Writing for the “Country Club”

by Mike Duran · 14 comments

I’m currently reading a book by a popular NY Times best-selling author and am not surprised to find numerous violations of “the writing rules” — head-hopping, passives, and lots of telling rather than showing.

This doesn’t distract me like it used to.

My first few years as a writer were spent being “indoctrinated” about the writing rules. The standard line was, If you want to increase your chances of publication, you should follow these ______ (fill in approprite number) rules. I’m really rule-oriented, so I clung to these like a good Jewish boy would the Ten Commandments. However, the remainder of my time has been spent unlearning the rules. This doesn’t mean I don’t agree with those rules or don’t believe they’re helpful when applied. I’ve just discovered their relevance is pretty much limited to newbies (those unpublished) and within writers circles.

It’s sort of like a country club. Becoming a “member” of the club has a certain set of requirements (and cost). And once you’re accepted, specific rules of conduct and perks apply. Members have their own hierarchy and moving up in the pecking order is usually sought after. Of course, outside the country club, in the “civilian” world, these things don’t matter. Your membership in the country club does not necessarily benefit you at work, in the supermarket, or the public park. Being a country club member mainly matters to other members.

Writers can have a certain country club mentality. There’s dues you pay to get into the club and once you’re in, garnering more recognition from your peers becomes important. There’s even a temptation to write for other members of the country club. However…

Most readers are not members of the country club.

That’s one of the big discoveries I’ve been making. Following all the writing rules may earn me kudos from other country club members, but they don’t do much for “civilians.” Which sort of brings it all back to who I’m writing for. And how I’m reading. You see, if I read like a writer (i.e., a member of the country club), I tend to struggle with violations of the rules. It’s when I read like a reader, a civilian, a non-country club member, that I most enjoy myself.

So while getting props from my country club brethren is cool, it’s connecting with the average reader that I find most satisfying. The hard part is writing for readers not writers. Especially when you’ve worked so hard to be part of the country club.

Kessie June 15, 2015 at 9:10 AM

As my writing education matures, I’m finding the same thing. “It’s more like guidelines than actual rules.”

I also read some terrible books that were only terrible because they followed the rules. No info dumping = no backstory or world building. No passive voice means active, all the time, and this gets exhausting and confusing for the reader. No head hopping becomes a series of disjointed unconnected scenes with different POV characters.

Ugh.

Travis Perry June 15, 2015 at 9:31 AM

At the risk of sounding like a cliche, writing is an art, not a science.

The elements that go together depend on what else you put down. Rules can be a guideline but that’s it.

I think the worst of this phenomenon happens when new writers run into editors who edit solely based on the rules. Some writers get seriously mangled and quit when what they were actually doing wasn’t all that bad.

Thanks for pointing this out.

SLS July 6, 2015 at 5:57 PM

I’m an as-yet-unpublished writer trying to find my way back into writing after being “seriously mangled” by an editor I hired to help me fix a few issues with my novel. Some of her suggestions were spot on and helped a great deal, but there was so much emphasis on following various “rules” — things that didn’t fit my writing style or my voice, and seemed to miss the whole point of the novel — that I gave up in despair. I certainly don’t advocate total writing anarchy, but legalistic adherence to the “writing rules” can be deadly to some of us. I appreciate this article so much — maybe there’s hope for me yet.

Jill June 15, 2015 at 10:22 AM

It’s all about the integrity of the work and the movement of language.

Shawna June 15, 2015 at 10:32 AM

I like the Jack Sparrow approach: “They’re more like guidelines, anyway.” Breaking the rules can serve a purpose. For example, if a gap in time needs to be bridged it’s better to ‘tell’. It’s pretty laborious to read all the mundane activities involved in… I don’t know… let’s say, making tacos, before a character sits down to diner and something pivotal occurs. I’d prefer the writer summed it up with a simple, “After making tacos”. Unless, of course, the character slices off a finger while dicing tomatoes; then the act of making tacos is actually important.

Kat Heckenbach June 15, 2015 at 10:58 AM

Yeah, I look at the reviews I wrote back when I was first writing and I see a lot of criticism of non-rule-following. Fortunately, it didn’t take long before I realized you need to learn the rules so you can recognize appropriate and skilled rule-breaking vs. bad writing — in your own writing. I never hit on that sort of thing in a review anymore, unless it is something pervasive that I feel gets in the way of the story.

Iola June 15, 2015 at 7:33 PM

I think that’s key: is the writing getting in the way of the story?

Sometimes it does, and the reading experience would have been more enjoyable if the author had followed the rules (guidelines) of point of view, showing not telling, grammar etc.

But some writers are so good at spinning a story that it’s only when you go back and analyse that you realise all the “rules” they broke. Sadly, I suspect more writers think they fit this category than actually do.

