Ann Leckie on Breaking One Rule

Ann Leckie is very wise. (And a very good writer. If you haven’t read Ancillary Justice yet, it’s time to pick up a copy.) She posted a comment on my “Break One Rule” blog entry yesterday. I asked her if I could re-post it here, since comments stay on whichever mirror they’re posted to, and what she says is valuable. Graciously, she agreed, so here’s what she had to say: 

Ack! You just wanted to see me foam at the mouth about rules!

THERE ARE NO RULES!!!! [gibbers incoherently a while]

Okay. I’m better now. Really I am.

Those things, in that list, they are conventions. There are a zillion different aesthetic choices a writer has to make, and those are just the particular choices that are most popular at this moment in time. They go in and out of style, hell, they’re different between genres. Subgenres, even! They are easiest to use, partly because there are lots of examples of them, readers are used to them, and many of them are shortcuts and even cliches. This is why a story that adheres to all the “rules” is dull. Following a list of rules will get you exactly nowhere.

Wait. Deep breaths. Okay. Better again.

As a writer, you get to make all the choices. You can set up a background of conventional techniques and choices in order to foreground one or two unconventional choices, or you can pile on the unconventional. Your choice. Heck, you can move that slider up and down and achieve any balance of conventional/unconventional you like. So long as you can make it work. Which is, of course, the real trick.

The thing is, you won’t learn to make the “pile on the unconventional” work by just sticking to “the rules” or even “break one rule per story.” Just like you won’t learn to high dive by wading in the kiddie pool. If there’s one piece of advice I’d give hopeful writers it would be to jettison the rules. Decide what sort of thing you want to write and then write that, no holds barred, no limits. Shamelessly steal whatever techniques you see in your favorite writers, use anything that works. You’ll probably fail. No sweat, try again.

Now, my advice here may be worth the paper it’s printed on (hah!), since I’ve never sold to the Big 3. I did, however, get my full SFWA membership on short fiction.

As for the question of whether you should write what sells or what you want–I think this is the wrong question. I think the question is, what do you want? And what are you prepared to do to get it? Where will you draw the line? 

Everyone’s is different. Myself–I can really only speak for myself–I’ve noticed a particular sort of sentimentality that turns up fairly regularly in stories that sell to some prominent prozines. It’s a sort of sentimentality I find distasteful. Obviously others disagree, that’s fine. I could, if I so desired, attempt to imitate that in order to better aim my fiction at those venues. I have chosen not to do that. Not to say that if I did do it, I’d be rolling in acceptances. There’s never a guarantee. But I would be intensely unhappy writing that kind of story, even if it would increase my chances of selling. Since hardly any of us are rolling in the bucks from our short fiction sales, and I’m fortunate enough to not be in dire need of money anyway, there’s no compelling reason to write something that would make me unhappy.

That being the case, I needed to make whatever I did want to do as fabulous as I could so that it would sell to someone anyway.

And that would be my advice. By all means, look at what’s being published. Learn anything you can from it, use whatever you find. Use that information to help target your stories in the hope that they sell. But don’t write things that you don’t really want to write, just to sell. It’s not worth it. If what you want to write is unconventional, well, be as good at your kind of unconventional as you can manage. It’s better, in the long run, to consider carefully what you want to do and what you don’t, than it is to spend much time over a false choice like “do I want to write to sell, or write to please myself.”

So, yes, thinking of these things as conventions rather than rules is much healthier. The advantage to using the conventions is that they’re familiar. The reader knows what to expect. Therefore, you get to do less work training the audience how to read your work. But something that is nothing but conventions is boring. If you’re willing to do the work to write something that is so far to left field that nobody has seen anything like it before, you’re certainly allowed, but also please don’t bitch when readers don’t get it.

And I agree with Ann about the sentimentality currently in vogue in certain magazines. That and anachronistic humor, which I find myself loathe to incorporate into my work. A good rule is to sell to the markets you like to read — remembering that rules are actually conventions, of course. 🙂


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