It happens regularly: A writer attends a workshop or conference and hears a well-known author, teacher, agent or editor lay down a strict set of “rules” for creating fiction. In a fit of pique or, more likely, self-doubt, the writer posts a “Do you agree with this?” message to an internet group, and within days the topic is being debated all over the web by angry, astonished, or pedantic writers.
The latest “rule” being discussed goes something like You can’t write about anything you haven’t experienced. Apparently the person who issued this pronouncement was talking about writing from the point of view of the opposite sex. On chat lists, the names of Gustave Flaubert and Madame Bovary, Leo Tolstoy and Anna Karenina have been invoked, but of course many modern authors in all genres are writing from the POV of the opposite sex. And many authors are writing about experiences they've never had personally, after doing something called research and applying something called imagination. They don’t all do it convincingly, but you can say that about any aspect of craft.
I can understand why beginners and writers who are trying without success to get published would look for a set of rules to guide them. It’s tempting to think that if we do this, this, and this exactly as we’re told, publication will be guaranteed. The trouble is, that’s not true. Established authors and publishing professionals know better than anyone what a quirky business publishing is and that more than one book that broke all the so-called rules has landed on the bestseller lists. The drive to impose our preferences on others is a strong element of human nature, though, so the rules keep coming.
One that I hear all the time is You can’t use a prologue because editors hate prologues and won’t read any further if you have one. This advice is often paired with If you must have a prologue, call it Chapter One. Apparently something magical happens to a piece of writing when you merely change its label, and editors who would hate it under one name will love it under another. But open a stack of recently published books and you’ll find plenty of prologues, so there must be editors out there who don’t object to them.
Never switch point of view within a scene seems to be an American rule. Some popular British writers switch POV freely within scenes, but it’s so rare in American novels that the exceptions stand out. I don’t usually like head-hopping within scenes, but a few writers are good at it – it works especially well in satire – so I’m irked when anyone claims it’s always wrong.
Kill your darlings is good advice if it refers to descriptions or phrases that don’t fit the story or feel labored or make readers stop and puzzle over their meaning. But some people advise deleting any colorful writing. I’m glad James Lee Burke doesn’t take this advice. If a bit of writing feels exactly right, if it perfectly expresses a mood or a meaning in a memorable way, why should any writer take it out?
You must introduce the killer in the opening chapters is accepted as gospel by a lot of traditional mystery writers. But why is this necessary? Will the story fall apart if the killer doesn’t come on the scene until halfway through? Just asking...
You must have a murder by the end of chapter one. This kind of thinking is a direct result of TV’s fast pace. The assumption is that audiences have become accustomed to immediate and constant excitement, that this carries over into their reading, and they won’t have the patience to wait. Even a lot of cozy writers now dump the body in the first chapter, before the reader has a chance to get her bearings and learn a little about the characters and situation. I believe you must have conflict and tension in the first chapter – and every other chapter – or readers will have no reason to keep reading, but whether the murder should occur so quickly is another question. I’m afraid, though, that readers have already begun to expect a murder almost immediately, and it's too late to turn back.
Some of the worst writing advice is aimed at beginning writers. I’ve heard of a mystery workshop teacher who told students that a beginner shouldn’t attempt to plot a complex crime novel on her own but should choose a novel she admires and copy its structure, forcing her story to fit it. Other voices of wisdom think beginners should stick with first person because it will be easiest for them. Then there are people who think no beginner can produce a compelling first-person narrative, so novices should only use third person.
I believe a writer should tell a story the way it needs to be told, and think long and hard before changing it just because some people don't like it. I once sent The Heat of the Moon, my first published book, to an agent who stopped reading as soon as she discovered it was in first person. “When I read first person,” she said, “I’m distracted because I keep wondering who the narrator is talking to.” If I would rewrite it in third person, she told me, she’d be happy to read it. I tried. Changing it to third person drastically altered the intimate, almost claustrophobic, mood I’d aimed for. The book was eventually published in the original first person.
Rules can be helpful sometimes, but the worst of them, especially those handed down by a single self-appointed expert, can stifle creativity and hold writers back. The one rule that always makes sense is a simple one: If it works, do it; if it doesn’t work, don’t.