Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Write by the Rules

Whenever writers talk about the rules of writing, a heated debate ensures. Some say "the best writers all break the rules" and "who is to tell us what we can or cannot do?" Editors? Some even go on and accuse editors as writer-wannabes who take comfort in rejecting someone's work because they didn't follow the rules.

Yes, I've met some of them. Sure, one said to me: "You should NEVER start a sentence with a participial phrase." Feeling a tinge of defiance, I said, "Huh? Why would you say such hideous things?"

Here's my take on rules: break them if you want, but do consider the potential consequences.

Language is about communication, and stories are to be communicated. Good literature, IMHO, goes even further -- it has to be "experienced." To be able to reach a good number of people, that means you need to abide by certain "rules" of communication that is acceptable or at least comprehensible/meaningful to the majority of people. Grammars are there for a reason. Each word has specific meanings and if you bend them, you must have a strong reason and you must make sure your readers understand. Shakespeare bent these rules all the time, but he didn't do it just to piss people off, or confuse his audiences. Hemingway was considered a rule-breaker because he didn't write like his colleagues. Even then, they all still abided by certain rules and boundary.

I can't start saying whenever I type the word "rule" it really means "coffee": I'll have some rule this morning with my two spoonful of guides. But yes, if I communicate that correctly, you will see it as a metaphor, and the communication would be complete... but you need to know what MY rules are.

So yes, rules do change, and language is a living thing, but that just means there are new rules. LOL means Laughing-out-loud and not just any arbitrary meaning you want to assign. You can't type AEREQ@^^&U and expect people to know you mean ROTFLMAO. Same with grammar. You can't start typing shit like "he no want said bring on it i laugh cryed she; very.!" and expect people to read and enjoy your story.

Other than basic rules such as word meanings and grammar, the rest is just guidelines and best practices. Who says you can't start a sentence with a conjunction? Who says you can't finish a sentence with a preposition? Who says if you use "there are" or "he was" you're a bad writer? The problem is that bad writers do overuse these devices, and people associate these things with bad writing. But it's not the complete truth either. These alone do NOT bad writing make -- it's the combination of everything, the entire picture, that makes writing bad or good. Even if someone writes with perfect grammar and uses all the right words and follows all the "rules," there's no guarantee that the writing is any good. The reverse is also true: just because someone uses some of these "bad writing techniques" doesn't mean the writing is bad. Hemingway used "there was/were" all the time and he won the Nobel.

Most readers don't even notice these writerly "flaws" when the story is told beautifully -- when they're experiencing the story instead of reading words, all that stuff is secondary. On the other hand, when a writer is so worried about breaking or following rules, his or her writing may become stiff and uninspired. Rigid rule-following makes for rigid writing. We often tell writers, "Do not write in complete, grammatically correct sentences all the time, especially in dialogue."

The irony is that itself is a guideline, not a rule.

New writers should learn these rules and guidelines because they have worked for generations of writers before them. It doesn't mean everyone should paint with the same strokes. It just means "learn your craft, then you can focus on the art."

It bugs me when people say, "I have a great story, and so what if I don't follow the rules? I don't even have to know them. I can just wing it because, gosh, I have such a great story and people will love it." They're missing the point -- running before they can walk.

Once you master the basics, it becomes art. And there are no rules in art. But perception. Your art fails when you fail to communicate.

And that to me (yes, I started a sentence/paragraph with a conjunction; so sue me) is the key: failure to communicate.

Friday, August 10, 2007

On Short (flash) Fiction

Hemingway wrote a brilliant super, super short fiction (or "drabble"):

For sale - baby shoes - never worn.

The beauty of the story is that it's word-economical and yet so layered and actually tells a story (albeit open to interpretation).

The story is all about subtexts: the story itself is not the baby shoes, but the story behind the baby shoes. So in a sense those six words have all the elements of a story (beginning, middle, and end):

"For sale" -- it's a set up, the beginning
"Baby Shoes" -- that's the turn (it's not clothes, jewelry, cars -- it's baby shoes)
and "never worn" -- that's the twist ending

A real story (and not a vignette) must have a beginning (set up), middle, and end. I would even go further and say, like a magic act, it has to have a Pledge, a Turn, and a Prestige. A short is so short that it really is kind of like a magic act -- people gather around for a short time to hear the story and there has to be a payoff at the end. Or they will say "it's a nice character study but there's no story" or "why did I just read that?"

In one of my stories, Joshua, I use the pledge/turn/prestige construct. Let me illustrate:

By RK Wong

Have you ever known, really known, the pain of losing a child?

Cecilia came over the other day with Joshua and told me she was moving. They. Were moving. All the way to Seattle. I couldn’t have cared less if she and Crawford moved to the edge of the world – good riddance, actually -- but not Joshua. They couldn’t do that to me.

I knew what the judge had said, even though I didn’t agree with him at all. I loved my son, and there was nothing they could do to change that.

“Brian got a great job,” Cecilia said, without remorse. Microsoft, my ass.

“You can’t do that to me.”

“Do what?”

“You know damn well what I’m talking about. I know what you’re doing.”

“Do what?”

“Taking Joshua away from me.”

She laughed. “Marc, that’s just silly. You know you can always come visit.”

“You know I can’t afford to take off work, not to mention the money. I’m starving just to take care of the child support. It’s just stupid. Crawford makes three times as much as I do.”

