Writing rules, sleek and customized
“Good stories have a quality of authorlessness. The better they are, the more authorless they seem. . . They give a sense of being out there, like facts.” (Janet Malcolm)
I have this quotation in front of me on my writing desk, and every once in a while I read it and ponder once again how I can apply it to my work. Clearly it is meaningful to me (why else would I give it such a place of prominence), but like every writing rule, it’s not going to be helpful to every writer. I cannot imagine Zadie Smith or Lauren Groff, both talented writers, being moved by this rule. Their zingy sentences show imaginations hard at work, whereas the novels of Michael Chabon, another writer I admire, display a kind of genius for creating multi-dimensional characters and plot without so much sentence zing.
There are so many ways of writing a good piece of fiction, and just as many ways of failing to do so. This must be why writers collect rules. At times I’m astounded at some of the rules my colleagues put forth — “Never use parentheses (or semi-colons, or dashes) in fiction” or “Never go into a character’s head or heart” or “Always remind the reader of your character’s physical presence” just to name a few.
New writers are particularly susceptible to rules, and I always like to warn students away from trying to follow too many. At the same time, rules are there to keep writers alert to possible pitfalls, usually ones that many others have fallen into before them. Rules also serve to keep us attentive. The same teacher who told me never to go into a character’s head or heart (advice I ignore), also taught me to look at each sentence carefully. Really carefully. Like it was under a microscope. Even if you’re writing a 1,000 page epic, every sentence counts.
My rule (or one of them) is to look at writers you admire, writers who write fiction that more or less falls within your wheelhouse, and study how they do what they do. When I was writing short stories, I once took a short story by Rick Bass and re-wrote the first paragraph using my character and my situation and my setting but his sentence structure, just to see how he moved a story along. When he wrote about the weather, I wrote about the weather; when he wrote a facial description, I wrote a facial description. It was illuminating. Of course, I couldn’t use that exercise as my story’s opening (much as I wanted to), but it taught me some interesting techniques. (A revelation: you don’t always need to use connecting sentences to go from one image or action to another. Just make the leap.)
Here’s another note card I have propped up before me: “Character is action. Action is plot.” Paraphrased from David Mamet, who paraphrased from Aristotle.
Virginia Woolf would not abide by that rule.
Other rules that writers follow:
• Don’t use adverbs. What pundits and writers usually mean by this is, Don’t use adverbs in an attribution: “He said blithely.” (“blithely is the adverb there.) But most writers following this rule, I notice, will use adverbs in exposition: “The light gray sweater” (“gray” is an adverb because it is modifying the adjective, “gray.”) I never use adverbs in an attribution—well, almost never. I usually have about two in every novel because in each instance it feels correctly informative, and I can’t come up with a better way. Don’t discount your instinct!
• Don’t use a long word when a short word will do. Long or short?! Use the right word, whether it’s long or short! Usually this is not the first word you think of. But thinking of a second or third choice takes two to three seconds.
• Don’t write fragments. However, sometimes you want to punch up a paragraph to make it more dynamic. Fragments, if used well (and for this reader that means sparingly), can infuse energy into a paragraph.
• Use the active voice, not passive. But try re-writing “The house was built in 1840” into active voice. That’s an awkward mess. Avoid writing sentences that are awkward messes.
• Don’t end a sentence in a preposition. This I agree with.
The answer—my answer—to what are the best rules for writing is this: you must compile your own particular set of rules, and follow them. Study writers you admire, think about craft, pay attention when reading to what you enjoy and what you don’t. Think about books. Think about writing. And when you write, follow your rules to the letter.
As it turns out, following your own rules is basically called style.
What rules do you follow? Which do you ignore?