Writing Rules That Beg to Be Broken

From Jane Friedman:

The following are some of the so-called rules of writing fiction that I take a special delight in breaking. Creative writing is about possibilities, not about restrictions and limitations.

Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down.
In 1962, in a letter to a young writer, John Steinbeck added six tips for writing well. The above was one of those tips. Its error lies again, as all rules do, with its use of the absolute never. I frequently will not, because I cannot, begin a story or novel until I have crafted the perfect first paragraph. Of course there is no such thing as a perfect sentence, but the temporary confidence instilled by thinking that I have crafted one is what allows me to tackle a project that will consume my waking and sleeping hours for the next year or more. Stopping now and then to polish a faulty phrase or image is like taking another hit of confidence.

Five or six hits every morning keep me flying through the hours. But if I cannot fix a weakness within a minute or two, I will not allow my momentum to stall out with fretting and hand-wringing. Placing parentheses around the offending phrase, or highlighting the entire scene, will call my attention to it during the first rewrite.

I do not believe, as some practitioners apparently do, that a morning’s work is like a fast-moving stream through which one must dare not stop paddling, not even for a moment. Go ahead and stop if you want to. Pull ashore. Have lunch. Creep up as close as you can to that egret in the tree. Take a nap if you feel like it. In short, do whatever works for you. The imagination is resilient and flexible, and your routine should be too. But only if that works for you. I am most productive when I adhere, albeit loosely, to the discipline of beginning the morning with a bit of meditation, followed by four to six hours at my desk, followed by a good workout or hike. That’s my routine. It doesn’t have to be yours.

Write what you know.
In the days of Thoreau and earlier, when it was necessary to walk several miles to consult with someone more knowledgeable than you, Ernest Hemingway’s write what you know might have been sound advice. Hemingway also said that every writer needs a friend in every profession, someone whose expertise can be accessed—a statement that appears to contradict the earlier statement.

In order to do my research back in the 1970s and 80s, I had to visit a small-town library every week to order another load of books on interlibrary loan, which made the librarian my best friend. Today, a writer’s best friend is the internet.

I feel certain that Hemingway’s write what you know admonition was not intended to be an absolute. A clearer rendition of that advice would be to write what you know after you’ve done a ton of research and before you forget it all. And always remember that you are writing fiction. Fiction is stuff you make up. You can do that too. You can make stuff up.

Back at the turn of the millennium, I signed a contract, based on a single opening scene, to write two historical mysteries featuring Edgar Allan Poe for Thomas Dunne Books. I had never before written a historical novel and was not confident I could create a convincing New York City of 1840. In one scene it was necessary for me to get Poe across the East River in short order so that he could hotfoot it to Manhattan. I spent weeks trying to find a bridge he could cross or a ferry that would convey him in the allotted time. No such luck. I was stuck. I moaned about this impasse to a friend of mine who was also a writer, and he said, “It’s fiction, Silvis. Make up a bridge.”

Frequently it is the not knowing that brings a story alive, the writer’s desire to know what he does not, which then leads to the character’s discovery of what she did not know, and then the reader’s delight in participating in that discovery.

Show, don’t tell.
A favorite admonition among writing teachers all over the world. This admonition is only half false. The true part is that good fiction is built on dramatic scenes comprised of action, dialogue, description, and conflict—i.e. showing through visual and other sensory details and strong, active verbs. But a certain amount of telling is necessary too. Summary and exposition hold the scenes together. Telling bridges the time gap between scenes and between relevant beats. A little bit of telling, even if it’s something as simple as “Two weeks later,” opens nearly every new scene and every chapter.

So, once again, the problem with the rule is not that it is wholly false but that it is stated too rigidly. Summarization complements dramatization in every novel. In some, it shoulders the narrative load. Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End, for example, is a brilliant novel that is almost wholly told rather than shown.

In general, the more “literary” a novel is, the more it relies on reflection, speculation, and summaries of events. That is why a literary novel is so hard to adapt for the screen; so much of the momentum of the story is interior, taking place only in the characters’ heads.

Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman ran into this very problem when attempting to adapt Susan Orlean’s nonfiction The Orchid Thief for film. The problem was so infuriating that he finally seized upon introducing himself into the story as twins, one of whom was being driven mad by attempting to write the adaptation without sacrificing the book’s artistic integrity, and the other as a hack only too ready to pander to Hollywood’s lack of artistic integrity by changing the story willy-nilly. “Show, don’t tell” is fine advice if you are aiming for a quick sale of movie rights, or if you are fifteen years old and learning how to write in scenes, but the proper amendment of the phrase for the rest of us should be “show when you can, but tell whenever showing isn’t necessary.”

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman