July 24, 2015

The Writing Wheel

You can’t reinvent the wheel.

This is a common saying, but is it actually true? As inventions go, the wheel is a pretty handy one. It has made our life easier by propelling objects forward, as simple as a wagon or as complex as a motorized car. Although the exact origins of the wheel remain unknown, I find it interesting that the concept was perhaps independently and simultaneously adopted in many different cultures. The first wheel is thought to have appeared around 3500 BC in Mesopotamia (southwest Asia), but evidence of the wheel also surfaced around the same time period in the Northern Caucasus (between Europe and Asia) and Central Europe. And the concept of the wheel continues to evolve.

When I think of the saying ‘You can’t reinvent the wheel’, writing comes to mind. Writing is an established process and there are distinct rules to follow. Rules an author cannot break, from writing conventions to book structure. There is standard structural breakdown. Books are divided into chapters. Chapters are separated into scenes. Scenes are defined by point of view (POV). POV is established though sentences. Sentences must follow the grammatically correct placement of words. Words must be spelled correctly.

I attempted to creatively circumvent these rules in one of my latest stories. My story was rejected for publication so, in a nutshell, this departure did not pan out. Rules are in place for a reason. I was disappointed, but I refused to remain daunted. I could learn and grow from this experience, and perhaps help other budding authors, by identifying and correcting my blunders. So, where did I go wrong?

Expectations. A book should be divided into different segments. Chapters are the most common way of achieving this division. Each segment of the book propels it toward its conclusion. A chapter should end in a cliff-hanger and entice the reader to continue on.

The events in my story took place over the course of a week and, instead of using chapters, I separated my story into days. This choice was not recognized as a legitimate division by the editor reviewing my work. Lesson learned: use appropriate (and conventional) chapter headings.

Interpretation. The author is omniscient. The reader is not. I believe the reader should be allowed to experience a book with their own imagination, a powerful tool. There is no room for ambiguity. The author should lead the readers to a consistent, natural conclusion of events.

In my story, the hero conveyed his memories to the heroine through flashbacks. My scene and POV changes were not apparent to the editor. Lesson learned: clearly spell-out the scene and POV changes.

Context. Spell-check is a poor substitute for a second pair of eyes. It takes an objective third-party to find the errors you (and your word processing software) missed.

I know this. I do. I’ve emphasized this point in other articles I’ve written about writing. Breaking this rule was not about creative license. It was about impatience. In my haste to submit my story to potential publishers, I admit to skipping this step. My usual critique partners were involved in their own projects and I didn’t want to wait. This is probably the worst of my mistakes as it would have potentially caught the first two. Lesson learned: be patient and have your work proofread.

These lessons are what I’ve taken away from this particular experience. Knowing the rules is not enough. Sometimes you have to make your own mistakes before you can fully understand them. I knew better and still I did not pay heed. It took a kind rejection note from an editor to open my eyes.

Still, writing creatively and following convention seems counterintuitive to me. I need to actively step back after I write my first draft to objectively apply the rules. I need to understand the ‘wheel’ and my drive to reinvent it. With practice and patience, I will find the right balance. Like the wheel, my writing will evolve.

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