say. Decide how it applies to you and your work. And if you need to, but only if you NEED to, break the rules. After all, “You're [writers]. Hang the code, and hang the rules. They're more like guidelines anyway."

By the way, if you’re ever bored, watch Pirates of the Caribbean and replace every instance of the word “pirate” with “writer”.


Jonathon Arntson said...

These are great, Claire!!

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Wow. Now, that was a fascinating essay. I love the way you wove your points with the film dialogue. Besides, I'm more than willing to study with Captain Jack awhile. :D (and thanks for the link)

Mayowa said...

Great post.

I love how you mention knowing the rules before breaking them. That is the singular worth of absorbing these rules, so you know when to shove em in the corner.

Marsha Sigman said...

Arrggg, Matey. Cap'n Jack tells it true.

I really loved those movies and this is great advice!!!

Cynthia Reese said...

Love it!

ElbieNy25 said...

Tyra Banks talked about in "America's Next Top Model" if you are going to break the rules you have to do it in a big way and you have to do it well.

You shouldn't do it just to do it. There should be purpose behind it. Great blog!

Jon Paul said...

You make a perfect point: I think in our stampede toward identifying, classifying and codifying all the writing rules that others have used, we sometimes forget that what we want to do is achieve a unique effect on the page that really can't be boiled down to ones and zeros.

Great post--and plenty of food for thought.

Dianne K. Salerni said...

Claire, This post is so brilliant, I have nothing to add to it!

But I've sent the link to my daughter, a budding writer and Jack Sparrow fan, and I'm off to tweet and Facebook the heck out of your post!

(Somebody should pay Claire for this one. Bloggerverse, is there a place she could submit it?)

salarsenッ said...

Claire, fantastic!! Your voice is so in this post!!

E.J. Wesley said...

Awesome stuff, Claire!

Christ is Write. said...

Hey! Great points on this post. Thanks for sharing :)

Also, thanks for commenting on my last post. You can read my reply by going here:

Please check out my latest post if you'd like to submit writing tips on how to "lose an agent". God bless!


out of the wordwork said...

Wow - fabulous post. Now I have an overwhelming urge to go see Pirates of the Caribbean again - to listen to the words more than watch Johnny Depp!

Claire Dawn said...

Thanks for all the love!

After I commented on Lydia's post, I wanted to write something about the rules. It's an art and rules don't always hold true. And I remembered that "they're more like guidelines" quip from Barbarossa. Off to imdb, and I discovered how much of POC sounded like writing advice.

Reading some of the memorable quotes from this movie I realised how wonderfully written it was. People are always on about actors and directors, but they'd all go to nothing without the writers. WRITERS ROCK!

Amy Holder said...

This is a really great post! Fascinating stuff! I really want to try replacing the word "pirate" with "writer" now when I watch that movie. Also, I checked out the How Firm is Your Handshake post and really enjoyed that too. :)

I agree with you, Writers Rock!

Neil Alvin said...

love the post claire bear