Who makes these rules (and why should we care)?

A thousand years ago, I was part of a group of wannabe writers who met each month. We read each others’ short stories and then proceeded to critique them. None of us was published at the time, and we seriously spoke of someday learning “the trick” to getting our stories accepted by the literary magazines we sent them to. We really thought there was some secret formula for making the magic happen, and sooner or later one of us was going to discover it (or have it personally shared with us by some actually-published-writer).

The formula it turned out, of course, was simple. Write. A lot. Read the best writing being done at the time. Get to know the markets. And keep writing. Practice, patience, and endurance made the magic happen, though we didn’t see that at the time, knowing as we oh-so-confidently did in those days that our fiction was every bit as good as John Updike’s or John Irving’s. We just didn’t know “the trick” to getting it published.

I see echoes of that mentality from time to time among published writers. By and large it has to do with the “rules” for writing fiction properly, especially those handed down from Mount Olympus by successful fiction writers. After all, the thinking seems to be, if they are successful, they must know something, right?

I think too much credence is given to this kind of received knowledge. Take attribution for example. Many writing guides say that dialogue should be attributed only when necessary and then only with “said,” as in “he said” or “she said.” Writer Mickey Spillane was famous for making this assertion. (I happen to think it’s balderdash. See my post about it here.) And suddenly there’s a piece of that “trick” writers seem to want to find. If Mickey Spillane said it, then it must be right because he clearly knows the trick, and I must go back to my drafts and scrub them clean.

Phooey, as Nero Wolfe would say.

Another bit of received knowledge that I see adhered to with reverence is the requirement S.S. Van Dine laid down that in every mystery, the culprit must be introduced in the first chapter (or very soon thereafter). I happen to think Van Dine’s rules were intended as a joke. He broke so many of them that I think he made them up just to see how may people would believe him. I know of one mystery writer who insists that his rules are gospel. Unfortunately, I don’t think she’s finessed them very well in her novels. Yes, she has the perpetrator make a brief appearance early in the story, but then this person just about disappears until the very end when a most unlikely motivation for murder (murder being another of Van Dine’s requirements, by the way) gets discovered in the person. The writing is so formulaic that I can’t read her stories any more. (She also commits Nancy Drew Moments all over the page.)

Consider the never-ending objection to using adverbs. Just about everyone will espouse this, and when a stronger verb is available, it’s probably a valid concern. (Though I think just as often, an adverb much better modifies a verb’s meaning. Strength isn’t always better than clarity. Or subtle nuance.) Doesn’t this “stronger verb” argument seem in conflict with the “attribution” argument noted above? Isn’t “said” a weaker verb than, say, “murmured,” or “shouted,” or “hissed,” or “spat”? It seems to me that in one case, a rule-bound writer will insist on a strong verb and in another on a weak one. I must be missing something.

So I continue to read highly regarded authors, and I see all of these rules broken. It makes me wonder just who is being “tricked.”

Explore posts in the same categories: Rants and ruminations

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