‘Now rules are for the protection of the people…’
Sometimes I think we’ve lost sight of why we have laws and rules. Given that if you put any two or more politicians close proximity to each other, and suddenly the dratted things breed in a fashion that makes rabbits look like celibates, well, we’re rapidly approaching the ridiculous point at which no human can possibly remember all the myriad and often contradictory regulations.
Many make little sense to start with, and none at all outside the narrow context of their initial framing. (For example if I want to connect a gutter to a water-tank I need to get a plumber to join the pipes. Maybe that makes sense in the city, who knows? But in the rural farms of Flinders Island… every farmer joins pipes. And you might well have to fly that plumber in. Which is very nice for the plumber, but straight bad in every other sense.) Remarkably few succeed in doing what they were intended for. Criminals ignore them, the ultra-wealthy find them no inconvenience (and ignore those that do impinge). However they’re pretty good at transforming Joe Decentfellow into either into a habitual criminal or harried — and very poor — wreck, trying to comply with them all.
Which rather begs the initial question: they’re not very functional, they hurt those who are the good guys, and they have limited impact on the bad. In theory they may have been for the protection of the people – but in practice they are all too often for the convenience and profit of those power and their cronies (see the plumber making a handsome profit, connecting rainwater tanks.)
But like most roads to hell, they started with good intentions, and indeed, at a certain level do good. Of course that’s never stopped people screwing it up, and using to further their power or improve their own profit. That’s humans for you. It’s at a time like this — when I’ve just been through 134 pages of bush fire rules for buildings – which could be summarized into ‘don’t be an idiot, and if you are, don’t expect anyone else to fix it.’ – that I’m glad to be a monkey, not a human. Yes, that would mean that several hundred bureaucrats were unemployed, various experts would not get to charge large fees (no, they guarantee nothing), town council bureaucrats would make less money, insurers would have less sure bets (no, they charge no less), and materials and building would be far, far cheaper for Joe Decentfellow – who, provided he was no idiot, would lose nothing.
You see law, originally with that good intention was intended to codify justice (or social interaction) and to make that justice affect everyone more evenly and reliably. It made for a more fair, and a nicer, safer society in which Joe knew the limits and knew if he stuck inside them. It was good for Joe and made a good place to be, to live, to do well for himself – better than a place without them.
And, once upon a time anyway, Joe could always leave if he didn’t like them.
So what does this have to do with writing, you may ask…
Not surprisingly if you think about it, a lot. Just about every phase of a writer’s life is hemmed with rules – more every day, many merely there for a relic reason or to benefit those in power. And – as in the wider world – many of these have no positive impact on either writers or readers – they’re either relics or there for someone else’s convenience. Trust me on this: the reader doesn’t care and is not less likely to buy your book if you haven’t followed the rules set out Strunk and White. The reader only cares if they can’t follow the story easily. The reader doesn’t give a flying pork sausage if you haven’t followed whatever formatting rules the magazine or publishing house set. They only care if it makes their enjoyment of the story less. And that of course was the noble intent those rules were set for.
They do actually help… at the basic common-sense level.
But that is where it stops. When a copy editor or proof-reader starts obsessing about the fact that you’ve boldly dared to split an infinitive – it’s time for them to go and soak their heads. If you’re an indy, you can tell them so. The same, for example, goes for head-hopping (multiple points of view). The purpose in the rule was to avoid confusing the reader. That’s ALL. I try to abide by it, for that reason. But there are times when that is a constraint that adds nothing. There are several authors who are wildly more successful than I am – who head-hop cheerfully.
The ‘rules’ for writers extend in many directions. Take the ‘you will only submit to one publisher/editor at a time – unless you have an agent, and then miraculously, multiple submissions are just fine.’ Does anyone in their right mind see that this is good for readers or writers? It was good for publishers and agents (the equivalent of plumbers needed to attach the pipe from the gutter to the water-tank.) And in a small, common-sense way that made sense to avoid gumming up the works and making 15 editors waste time reading something that the 16th had accepted. It was necessary (by virtue of their gate-keeper power) for authors to coddle publishers. It isn’t a rule which has the faintest vestige of sense any more. Yet it is still expected and obeyed…
On the other hand some ‘rules’ have evolved to make things better for writers and readers. Those are worth sifting out, and giving serious consideration to. For example: most books are written in past tense, either first person or third, and – for ease of comprehension, one sticks to either one of those in a book (yes, I know. I’ve done first/ third. One distinct character from first, the rest third. There was a good reason for it and it was clearer to reader, thus). A few people like Chuck Wendig have written present second person. It’s possible. I found it jarring, and hard to read for a while – and then hard to go back to past-tense third of first. This may be the intent or not, but as far as I can see it’s benefits are outweighed by fact that reading feeds reading, and there is 0.00001% of possible books in that style for the reader.
At another level there are clear rules which you have little choice as a writer but to follow: you want to be paid for your e-book– you follow the rules set out by Amazon. Createspace wants it just so… or it won’t work. Likewise – but possibly with less benefit, the taxman takes a dim view of you not following his rules.
And then there are my own ‘rules’ – about which I am personally rigid because they’re the compact I have with my readers. Your mileage may vary – it plainly does for a lot of the traditionally published authors out there, as I’ve seen in the post-election freak-outs. Firstly: I respect my readers. Their politics, faith and ideals are their own. I may not agree with them. My book may reflect that, but I’m not going to tell you not to buy it, or that you’re a racist and misogynist. What you are or aren’t is your problem. Mine is to write books. Secondly: I want readers to come out of one of my books not feeling like they just had a lecture about how vile humans are. Most of us have enough experience of that! My books are the inverse – how great humans can possibly be. Of course monkeys are superior, but you can’t have everything. I want you to come out that piece of escapism I wrote entertained and yes… feeling the world doesn’t entirely suck, and there is hope. We can build a future, humans can overcome.
But that’s more common sense than a rule.