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Writing Rules, Critique Groups, and Literary Inbreeding

I’ve spent the second half of my writing career unlearning what I was taught in the first half.

Like any good novice, it started with “the writing rules.” Now, by “writing rules,” I’m not referring to the Strunk and White type of rules, the standard principles of grammar and composition. There’s “other” rules for contemporary novel writing, formulas for publication which some hold to be just as binding as rules of spelling and punctuation.

Some of those rules are:

  • Show Don’t Tell — Use action and dialog rather than exposition
  • POV — Maintain a consistent, realistic narrative point-of-view; don’t “head hop” from one person to the next in the same scene
  • Avoid Passives — Keep tenses active

Where did these rules originate? Well, as more and more people aspired to be novelists, the need for formal training and advice increased. Thus, the rules were born. The “writing rules” became a convenient template for wannabe novelists. Now, with the rise of democratization, pretty much anyone can be an “expert.” Also, as indie publishing has exploded, so has this circle of “experts.” Today, anyone with a decent canon of accomplishments and a respectable platform can disseminate advice to eager up-and-comers.

But perhaps the biggest contagion of the writing rules are critique groups.

I joined an online critique group, as a newbie, back in 2005. Some of those writers have gone on to have successful writing careers. It was a terrific group of folks, most of whom helped me tremendously, and whom I’m still friends with. But this group was also where I picked up some bad habits. You see, at that time, none of us were published. We were all scrambling to get a foot in the industry door. As such, the writing rules became our mantra. I couldn’t submit a new chapter or a new story without being flailed by the dreaded rules.

  • “Stop head-hopping!”
  • “Too many passives!”
  • “Show don’t tell!”

Like Pavlov’s Dog, just pressing the Submit button instinctively made me wince, knowing that a literary beating would follow.

The problem was, the longer I actually read what was being published, the less important the “writing rules” appeared to be.

It started with Frank Peretti’s, The Oath. The book had sold over one million copies worldwide, so I knew it must be terrific. Besides, it was the recipient of the 1996 ECPA Gold Medallion Book Award for Best Fiction, and one of Peretti’s most critically acclaimed novels. I dug in, not only to be entertained, but to be wowed by his craftsmanship. I read about 50 pages of The Oath before shelving it. Why? The “head-hopping” was driving me nuts! Okay. That was an aberration. Surely Stephen King would not exhibit such literary flagrance. So I took up his classic, The Stand. Alas, one of the takeaways, to my shame, was how often I noticed King violated some of the most basic writing rules. Namely in his use of passives and head-hopping. Lots of jumping from one POV to the next in the same chapter. And then there was the “had been’s” and “was’s.” Good grief! That book would have driven some of my old mentors crazy.

Interestingly, however, King’s infractions, his breaking of the writing rules, didn’t keep me from enjoying the story.

It was a huge turning point for me as a writer. Here I’d spent years learning the rules and diligently applying them… only to find that King and Peretti did not do POV’s. So I had to confront the fact that either Stephen King and Frank Peretti were bad writers, or the “writing rules” were not nearly as important to publication as I was being led to believe.

It was creatively liberating.

After that season of legalism, Stephen Koch’s book, The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop, was revelatory. In it, he writes this about POV:

Many teachers of writing will tell you that the way to unify your story and integrate it with its characters is through something called the narrative “point of view.” There are even certain purists who will insist that an “integrated point of view” is the only way a narrative can achieve unity. . .

. . .The academic emphasis on “point of view” in fiction is precisely that — academic. The notion that “the most important thing in fiction is point of view” is a beguiling but vacuous theory that bears only a marginal relation to real practice. And it causes vast amounts of misunderstanding.

. . .Of course, a consistent point of view can indeed be a guide to unity, and of course, you will want your prose to have a coherent texture. But it is a mistake to assume that point of view itself necessarily endows any story with either unity or coherence. Too often, this rather fussy doctrine pointlessly constricts writers’ options and narrows their range. (pp. 88-90, emphasis mine)

After my early indoctrination, I must say it was refreshing to hear the POV rules called, “. . .a beguiling but vacuous theory. . . [a] rather fussy doctrine [that] pointlessly constricts writers’ options and narrows their range.”

And therein lies the danger of writing rules.

If the primary goal of a story is to take us somewhere, then the “writing rules” must be subservient to that end. Much like a map, aesthetics are secondary to functionality. It is required first of the mapmaker to know which way North is. A colorful, good-looking map that has its directions all wrong is about as valuable as a well-written novel that doesn’t take us anywhere. Perhaps this is what we should first teach aspiring novelists — not about passives, POV, and show v. tell, but about how to take readers somewhere.

By over-emphasizing writing rules we unwittingly create a “checklist mentality” that places style above story and “pointlessly constricts writers’ options and narrows their range.” Of course, new writers need to understand the rules (if, at least, to be conversant in their allure). But if we’re not careful, we will turn the creative process into a formula and make literary Pharisees out of our proteges.

And sadly, online critique groups are notorious for perpetuating the mythology of writing rules. Yes. I believe that writing groups can be invaluable. After multiple published novels, short stories, and articles, I’m still in one! However, if we are not cautious, we can perpetuate a type of literary inbreeding in such groups. Especially when there’s a disproportionate ratio of “experts” to “novices.” (It’s why the “mix” and makeup of a writing group can be really important.) New writers should pay more attention to what’s being published and less attention to the echo chamber of their “expert” peers. Conversely, those with publishing cred and earned (or just given) respect, must be careful to not perpetuate “[a] rather fussy doctrine [that] pointlessly constricts writers’ options and narrows their range.”

