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.”