Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Tyranny of Rules

Sandra Parshall

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.


Paul Lamb said...

The writer Emma Darwin insists that such things are "tools, not rules" and that we are free to use or discard them as we see fit in our writing. I'm not sure what to make of all of the litany of fiction writing rules that abound. Half of the time I think they were jokes by the originator just to see how gullible wannabe writers are. I certainly think that is true with S.S. Van Dine's rules for writing mysteries -- from which the introduction of the murderer in the first chapter comes -- since he broke his own rules often.

It may be that these rule makers are only listing the guidelines that work for them, but many wannabes are so eager to learn the "secret" that they grasp them as gospel.

I don't happen to think a successful mystery must have a murder in it at all. There is plenty of evil that can be done that can be portrayed as just as thrilling and just as consequential as a murder. That's where the skill of the writer comes into play after all.

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

I agree with Paul---I think new writers are eager to find a formula for success and will grasp at any lifeline. It's too bad there are so many 'rules' out there.

I usually drop a body in the first few chapters. But the first chapter? That's hard to accomplish and have the reader even care about the victim at all.

I used a prologue in my upcoming August release that wasn't edited out. So I definitely agree that's not an accurate rule. :)

Mystery Writing is Murder

Susan D said...

"...distracted because I keep wondering who the narrator is talking to..." ??!

It sounds like someone who doesn't read much. Not a desirable trait in an agent.

Julia Buckley said...

Great post, Sandra. The sad thing about set rules is that if everyone followed them, we might effectively squash all creativity.

Paul Lamb said...

Susan D - I agree with you. When I read that line about the agent saying that, I thought he/she should get into a different line of work.

Sandra Parshall said...

Julia, a lot of rules are contradictory, so if we tried to follow all of them we'd drive ourselves crazy.

If you have a contract, you pretty much have to give the editor what she/he wants -- some mystery lines keep the gore offstage, for example, or don't allow the f-word. But you wouldn't be with that publisher in the first place if you didn't write their kind of book. If you're still trying to break in, I believe you'll do better to use your own imagination and write the kind of book you're passionate about, then try to find an agent and an editor who feel the same way. I'm not saying that's a rule, though. :-) Just common sense.

P.A.Brown said...

The first rule as far as I'm concerned is: All fiction is lies.

We trick it up with facts and tidbits of reality, but in the end it's all based on stone cold lies. And our readers wouldn't have it any other way.

How else could we concoct stories about distant worlds populated by giant sandworms or Rings that rule them all or flying houses or animals that talk?

Now I don't know about anyone else reading this, but I've never killed anyone, I've never even seen a dead body outside a funeral home. I've certainly never attended an autopsy or investigated a terrible homicide wehre blood and bodies are lying all over the place.

But I have one hell of an imagination and the great ability to lie very convincingly and my characters do all those things and more.

I agree that new writers want an easy formula, that if they do this, they will have a best selling novel but if they break the 'rules' they will never succeed. What a crock all around.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Good one, Sandy. I was reminded of an actress friend who lost the part of a depressed character because the casting director found her personality "too upbeat." She said (indignantly), "I can do depressed. It's called acting!"
We all write murders, though most of us have never participated in one. It's called fiction writing.

One small footnote: I like the "kill your darlings" suggestion (let's not say "rule"), because for me, the "darlings" are phrases and passages we love so much that we can't bear to take out even if they need to be cut for some good editorial reason.

Sandra Parshall said...

Liz, if a phrase or whatever has to go for the sake of the book -- if it pulls the reader out of the story -- that's one thing. But please don't cut out all the color and pizzazz! :-)

~ Gina ~ said...

I also wrote a piece on the subject. The title is, Who Made up That Rule, Anyway?

I love the prologue of my current WIP. A writer friend and I were just having a discussion about this very subject.

Nice post, Sandra.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Sandy, it had never even occurred to me to define "darlings" as "color and pizzazz." Huzzah for pizzazz! :)

Sandra Parshall said...

Color and pizzazz --James Lee Burke haz 'em. :-)

Vivian Zabel said...

If all we wrote was about things we've experienced, then only murderers and criminals would write anything in the mystery genre.

Interesting post. I think I break almost all these "rules."

Vivian Zabel

Anonymous said...

Anytime I hear writing advice that starts with "must" or "never," I'm suspicious. I think the only hardcore writing rules are to double-space your manuscript and print on only one side. Oh, and don't use a script font. : )


There are no "rules" when it comes to creating. Sure, some people follow certain steps, procedures, or "rules" because they work - for them. What works for one writer/artisit/singer/whoever may not work for someone else. And what works for you now may now work for you next year.

I spoke, recently, with Jo Ann Ferguson, who has published many, many books. In the early stages of her career, she tended to "pants" her plots - without detailed outlines. These days, she seldom indulges in "pantsing," preferring to use outlines.

As others before me have commented, it's understandable that a new writer would want a "rule," something guaranteed to net success. Unfortunately, there aren't any guarantees.