Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Writing Anarchist- Rules and the Power of Suggestion

I suspect I will have many people disagree with the concept of this post. I welcome the disagreement, or I should say, I welcome the dialogue. Sometimes all it takes is a question or a challenge to get our juices flowing and we find that we are more passionate about a subject than we even realize. I hope that is the case with the questions I pose today.

Lately I’ve been pondering the rules and qualities that define good writing. Or more to the point, what makes one book better than another. I am reading a LOT right now, much more than usual, as I prepare to cast a somewhat informed vote for the Whitney Awards. I have heard some wonder if there are certain criteria we should all consider in judging. I’ve heard responses both for and against the use of a uniform evaluation form. Unfortunately, as yet I have come up with few conclusions but many questions.

I would like to ask a series of questions and get responses from the readers.

1- Are there certain norms and rules that fiction writing should follow to be considered worthy of accolades and general acceptance? Are these norms and rules the same today as they were twenty or fifty, one hundred or two hundred years ago? Why or why not?

2- Why do we accept certain rules and norms? Do we do it because a teacher or mentor told us we should and we want to sound smart or are there hard and fast rules about what defines quality in writing?

3- Are there generally accepted rules we question but follow in an attempt to go with the flow in appeasing the gatekeepers?

4- Does the average reader care about following the rules of grammar, punctuation and point of view or are they in it for the story and characters?

5- What is most important to assessing the quality of a book: Story, technical skill or conveyance of emotion?

6- How do we obtain the best writing education? Continual reading to discover what we like and how to emulate it? Classes that teach classic technique or writing conferences where experts and peers share their wisdom? Practice?

7- Is writing merely popular art that changes to meet the expectations of the audience? Or does the audience change as it becomes accustomed to the changes in art?

8- Which artist produced higher quality work—Picasso or Monet? Faulkner or King?

9- Are the differences between these authors and artists only stylistic or do they adhere to some different rules?

10- Are there some rules that should NEVER be broken if a writer wants to be taken seriously?

Am I a writing anarchist for questioning the value and method of how we arrive at our writing rules and norms, or am I merely an ill informed schmutz? Be honest. I can take it.

Like many readers I know what I like when I read it. I also know what I don’t like. I recently started reading a book and WOW…it is really bad. But I wonder how much of my taste is based on the rules I’ve been taught and the norms of the culture in which I live, instead of an acceptance or disapproval based on pure truth, innate quality and superior writing? Do I value what I’ve been trained to value?

In considering Whitney finalists I will suggest only one conclusion. I will vote for the books I enjoy. I will vote for the stories and characters I love and the themes and style that make me feel something. I’m not smart enough to evaluate in any other way. Am I wrong?

Please choose a question to answer. Don’t worry about being right or wrong or looking foolish. I think I’ve already established I’m the biggest fool here so just tell me what you think. Hopefully we can learn together.

FYI- I have developed a simple worksheet I use when evaluating my Enjoyment Factor of a book I am judging. Check out my Enjoyment Factor Worksheet.


Rebecca Talley said...

For me, I need to get lost in the story. The writing has to be transparent. If I stumble over sentences or a shift in the POV pulls me out or the writing seems to weigh me down, I don't enjoy it very much. I don't like the flowery language. I like to read simple, direct writing that allows me to be part of the story rather than trying to understand convoluted metaphors or fancy word use.

I think stories that are well- written flow easily and you don't have to pick out what writing technique is at work, the story just works. I want to close the book and think, "That was a great story."

I like your checklist.

JoAnn Arnold said...

I agree with your questions and Rebecca's comments.

I think many times breaking the rules makes for a great book. When we get so tangled up in rules the creative juices can simply dry up.

Steve Westover said...

Thanks Rebecca and JoAnn.

I agree. Once the writing distracts us from the story it is difficult to focus on anything else. But are we sometimes annoyed or distracted with something because we are taught that we should be?

How do we know that the rule we are basing our annoyance on truly is important to quality writing?

Rebecca Talley said...

I think it's an innate feeling as to whether the story works or not. We may not be able to pinpoint why it does or does not work if we aren't knowledgeable in that area, but a gut feeling can tell us if there's something off or not. As we learn more about craft, it's easier to point out the wekanesses or strengths, but even without that I think we can just "know" if the story works.

Mary L Walling said...

I am not a writer, but I am a reader and I know what I like. I think that a writer should write from the heart...write what they feel. If they need a set of rules in order to write a book, okay. I have read some books that I knew were from the heart and the message came through loud and clear. They were emotional and heart felt. I have read others that after the first chapter, I put them down and have never finished them. My vote is to please write what you feel.

Rebecca said...

I completely agree with Rebecca Talley. It's interesting, and I am not an expert by any means, but after I started learning the "rules" of writing I was able to give voice to what bothered me about books I read. Before, I felt something was "off" about parts of stories but couldn't define them--and I didn't grow up with a formal education.

To answer your question about how to learn to write, from reading, conferences or other sources, I'd say the answer is yes. All of these things.

I've read voraciously since I was a child, and never learned any of these rules when I was young, yet I had definite preferences for what I would term "good writing" because I'd read enough to recognize it. Good writing speaks to me. It makes me feel like I'm there with the character, and touches my emotions. Good writing is where I'm immersed in the story and feel like I'm right there with the character, that I care about the character. Good writing means I don't trip over sentences or flowery terms and get pulled out of the book. I prefer simple language that evokes strong emotion and is to the point. Flowery is not always better, and can detract. A great example of simple, evocative writing are the Shondra Covington books by J. Scott Savage.