“It’s really not my problem. Look, nobody is stopping you. You have a choice.”

Choice. Everyone had choices, except me. I was already crawling on all fours just to make ends meet, just so I could spend every other weekend with Joshua. And now Cecilia was going to take away the only thing that mattered. How was life fair?

Joshua’s smile beamed at me, and I swallowed my last words aimed at his mother. Not here, not now. At least she had the courtesy of dropping him off at my apartment. It wasn’t much, just a one-bedroom near the edge of town, but at least it was close to the ocean. Joshua loved the ocean. Oftentimes I dreamed of Joshua and me at our beach house, just the two of us. We were both born under the sign of the fish, and the ocean was where we belonged.

“We’ll pick him up Sunday at seven,” she said.

From the window I watched Cecilia pull away in her Lexus. I made Joshua a PB&J, crust off and a thick layer of PB, and changed his sheets while he was watching TV. Sure, the apartment was unkempt and could use a new coat of paint. The dishes needed to be washed. But I wasn’t a bad father. I was a busy man; I often worked double shifts at the dock and the odd hours tired me. But Joshua loved it here. We played games, and watched TV. He helped me put laundry away and we couldn’t wait to spend some time at the beach.

I asked him if he wanted some milk, even though I knew I’d run out. He shook his head, no. We were watching Monster Trucks when I casually asked him about Seattle. He shrugged. Didn’t think much of it. Then he finished his sandwich and told me he was ready for the beach.

The beach was always our sanctuary. To be happy. I taught Joshua how to swim at this very beach. The warm water went through our blood and the hot sand was extension to our bodies. We were happy.

“You know, they don’t have beaches in Seattle,” I said.

“That’s not true.”

“Is too.”

“Nah-uh, Mom said there are. And there are lots of fish.”

“Do you trust me more or your mother?”

“I don’t know,” he said. He shrugged again, dipping his foot in the water. “How come you and Mom ask me the same question, all the time?”

Suddenly I felt guilty. But that guilt only lasted a few seconds; then all I felt was rage. If I didn’t fight for my own son, who would? He was mine.

“Go on,” I said to him. “Go catch some fish.”

He screamed and went into the ocean with his snorkel.


I woke up and it was dark and the smell of salt and fish assaulted my senses. I forgot where I was. My head hurt like a mother so I reached for the aspirin, but there was only empty space. My next thought was: Where the hell is Joshua?

I went looking for him at the beach. He always played by the dunes, in the shallow lagoon. But he wasn’t there. I’d looked three times already, and every time I hoped for the same thing and got the same result. The kids playing were all wonderful, beautiful. None of them was my Joshua.

Then I saw his footprints. Those tiny toe prints in the sand, his funny flat feet. I followed the prints, one after another leading me to the blue water. My stomach churned as the prints stopped, as if an angel had lifted Joshua and flown away. I turned and looked, his small prints next to my big ones, side by side.

“Joshua!” I shouted.

“O’Ryan.” A man's voice pulled me back. I was now in a sterile room.

I looked sideways, and a minister stared back at me.

“Where is Joshua?” I said.

“O’Ryan, are you having the same dream again?”

“What do you mean?”

“Your son at the beach.”

“How do you know?” I said. “Who are you?”

He stared at me again, then sighed. I raised my hand to him, only to find myself strapped onto the bed. I couldn’t move.

“What’s going on? Where’s my son?”

“Don’t you remember?” he said, his voice calm.

“Remember what?”

He sighed again. “Your ex-wife, her husband. Your son?”

“What?” I didn’t understand a word he said. Nothing made sense to me. Nothing.

“Rage is such a horrible thing. It blinds you,” the minister said. “May your soul rest in peace, my son.”

“4260152.” Another voice yanked at me. I could barely lift my head up. Then I saw the stern face of a uniformed man. “Any last words?”

I shook my head. I didn’t understand.

“The Governor didn’t call.”

The first part, especially the first line (in blue) is what I'd call it the pledge -- a set up, a premise. The readers know it's something about a child. Then the plot opens up and the readers know it's about a man about to lose a child to divorce.

Then, there's the turn -- a twist of event (in burgundy) that is unexpected, but still logical in the context of the story. Here, we discover that the man has dreamed about something, and it seems like something awful happened.

And finally, there's the prestige (in green) -- the final twist that brings the story back to the beginning, and yet it's the climax, the zinger of surprises. Here, we have one last revelation that seems to come out of nowhere, but it (hopefully) makes sense.

This works very well with twist endings, but not all short stories have twist endings. The pledge/turn/prestige structure works well with almost any kind of non-vignette stories.

In the following story, which doesn't have a "twist ending" (not really), I'd also illustrate by using the colors (blue=pledge, burgundy=turn, and green=prestige):

One Light
by RK Wong

One light shone in the empty room.

Then I saw you. My sister, in your white pajamas. I let out a breath as you turned to me, your face gaunt and pale, and smiled. You knew what I'd come here to tell you.

"I gotta go, Danny," you said. You smiled one more time before disappearing with the light.

I hadn't forgotten. "Happy Birthday," I yelled, my words swallowed by the dark space.

Today would have been your seventh birthday. I just wanted you to know. That I loved you.

That I'd killed Tommy Shutton for his crime. For you -- you should know that. You should.