Monday, October 4, 2010

Rules: Friends of Creativity (And Enemies of Car Accidents)

When people find out I'm a writer, they tend to ask a lot of questions about the writing process. (Generally, "How do you do that? Just sit down and write a book?") And I understand that, because it's probably mysterious to the outside observer, like I just shut myself into a room and ideas burst from every fingertip like gold ribbon and Skittles.

Anyway, I think talking about specific aspects of The Process can be interesting. So while I was considering this question a few days ago, I realized that I've started doing something that helps me immensely, and it is: I have rules.

I have rules that govern the writing of the manuscript, enforcing constraints on what can and cannot happen in a given story.

For example: my protagonist cannot get into a car accident. And not just because she's never in a car, but because of my rule, which is that the plot cannot be advanced by something that happens by accident. Now, if my protagonist had done something terrible to Some Guy and Some Guy drove his car head-on into her car at 100 miles per hour with the intention of killing her, that's a different story, but in my mind, that's no longer an accident.

Another rule is: for better or worse, my protagonist must be at least partially responsible for the things that happen to her.

I come up with these rules because I don't want the plot to escape me and become something I don't like without my knowledge. I know that I get frustrated by plots where, if the accident hadn't happened, the story wouldn't have advanced, or by characters who don't seem to have a lot of agency (agency meaning, a means of exerting power or influence), so I decide I'm going to try my best to make my plot as purposeful as possible, and give my characters as much agency as they can realistically have, and that's just how it's going to be.

Another rule I have is, always use something that was already there, rather than introducing something new. Sometimes that means characters, and sometimes it means taking certain elements of the story and bringing them back to cause more havoc. And sometimes this means ignoring the rule and coming up with something new because it's better that way, but still, at least I've given it my full consideration.

Having these rules and being aware of them actually helps me with the writing process. A few days ago I realized that one of the plot developments in what I'm working on just didn't sit well with me. I couldn't figure out why, until I remembered the rule about agency. My character exerted very little influence over what was supposed to happen to her-- actually, that was the problem, that it was supposed to happen to her. So I brainstormed a new solution. The guideline made it much easier to discard ideas as they came to me. Something would pop into my head and I would say, does that solve the agency problem? And then I would say, not really, and throw it out. Until I found a solution that did.

Sometimes it's hard to figure out if you're writing something because it's good and works for the story or because it's the simple solution and you're just plain exhausted from all the thinking you're doing, and I think the rules help. And I think the rules change for each story-- because it's not like there are no successful stories about car accidents out there, it's just that car accidents don't happen to belong in mine.

I tend to think of being creative like it involves twirling around in a field full of wildflowers, but that's not how it works. Because there are brambles in that field, and they will totally scrape your ankles if you keep up with that spinning. Creativity doesn't necessarily mean that there are no restrictions; it means that you find a way to maneuver within those restrictions toward something remarkable.

So: rules. I follow them.

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