Back in the summer (remember summer? Difficult, isn't it...), when I was going to present the prizes to the winners of the Frome Festival Short Story Prize 2011 I was asked to talk about what made the winning stories win. And what I found myself saying was that I didn't really know. There wasn't a particular kind of story, a particular quality or technique: even retrospectively I can't see that the stories have anything obvious in common. What made the very best of this very good bunch win was that... I didn't notice how good they were.
That isn't because I picked them with a pin - far from it: I read and re-read, and shifted them from pile to pile, and went away and made coffee and noticed which stories floated back into my mind while I was standing over the kettle, and came back...
The thing is, I think most of us recognise the difference between reading critically, and reading immersively: the latter is the kind we knew before we left Eden, the former is the kind we learn to do out of interest or to pass an English exam or learn to write. And of course I was trying to judge: to work out how each story was trying to work, and how well it was working. I was trying to read with my writing-teacher's, my editorial-report-writer's glasses on. But the very best stories kept pushing them off my nose. I stopped being aware of what the writer was doing or how well they were doing it, and slipped into ordinary, immersive reading. Ordinary readers don't notice technique, but it still affects them. I stopped being a judge and became an ordinary reader again.
Of course, when I glued my writing-teacherly glasses back on to my nose I could see that Jacqueline Molloy, Stanley Walinets and David Aldus each had a terrific idea, fully imagined, and had used shrewdly-chosen techniques really well to do their idea justice; they were "good" in the technical sense too. Most people reading this will know what I think about "the rules" but although "the rules" are fossilised false gods, they were made from some godly horse-and-common sense about what works for readers.
So it's at once entirely true, and entirely unhelpful, to say that you can do what you like in writing ("break the rules" in other writers' language) as long as it works. How do you defined "works"? Whose nose are you trying to push the glasses off? And how do you tell if you've succeeded?The answer is you don't, not entirely. And you're going to have to get over that, even if it means not knowing what you should do to be sure of getting a distinction in your module.
But it reminded me of one of my favourite quotations from one of my favourite How-To-Write books, John Gardner's The Art of Fiction, which applies equally to the business of How To Read:
When one begins to be persuaded that certain things must never be done in fiction and certain other things must always be done, one has entered the first stage of aesthetic arthritis, the disease that ends up in pedantic rigidity and the atrophy of intuition... [a teacher who says] "That's all right for Shakespeare but not for a beginner"...tries to teach the art of fiction by shrinking the art, making it more manageable but no longer art.
What that means for the aspiring writer is that your goal is for your technique to serve your creative purposes so well that even a critical reader in critical mode just stops noticing. That doesn't mean lack of ambition: I would always rather see an exciting, original project that doesn't quite come off than a perfectly achieved piece of creative and mental cowardice, and if I'd had to choose at Frome, which I didn't, I would have put the prize money where my mouth is. If a thing's worth doing, it's worth doing badly.
So your technical toolkit may not be quite up to the job: maybe you need to accept that your first try at this project will be a wonky duck, though of course you'll learn a lot by trying. Or it might mean recognising that you don't yet know how to cope with a truly brilliant idea, and putting the whole project away in the larder until your skills have matured. If you leave it long enough you might even find that your skills have matured so much that when you come back to it you don't have to think about which tools you need; that's when you know that your ideas and your techniques - your art and the craft you have to serve it - are really integrated. Today, at least. For this chapter - or this paragraph. And whether you're writing a story where they're truly integrated, or you're reading one, it's the best feeling in the world.