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{ 9 comments… add one }
  • Tim George November 15, 2017, 7:22 AM

    There are few books written for writers by a successful writer than Steven James’, Story Trumps Structure. In it he says: “I can’t think of any other field in which people who aren’t experts critique other people who aren’t experts in the hope of everyone becoming an expert. ”
    20 writers of varying stages in their own writing ability sitting around and shredding each other’ stories does not qualify that group to call itself Inklings. Oh, and by the way, Grammarly just marked the preceding sentence as breaking a rule. So sue me.

  • Kat Heckenbach November 15, 2017, 8:13 AM

    Regarding head-hopping: The main issue is that when you *are* writing in deep third POV, you need to stay in that POV, but some authors slip into omniscient here and there. What happened, though, is it somehow became about never, ever doing omniscient POV. One has nothing to do with the other. I will say, omniscient needs to be handled well, and often new writers don’t have the ability. Steven King slides from one pov to another when he writes in omniscient, whereas most newbies make you feel like you’re on a shaky old roller coaster.

    But I totally get what you’re saying. I deal with critiquers who harp on those rules and miss the forest for the trees. They haven’t yet learned that it’s not that the rules shouldn’t be broken, but rather that you need to understand the rules so you can understand how to break them properly, artistically. That it’s about building voice and style without *relying* on writing crutches like passive verbs and weak adjectives, but that passive verbs do have their place (and they are not the same as state of being, ahem) and adjectives and adverbs can enhance writing if used properly.

  • Kessie November 15, 2017, 9:59 AM

    My other favorite is the “her eyes flew across the room” gag. “No more flying bodyparts!” I see people whine. But I see tons of books include phrases like “She felt his eyes on her from across the room”. The editors complain that it should be “gaze”, not “eyes”. But I see lots of books that ignore this. And I’ve never seen one reader (who wasn’t a writer) complain about this in reviews. It’s one bit of dogma that I’ve decided to ignore. People know what it means.

    • Kat Heckenbach November 15, 2017, 10:14 AM

      I generally go with gaze mostly because it offers variety of word choice, since eyes are constantly widening and squinting and such. But yes, most readers don’t care and they know what you mean.

  • Michael November 15, 2017, 3:52 PM

    I appreciate your take on POV. Any time art becomes subservient to rules, there is going to be a problem. Appreciating the need for rules that keep things on the up-and-up, there are always those who break those rules and produce amazing art as a result – as you have pointed out. Whereas we want to strive for excellence in our art as writers, we never want to allow those rules to squelch that creativity which makes us us. It could be said in a similar vein concerning the church. That entity called the church strives to live by rules rather than the creativity of the life of the spirit. The “art” that is the church quickly dies. Hence, we have formality, not life. I would rather read a book that “head bounces” and entertains me than read one that is “correct in its POV” and bores me to tears. I realize, however, there is a balance as one other reviewer has pointed out. It does not give us a license to be sloppy. God forbid!

  • Jay DiNitto November 16, 2017, 4:58 PM

    As the old man advised Eddie Murphy’s Chandler Jerrell in The Golden Child, as a bridge exploded and burned behind him, “you have to know when to break the rules.” The bottom is line is to not create confusion, unless you actually want to. Right, Faulkner?

  • Rhonda Pooley November 20, 2017, 4:06 PM

    True, ordinary readers, who just like a good yarn, will go with what they know you mean, but the new submissions editor will use it as a reason to throw your manuscript on the trash pile.

  • Rhonda Pooley November 20, 2017, 4:09 PM

    Having said what I said above, I was nevertheless encouraged by this article to be less pedantic/anal/ terrified of the rules.

  • Rachel Sweasey November 22, 2017, 3:21 AM

    This article throws up the dilemma I’ve been thinking about recently.
    The great literature of history is classically that which created new rules, never mind breaking any old ones. But all those great classic writers who created new ideas did already have a good grasp of the rules, and a strong ability to write within them. In order to break the rules effectively a writer must first understand them well, and have a very good reason for breaking them. I might just break a few in this comment, just because I can – and because I don’t expect anyone to like, share or publish this.
    Virginia Woolf in Mrs Dalloway pretty much invented stream of consciousness and was unable to find a name for ‘this new thing [she was] doing’. And William Shakespeare simply made up new words and phrases that have become commonplace. That’s possibly one of them. In fact, all language, language styles, ways of writing and of interpreting writing are a work in progress and every writer has the power to influence change.
    But this idea of rules and what is acceptable to the market and to publishers brings up another point that I’ve been pondering ever since attending the Omega Writer’s Conference. I was surprised there to experience a focus on ‘how can we get published/get our books sold’ that seemed to outweigh ‘how can we become the best writers we can be?’
    Why do we write? Is it because the stories and characters claw at our ribcages until we relent and let them out to crawl over a page? Or is it because we have decided we’d like to try and get some writing published? I think that herein lies the root of a problem: In order to become accepted by a publisher it is necessary to stick to the rules to a certain degree. And yes, an editor reading a submission is not likely to accept work that breaks these rules too much without good reason. I know.
    And if you’re writing in a way that flaunts the rules you must have a good reason for it. If that reason is not connected to a desire to get published, then just go for it! Be the writer you are, do the thing you need to do, create the work your heart longs for, whatever form that takes. And I believe as writers we should also work on perfecting our individual styles of writing. Read the work of great writers. Study the craft. Go back over earlier work and edit it with these newfound skills, as the writers we have become today, in this moment.
    But until you are Virginia Woolf, or Stephen King, or Ian McEwan … don’t be dismayed if no publisher will accept your rule-breaking creation.
    To enhance your chances at being published, follow the rules, and study (not just read but study) the guidelines set by the publishers you are submitting to. Only send them exactly what they are looking for.
    To become the best writer you can be, do the thing you have to do, and experiment with everything that twangs your rib cartilage and steals your breath.

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