A few years ago, the lead editor of a small magazine asked me to do some graphic layouts that would break the magazine out of it’s design rut. She pulled a couple of envelopes from the slush pile — this was a few wheelbarrow-sized loads of manila envelopes, heaped in the middle of the office floor — and said, “Show us what you’ve got.” What I had was no experience in magazine layout.
A week later, when the editor called me into a meeting about my submission, her first comment was, “This not what I expected. You didn’t just color outside the lines, you redrew them.”
I had a sinking feeling in my stomach; I could see some thirty-six hours of retina-frying work about to be trashed.
Then she said, “When I showed your work to the rest of the staff, everyone started coloring outside the lines. It’s like you swapped our crayon box with 16 colors for one with 200.”
One of the problems I helped the magazine overcome was a paste-up design mentality. They’ started the magazine when design layout was still physically cutting and pasting content and fitting it in a grid. And while that original staff made the transition to using layout software, they still designed as if they were laying out physical objects that couldn’t be manipulated much beyond size and placement. I showed up with layered images, styles, texture and gradient effects, and a hundred other visual tricks that were either impossible or too labor-intensive before digital design evolved. It completely shook up the way her staff thought about design, and inspired just the kind of creativity she wanted.
I think we’re in that same place with book publishing. They have done some migration to using digital tools, but they’re still publishing the same old book. The publishing world — and perhaps the authoring world as well — hasn’t made the shift to creating digitally, hasn’t explored the possibilities the new medium delivers. Rules and guidelines have their place, serve to help us communicate better, but bending or breaking them, writing your way into new rules has a place too. As Bruce Holland Rogers says, in this wonderful article, “…I like rules. I like hearing people tell me their prescriptions for what a story must contain. But I know that prescriptive advice teaches only how to do again what has already been done.”
I’ve tried to stick to the rules and stay inside the lines with my writing, but I find I have to flog myself into spending time at the keyboard when I place boundaries around where the work can go. It’s when I let the story stray into new places, new techniques, that I feel the energy and ideas flow. It’s when I’m writing outside the lines that I can sit down at the keyboard on Friday night and look up five minutes later to discover it’s Monday morning.
While I’m all adventure in the first draft, I get cold feet in the second. I have arguments with myself over what to keep and what to cut. My inner critic wants to erase everything that crosses the lines and reminds me that bending rules is going to make it hard to find a publisher in a business where finding a publisher is too hard already. Publishers need something they know will work. I need to write something that digs into places we don’t know about yet.
While wrestling with myself and my latest piece of weirdness, I’ve been reading Dennis Palumbo’s, Writing from the Inside Out. He suggests, “Rather than shaping your writing to please others or to latch onto or anticipate the next trend, your best bet is to write what excites and moves you, to make your growth as a writer the ultimate goal. Acting teacher Darryl Hickman used to tell his students, ‘Keep giving them you until you is what they want.’”
So, I guess I’ll keep writing outside the lines until (one way or the other) I catch on.