— Mark Paxson
I wasn’t able to join the recent video chat. Something to do with packing up my kid for his latest journey away from the family home. Latest, as in last. I hope.
But here are my thoughts on the topics discussed in the chat. Before I get to the specifics, I just want to say this. I have very strong opinions about writing rules, as anybody who has watched our videos likely knows. And I agree with Audrey when she says early in the video that a lot of that resistance frequently has to do with how they are framed.
I have said that my favorite quote about writing is the one I heard at a writing conference I went to — there are no rules in writing, except for one. Write a good story.
That’s really all there should be. But I get that some people need more. How exactly does one go about writing a good story? To address that question, how about we change the nature of the conversation. From rules to advice. From “must do’s” and “cannot do’s” to “why not try it this way” or “if this isn’t working for you, give this other approach a shot.”
If the discussion is cast in the form of advice, I’m fine with it. Advice that leaves open the possibility that not everything comes from a cookie cutter. Because, here’s the deal, as discussed in the video chat — there is no creativity in a cookie cutter. Creativity comes in trying to write a story that bends the rules, breaks the rules, sometimes shatters the rules. Unless, of course, you’re only interested in writing to the formulas of your favorite genre. But the thing is … these deadly writer sins, the rules of writing that people throw out there, rarely focus on the idea that these rules are what is needed for specific genres. No, they are presented as though they are the magic sauce for every piece of fiction you may want to write.
So, let’s take a look at the first deadly writer sin … location. The author of this particular post that we were responding to states emphatically that the writer must tell the reader where the story is located. She suggests that any change in location needs to be identified from the outset. But … but … but!!
I’m reminded of my experience at the Mendocino Coast Writer’s Conference. Again, something I have discussed before. One writer in our group of 12, when reading and critiquing other participant’s writing, constantly complained that “you didn’t explain this,” “you didn’t tell us that.” She was upset that every action wasn’t explained in detail. And I kept wanting to say that a writer should not have to provide every single detail, fact, and explanation to the reader. Some of the “work” of reading a story is imagining things and figuring them out as you go.
Reading the discussion of this in the blog post makes me feel like writing a story is nothing more than writing an outline. Or, let me change that. I’m an attorney. In law school, we learn the approach we’re supposed to take to analyzing legal questions — IRAC — Issue, Rule, Analysis, Conclusion. The creativity of fiction demands more than that. And you want to know what? The best writing, the best stories don’t have to handfeed every bit to you.
No, instead, the best writers find ways to show you the world they have created without spoonfeeding it to you like a law school outline. If you want to write a good story, you don’t begin your chapter with London and a dateline — unless those things are absolutely critical to the story and the context needs to be established clearly at the beginning of the story.
One final point about location. I don’t know that I’ve ever read a piece of fiction in my 50+ years of reading where I’ve not understand the location of the story or if there are shifts in location, that there are shifts in location. I simply have never noticed this as a problem in the thousands of short stories and novels I have read in my lifetime. So … I’m not even sure why this is an issue.
(By the way, I’m intentionally not linking to the blog post we were responding to. Why? Because this isn’t about that particular person or even about the specific “rules” she covers. It’s more about … well, I guess I just need to vent because I see so much of this on Twitter and elsewhere. Rules. Rules. Rules. And I just think that people who write about these rules as though they are absolutes do no service to writers.)
I’m not going to cover every thing in the blog post. There’s just one other thing I want to address. After covering the four deadly sins, the author reveals “The Top Secret Bestseller’s Tip.” And what is it?
“The vitally first line — and last line — of every chapter. There is one purpose to those first and last lines — and that is to catapult the reader from one chapter to the next, from one page to the next.”
To be honest, this sounds like an agent talking. It’s the old idea of “you have to grab your reader by the throat with your opening line, paragraph or page.” And if you don’t, you’ve lost the battle. Only, it’s that idea on steroids. Every single chapter must begin and end with a line that catapults the reader!
Well, sure. If the rest of the words in the chapter are complete crap, you’ve got to do something to … catapult your reader on. But, come on, if you’ve done your work as a writer, and written a good story, the weight of the chapter, the work you’ve done in building that chapter and the entire arc of the story will keep your reader reading, with or without a compelling first or last sentence.
The more I think about this, the more I think these ideas are really for people who cannot write a good story. These ideas are what you do if you need to mask a lousy story. That’s all I can think of in response to these “rules.” If you write a good story, the rhythm and flow of it, the pull of the world you’ve created, all of this will carry the reader from word to word, page to page, chapter to chapter, beginning to end and all will be good. If you’re focusing instead on the first sentence and last sentence of each chapter, on whether you’ve adequately provided the location and other “facts” a reader needs, you may be focusing on the wrong thing.
What you’ll end up with is a box store like a Home Depot, instead of a Frank Lloyd Wright masterpiece.
Good points, Mark. What underlies many of the advice posts is their authors’ need to sell their services and products–book coaching, editing, how-to books, and courses–which you often see in the sidebars of their posts. Nothing wrong with that–after all, many of us writers show our books on our blogs, but writers reading the advice posts should understand that’s one reason for them. These folks aren’t all-knowing deities, but people trying to make a living in the world of writing.
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Just wish they’d stop presenting these things as absolutes.
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