Karen P. June 15, 2015 at 4:54 PM

There is a big difference between honing your craft and “joining the club”. These are completely separate things. Whether you should join the club depends on what you’re after as a writer, and whether you believe your audience lives inside their box or outside it. Truth is “the club” requires alot of time and money. You try to ingratiate yourself while they check you out. It can take years to pay your dues (literally) and work your way to get to “the powers that be”. If that’s how a budding writer wishes to spend his/her time and effort, so be it.

Or you can self-pub. The beauty of it is not so much that you can break any rules you want, but that you get to SET your own rules. It’s the good, the bad, the ugly, or the awesome!

Charmaine June 16, 2015 at 7:40 AM

Mike, I love your analogy!

So apropos! I’m like you, Mike, I love rules, but then when they become too burdensome, I rebel–thank God for Jesus!

I used to belong to a critique group and all we did was critique sentence structure and police for the rules–I got tired of that after I realized no one was going anywhere and the stories were not improving. I don’t critique stories anymore because I feel the more a person writes and reads, the better writer that person becomes.

Having your work-in-progress critiqued can be soul-crushing and when I did it, I didn’t like the feelings I was left with.
Blessings!

HG Ferguson June 16, 2015 at 4:43 PM

Bravo, hear hear, and a host of other accolades. You nailed it. The “rule” that puts me (Honors English in both HS and college, winner of the National Council of Teachers of English Award for Literary Excellence, student of Latin, student of Hebrew, master of New Testament Greek) over the edge is people who INSIST that “was plus -ing” is PASSIVE and is one of the WORST WRITING SINS one can commit. The CBA reeks with it. Anyone — like myself — who knows anything about human language and how it works knows this is called IMPERFECT ACTIVE INDICATIVE and describes a continuous ACTIVE ACTION in the past. When hear supposed “experts” spout this supposed “rule,” I want to go total Doc Martin on them and do much needed penance later. Thank you for pointing out “rules” as principles or guidelines and the country club mentality. You’re not “in the club” unless you adopt the “rules,” including the one I just eviscerated. Thank you. Again, I applaud your courage and backbone to stand against ridiculous assertions only the ignorant command. Oops. There’s Doc again.

Rebecca LuElla Miller June 17, 2015 at 10:22 AM

HG, one of my pet peeves, too. I learned the construction you refer to as the past progressive or, in the case of “is” plus the present participle, present progressive. In fact I wrote a blog post on the subject because it irritated me so that people were saying verb constructions were passive when they weren’t. As it turned out, I got a client for my editing services because of that post—one who has sent me work for nearly three years. 😉 So now I feel quite fond toward the passive voice.

Becky

Rebecca LuElla Miller June 17, 2015 at 10:16 AM

Mike, I understand what you’re saying, but the problem is, many of the guidelines (and I don’t know any writing instructor who talks about rules) have come into existence because they are common to the best writing—the books that sell well.

With the ease of self-publishing, I fear books will be less reader centric, which is what you seem to be advocating, and more writer centric. And truth be told, we writers are quite blind to our own work. Sure, we’re good at criticizing other books, but we don’t see the fault in our own stories very well. So we may feel liberated from the country club and able now to write to those on the outside, but what if no one on the outside is reading our stuff?

That ought to indicate we need to change something, and maybe those writing instruction guidelines could give us more help than we thought.

Becky

Sue Jeffrey June 19, 2015 at 6:35 PM

I think you have to know the rules intimately before you can break them. If you then break them with artistic intent (I’m thinking of Tim Winton here) well and good. But the reality is that most of the rules evolved to help our brains organise the material. There is a difference between ‘joining the club’ and ‘good craftsmanship’. The rules have a purpose. The exception is where the rules get in the way of telling the story. I think maybe that’s what you are meaning, Mike. For readers, the most important thing is the story. If the rules get in the way of the story then break ’em. If they they don’t then don’t ????.

Iola June 21, 2015 at 1:24 PM

I’m going to give a practical example here. I’ve just finished reading a new release from one of the major CBA publishers.

In one conversation I found the following dialogue tags:

– she gushed (twice)
– he suggested
– she murmured
– she whispered
– she simply said
– she ventured
– she argued
– she offered

Maybe I’m being picky, I found this hugely distracting. In some cases, no tag was even needed. In the others, “said” would have been sufficient. There were other issues, such as anachronisms and the word “tattoo” being spelled two different ways in the same sentence.

I find that authors who “disobey the rules” fit in two clear categories: authors who have self-published (often before learning “the rules” of sentence construction, let alone novel structure, character development etc.), and established authors.

With established authors, I wonder if they are not being given the editing they need either because of cost constraints within the publishers, or because the publishers feel they should be up to standard. I hope it’s not because the authors feel they don’t need editing, as I’ve heard one famous ABA author say.

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