So You Think You Want Rules

There’s nothing wrong with a piece of fiction so long as it works for the reader. That is the gold standard for fiction. I present as my evidence “Black Box” by Jennifer Egan, which appeared in The New Yorker. It’s written as if it were a government operations manual more or less in the form of 140 character tweets. And it’s pretty ground-breaking and brilliant. Of course, as with everything, not everyone thinks so. But that’s true for all matters of opinion, isn’t it? I would also point to contemporary sitcom TV, where the old conventions of pov and the fourth wall have largely been dispensed with.

Do you think Samuel Beckett’s agent read Waiting for Godot and then asked for a rewrite, telling Beckett the characters keep forgetting what the other guy just said and repeat themselves too much?

IMHO there are a lot of things about writing fiction that are very good ideas. There are guidelines and there are techniques that are very much worth knowing. There are conventions that are often found in genre fiction. These things aren’t secrets, but one does need to go to some effort to seek them out and then figure out to apply them. This is stuff worth knowing. They generally aren’t taught in English lit courses. And they weren’t taught at all in the “creative writing” course I took in college.

Most people figuring out how to write fiction are accomplished readers. They read so easily that what they read seems (if they read good stuff) effortless. Naturally this leads to the next logical thought: how hard can it be to write this stuff that’s so easy to read? So they sign up at an online writing site and start asking questions. Which is perfectly fine so far as it goes. But you’re not going to get a grounding in the guidelines, techniques and conventions of creating fiction, and especially key questions like “why do readers read fiction?” just by asking the odd question here or there. Unless you happen to hit on the question “Why do readers read fiction?” and stumble across some people with good answers.

IMHO a writer can learn a lot more about these things from actually trying stuff out on the page, exactly the way Jane Austen did than from asking a question here or there. I think this is so because the writer is probably going to have to write a million words before she has a lot of facility with this stuff, so she might as well get busy.

But that’s just me and how I think about this stuff. I’m certainly open to better ideas.



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4 responses to “So You Think You Want Rules

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