When James Patterson was asked in an interview about “The Book That My Life,” he said,
“I read The Life and Opinions of Tristam Shandy, Gentleman in 1970 while I was getting my master’s in English at Vanderbilt. The book’s first two volumes (of nine total!) were published in 1759,, but the story unwound like nothing I’d read before. I felt like it must have been written in 2059. How could this author seem so much braver than the rest, and how was he able to break every writing rule ever made? And why was the story so much more fun because of it?
“It really woke me up for a sort of zombie state: As a writer, I didn’t have to follow the rules! I could play around a little bit, learn to trust the right side of my brain and just let go.
“The main character is Tristam – although he’s not, really. The story just uses his birth, christening, and circumcision (ow) as a pivot to move about. And the author, Laurence Sterne, mixes first and third person, throws down sentence fragments, rambles for 20 pages about an odd thought – seems, in short, to do whatever he damn feels. So I admit it! I’m a copier. I copied Sterne’s full-throttle freedom. And I haven’t looked back since.”
James Patterson knows a thing or two about penning page-turning stories that grab readers’ attention. He knows about plot and pacing. And he also knows about successfully navigating the publishing world. So, whether you’re a fan or not, his belief that breaking the rules can be a boon to writers and readers is refreshingly exciting.
When I think of breaking the rules, I think of Elmore Leonard’s rule about not starting with the weather – and I think of Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre. When I think about the old saw about showing and telling, I think of the opening of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and her observation that any eligible bachelor with money must be in want of a wife. If that isn’t telling, what is? And I also think of Lee Child’s observation that we’re called “storytellers” for a readon. And I think of scads of fabulous authors who’ve used adverbs with abandon, despite all the dire warnings about the urgent need to vacuum them out of our prose.
Rule-breaking is risk-taking – and as authors, that’s part of the game that makes writing fun and creative. And as long as we break the rules in the service of our stories and our readers, I feel sure our muses will look upon our inkslinging with favor. Write on!