Why Rules Can’t Define ‘Good’

Everything can work.

There: you now have your answer to every possible question you could ask that begins with or along the lines of, “Am I supposed to…?”

I take a lot of pride in that rule. And it is a rule. W. Somerset Maugham is famously quoted for his words that, “There are three words for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” Of course, Mr. Maugham lived from 1874 to 1965, which was a time they’d only just worked the kinks out of tea bags and realized beer could fit in a can, so I think we’re safe to forgive the poor guy for having such a bleak outlook on humanity’s skills at problem-solving. Nevertheless, we’ve got one of ‘em.

Everything can work. And as a corollary, everything can sell.

Bad grammar?

All a dream?

Dull, insipid nothingness, the point of which is to be as dull and insipid as it can be until you choke?

Check, check, check. Historical classics, timeless tales, inexplicable Nobel winners – they’re all there.

You name it, because from monotonous repetition to a plague of characters to thinly veiled plagiarism to good ol’ shameless smut, it has all succeeded and entered the annals of literary history for better, for worse or for simply ‘cause. Hell, even basic physical formatting is not a constraint.

What does this mean for you?

Two things (three, if you count being able to plug your ears and scream, “LA LA LA I’M NOT LISTENING” like a bear whenever someone tries to tell you different).

The first, the most freeing sense of liberation you as a writer can ever ask for. The world is your oyster! Whatever crippling sense of perfectionism or self-defeat you have, there’s no reason to have it! You can never be wrong when every rule that’s been implied, suggested or enforced has been equally as deflected, ignored or broken and worked.

The second, a far more depressing back side to that coin. If you can never be wrong, you can never be right.

I want to move through this one with you.

For each of those successes I’ve listed, you can find a similar story that’s flopped. It’s as easy to call these all exceptions than it is to hold them as examples. Not a writer among us hasn’t looked to a book and thought, “I can write better than that. In fact, I have written better than that. Why are they doing so much better than me?” I’m with you there. I’ve named Albert Camus’ The Stranger as my personal bane since the day I read it English and then in French to check if I missed something (spoiler: nope). Why, why did Such-and-Such strike gold while So-and-So sits unrecognized? Why is the world so cruel? Why does this madness surround us?!

This is the problem with anarchy. It creates a vacuum. We need order. We are fundamentally conditioned to see patterns where none exist, and to call this a heinous injustice – towards us, like we somehow ticked the universe off and it’s back for revenge – when it’s plain and neutral chaos.

When I say, “Everything can work,” the kneejerk response is to think of what simply can’t, using that to fuel the idea you’re missing a key ingredient.

“It isn’t possible,” that type of person, grasping at figurative straws, might say. “Language! Come on – fundamental comprehension? You can’t tell me you’ll get somewhere when you don’t use real words! That – that – is proof that not everything can work.”

I remove one straw from that person’s reach.

“All right, all right – but that’s not the same thing. That’s supposed to be gibberish. You can’t make actual words up and pretend they’re real.”

I remove another straw.

“But you could say those are replacement words! I mean specifically mashing letters together and thinking the audience’ll let you get away with it!”

I set that person’s bale on fire.

What I’m trying to illustrate is that a book made mostly of sounds, another book inventing every little thing, and still another constructing an entire language with the growing expectation that you’ll learn it one day haven’t held authors down. Let go, guy-who’s-now-free-falling-as-he-realizes-I’m-completely-right-in-a-truly-ego-stroking-fashion-and-strawman-style-on-his-part, and give in to the second rule of writing: Read the first rule.

You, a writer, are a warrior of this craziness. You’re here to carve out a stretch of normality in amongst this billowing, twisting landscape. Traditional publishing? Online publishing? Publishing after you’ve finished your book? Before? Promotions? Word-of-mouth? It all works, as much as none of it does. But you’re the type of person who can survive that. You’ve already looked at a blank page and created a universe. What you have to do now is realize that this fierce world outside needs to be told where the lines are – not everywhere, of course, because that defies the second rule, but where you are. Everything can work, and you have to say what works where.

It’s for your own sanity. That’s all rules are for: keeping the peace inside your head, and in the heads of everyone affected (i.e., reading along). What one book does shouldn’t impact on yours unless you allow it. You hate semi-colons? Don’t have them. In your book, they no longer matter. You don’t like Oxford commas? I haven’t used one once so far! Averbs? GO NUTS. And paragraphs aren’t meant to be longer than X-length? Sure! And on the other hand, remember that someone else won’t to play inside your lines. Cherish that they don’t and that they find their own, rich voice (unless it’s Albert Camus writing The Stranger, whose voice amounted to bland whining).

But don’t forget: once you define your rules, stick to them. They can change, certainly, but only if your rules allow that, otherwise you fall back into that madness and have to crawl out painful one word at a time, also known as retconning. Keep your mental peace and stay consistent. You’ve got two of the three previously unknown rules, and as soon as we homo sapiens move beyond to a time where we’re not still dealing with plugs that take up three spaces on a power bar and printers that cannot understand what ‘print black and white document without using the empty cartridge of cyan’ means, we’ll get the third and truly become masters.

Until then, learn to live with a tiny fact: rules might make you better, but they can’t make you good.

Seriously, you guys – The Stranger is the worst. The worst.

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