Thursday, December 17, 2009

Rules Of Writing

When I first stumbled into this thing called writing, I had a very simplistic view of the whole enterprise. After all, I'd had my full measure of English classes in high school and had done well. I'd edited or written eight textbooks that are still in use. Over a hundred of my papers had been published in medical journals. I knew how to put the words together. This fiction stuff should be a snap. Right?

We'll now pause for all the writers out there to stop laughing. No, despite being reasonably conversant with the language, I still had a lot to learn. And I'm still learning.

Of course, one of the things that frustrates every writer is seeing a novel on the shelves at our local bookstore, opening it, and seeing that the author has violated one or more of the rules we've had hammered into us.

Bill Pronzini is a well-respected writer of thrillers. He's been nominated numerous times for the Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America. Publishers Weekly called him "a master of the modern mystery." Here are the opening lines of his novel, Quarry:

Cool, windy Monday in late April. Pale sun, scattered cumulus clouds. Nice day for a long, solitary drive into the country, especially when you had a partner and best friend who was getting married in a few days and who was turning everyone concerned into basket cases with his prenuptial mania...

There wasn't much traffic on Highway 101 south of King City, and when I turned off at San Lucas there was no traffic at all...

Now, this turns out to be a good book. I've read it a couple of times, and like Pronzini's work. But all you writers out there, what rules did he break? Here are the ones that jumped out at me. Never start a book with information about the weather. Don't write in first person--it's extremely limiting. Avoid "passive" phrases that depend on "was ---ing" verbs. Don't put too much backstory into the first few pages. Introduce tension early. Hook the reader with the first sentence if you can, certainly with the first paragraph.

How did Pronzini get away with it? The simple answer is that he'd developed a following (including me) and they knew that if they just waded through the first few pages it would get better. And, in this case, it did.

Do writing rules serve a purpose? I think they do. I've just completed the final edits of Code Blue, and I have to admit that when I followed my editor's suggestions to got rid of some of my pet words (I seem to favor "just"), when I changed "was starting" to "started," and when I applied some of the other standard "rules" for writing, the resulting prose flowed better and held my attention. But I dream of the day when I've written a couple of dozen successful books and, like Bill Pronzini, I can ignore the rules and just write.

Writers, do rules bother you or do they help? Readers, what's your take on openings like this one?


Anne Lang Bundy said...

An agent for whom I have highest regard explained this to me. I'll pass it on using a music metaphor.

One might be a gifted piano player. Genius even. There is still much to be learned in studying music, in order to understand the natural gift with more depth.

Once the rules have been learned with full comprehension of why they exist, an artist will not only exercise greater skill, but will know exactly when, why and how to break the rules.

Timothy Fish said...

I haven’t read Pronzini’s work and I don’t know if I would care for the rest of his book, but before we get too upset about him breaking the rules, it seems to me that there is a lot to like about this opening. The first couple of lines brings an image to our mind and slows down the pace. It is as if he is inviting us to take a leisurely drive through the country. Who wouldn’t want that? The next thing we notice is that he introduces tension very quickly. We aren’t even through with the first paragraph and we already know that this guy is tired of hearing his friend talk about his wedding plans. The last sentence is clearly intended to tell us more about the state of things, which is a perfectly legitimate reason to use a form of the word be. Having developed a following certainly doesn’t hurt, but I suspect that writing like this will help him develop a following more than hurt.

Jody Hedlund said...

It's all about developing a readership! Once we have that, then we'll have more liberty. For me, that means I can write about the settings and time periods I want! :-)

Carol J. Garvin said...

I haven't read Pronzini's book so can't know if the rest of it reflects the informal style of its opening. Those incomplete weather-related sentences aren't a dynamic start, but are they typical of his voice throughout?

There are reasons for rules and reasons for breaking them. I think a good writer understands both and uses them judiciously. A less experienced writer may ignore both and his or her work will suffer the consequences.

Richard Mabry said...

Thanks to each of you. The idea behind this post was to make writers (and readers, for that matter) think about some of the "rules" we see emphasized so often. I believe that these rules are valuable guidelines as we learn the form of writing. There are times when we can--and should--stray from them, but writing within them is tantamount to training wheels on a bike. Eventually, they can be ignored, but only after they've served their purpose.

I hope you'll all come back for a very special post tomorrow. Stay tuned!

Jody Hedlund said...

It's all about developing a readership! Once we have that, then we'll have more liberty. For me, that means I can write about the settings and time periods I want! :-)