If you hang around writing blogs and craft books well enough, you'll start absorbing commonly held principles of good writing. Two common ones are:
1. Don't break point of view (POV). Headhopping is disorienting for the reader.
2. With each progressive scene, increase the stakes and the tension. If the novel still works without a particular scene, take it out.
Hmm, take a look at this scene from The Graveyard Book. There are four characters here -- the two children Scarlett and Bod, Jack who wants to kill them, and the mysterious Sleer monster.
[Scarlett] gulped. Her mouth was dry, but she took one shaky step forward. Her right arm, which had been twisted up to the small of her back, was now numb. . . .
IT HAS BEEN SO LONG, said the Sleer, but all Scarlett heard was a slithering noise, as if of enormous coils winding around the chamber.
But the man Jack heard. "You want to know your name, boy before I spill your blood on the stone?"
Bod felt the cold of the knife at his neck. And in that moment, Bod understood . . . .
Hmm. Sure looks like head hopping to me.
As you might guess, The Graveyard Book doesn't follow the second principle either. Rather than being a tightly knit plot with constantly increasing stakes and tension, the book is rather episodic in nature with each chapter narrating a different adventure. While the stories are loosely tied together at the end, you could almost certainly remove some of the chapters, and someone who hasn't read the book before wouldn't even notice.
Well then, aren't you folks happy to have found my blog? If it weren't for me pointing these slips out to you, you would have all thought Gaiman a good writer. Well, now we know better. I take back all the good things I said about his subtle narration style and characterization. Too bad the Newbury and Hugo committees didn't talk to me before giving him all those awards.
So what lesson do I actually draw from this? Well, it's kind of ironic to say on this blog, but writing is an art, not a science. Sure, there are rules of thumb, and I'm not disparaging them or the people who give or use them. In fact, I follow rules 1 and 2 pretty closely in my own writing -- it's harder to make mistakes that way. But it's nice to have a reminder that these rules are not gospel, and that it's possible to break them and still win every book award in 2009.
What are your thoughts on rules? Do you follow them? Break them? Wish you could break them but don't think you could pull it off?