From the controversial Strunk & White to Donald Maass’s helpful The Breakout Novelist, guidebooks on writing bulge from my bookshelves. Used little now, these books once loomed over me with the authority of tribal elders. I would careen from one absolute rule to another as if they had proceeded from a cloud on Sinai. “Never use the fact that!” shouted Strunk. “Never use whisper unless a word starts with ‘s’!” shrieked another.
“Always map out your book with flashcards!”
“Don’t write in the first person unless you can explain how the narrator’s speaking to the audience! A letter, an interview? Which is it?”
Back and forth, like a maniac pinball, my writing morphed to fit the eccentricities that these gurus handed down as law. My work benefitted from exposure to a variety of writing tastes, but I still don’t believe growing writers will take as much fruitful advice from experts who think splitting an infinitive is a crime equal to splitting a baby.
Particularly bad was one much-praised book by two professional editors. “I make my students read it every year!” a professor raved on the cover blurb. Inside, the editors used excerpts from published contemporary novels as examples of what not to do. This trick seemed tremendously rude to the authors whose work was found wanting.
One of the rules in this book was so unlikely that I remember it today: never use a dependent –ing clause. In other words, “Thanks,” he said, hanging up the phone is blasphemy. It should be “Thanks,” he said, and hung up the phone. The former example is inferior schlock, while the latter is pure Shakespeare. That’s because, according to these editors, the –ing clause tells the reader that the saying and the hanging are happening simultaneously.
Ye gods! I thought when I read this. My work is BAD! Just as I girded my pen for a slaughter-fest in my latest manuscript, I had a dopey epiphany: Every single writer in English, all of them that I have ever read, writes this way. Even the important dead guys like Hemingway and Faulkner and Melville used this easily understood convention. If they violated this supposed rule, then why was I letting it scare me into submission?
The answer is as simple as writing is complicated: There is no Ten Commandments for the written word. Sure, you might think of some general ideas such as, “One must write something in order to publish something” or “One writes best when he writes what he loves, not what other people think he should.” But these are more like principles, laws of the literary universe plain to everyone. They don’t trespass on the right of an author to define his or her own rules.
I will now be a hypocrite and state the One Great Rule of Story—No one can say what is truly right or wrong when it comes to fiction. No checklists can change that, no classroom rants or style guides. Not even advice from famed authors can. Last year, Julian Tepper, a young author/waiter, proudly handed a copy of his first novel to Philip Roth as he served him in a deli. The Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winner told the young man he should give up writing because it is “an awful field. Just torture…I would say just stop now.”
Have I shaken your faith in these self-appointed golden calves yet? That, like the rest of your writing life, is for you to decide.
And click here for Julian Tepper’s funny story of that Philip Roth encounter.
Anthony Otten has published stories in The Jabberwock Review, Valparaiso Fiction Review, and Wind. He has been a finalist for the Hargrove Editors' Prize in Fiction. Still: The Journal has published an excerpt from his novel. He lives in Kentucky.
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