I believe that it's VERY important to have proper spelling and grammar in books. We absorb what we read, and in my opinion, the least we can do is make sure we're using the English language appropriately. Most of what I learned about sentence structure and spelling was absorbed from reading. I don't do it correctly all the time, but I can generally go by "what feels right", which I got from good writing examples.

Annette Lyon wrote a simple, understandable grammar book that is great. We don't have to take English courses to get a basic understanding of grammar.

I've seen a lot of people advise that to be a great writer, we _must_ be readers. I also learned from a writers conference some mistakes I was making, and after seeing the explanation I felt as if the fog had lifted and I was seeing a new world for the first time. The understanding of "why" those particular rules are traditionally applied made so much sense and have made my writing a lot better. Now if I choose to break a particular rule I understand, I have the knowledge to know why and how to do it. I guess you could compare it to the gospel--rules aren't there to hold us back, but like a kite string, to hold us up so we can fly. (Though unlike gospel rules, we can break writing ones!)

I've also learned a lot from my critique partners, from writing blogs and other sources.

I would compare knowledge of literary rules to someone who knows how to cook. A person with complete knowledge of a recipe would feel free to try different spices and amounts of salt, etc, to achieve a different flavor. Now, there will be people who like that flavor and people who won't, but since the chef knows how to move ingredients around, it will appeal to some people. Contrast that with someone who has trouble with a baking mix. If they tried to move ingredients around or substitute spices, their chance of having something edible isn't as good as someone who has studied their craft--either in a professional school, or through informal research and plenty of trial and error.

The same can be applied to writers.

Rebecca said...

Whew! Sorry for the book!

I would also add, that in order to find the flavors and textures we'd like in our book "recipes", we need to sample a lot of other dishes--or in other words, read a lot!

Steve Westover said...

Mary and Rebecca B.,

Thanks for the comments and insight.

I'm reminded of a response Michelangelo gave when asked how he created the David so perfectly.

He said (I paraphrase from memory :>() I merely chipped away every piece that wasn't David.

I appreciate simplicity and an artist that doesn't try to draw attention to himself but rather let the work define itsself.

He utilized his talent but didn't credit rules of technique that he utilized. The end product is what mattered.

I enjoy all these comments. Personally I am a "rules" kind of guy. I color in the lines, think inside the box and follow the book (and every other metaphore for rigid compliance).

This is fun. Keep it coming.

Rebecca said...

Your mention of Michelanglo is perfect. He studied under the masters of painting and sculpture of his age, and internalized what he learned. Those things became a part of him and meshed with his rare talent to create one of the most celebrated artists of all time. He had refined his craft so much that he didn't have to define how he did it--in fact, he probably could not have dissected his approach. It was as simple for him as seeing what was there and finding it. He created works that were solely, uniquely his.

Awesome example!

Michael Knudsen said...

Steve, talk about your can of worms. I wish I had time to go through and address all of your questions. The bottom line for me is the enjoyment factor, just like you said. In order for the story to truly "transport" me (or the majority of readers), the author must have technical skill and a great story, or I'll be pulled out of it.

As far as judging for the Whitneys, I hope they don't ever come up with a "checklist" or requirements. Let's keep fiction freestyle. The quality of the judging will be reflected by the quality of the writing. As long as LDS writers are determined to improve with each project, the quality of LDS fiction will only go up. Not just what gets published nationally, but what gets sold by DB and Seagull. I think it's best if we just keep going with our "gut" feeling about novels!

Stephanie Black said...

First of all, I don't think you're wrong at all in your criteria for judging the Whitneys. I think every judge will have his/her own style of judging. One judge might approach it with a rubric where he rates each book in different areas; another might go with a gut feeling--"I simply felt this was the best book in the category." I think it's absolutely fine that we judge in different ways.

I'll take question 4: I think the average reader might not know that he/she cares about grammar, punctuation and POV, but if the grammar is a mess and the punctuation wrong, it's going to jar her out of the story. Same with POV--a reader might not say, wow, I loved how JK Rowling stayed in Harry's head and didn't head hop--she'll just know that the book was a powerful experience and she identified closely with Harry. When we use writing tools well, the reader may not recognize what we're doing--but that doesn't mean she doesn't feel the effects of what we're doing.

Yes, I do think fiction writing norms change somewhat over the years. Styles change. I think reading regularly is important to staying fresh and informed as an author.

Great blog, Steve. You could take each of these questions and do a blog series!

Steve Westover said...

Michael, Yes- a can of worms can be fun sometimes.

Stephanie, Thanks for your comments. Excellent example. Most readers would not recognize proper use of POV as a positive contributing factor to feeling a closeness with the characters, but you are absolutely right.

Jonathan Langford said...

I'm a writing relativist. That doesn't mean that I think there's no such thing as standards of good writing, but rather that I think they're all (or almost all) relative to (a) your purpose in writing, and (b) your audience.

One of the things I've found in reviewing reactions to my own work and that of others is just how wide a range of disagreement there can be about really fundamental things -- things one reader considers a plus while another reader considers a minus. That's partly because each of us comes to stories for something different -- and because each of us processes a text in his or her own way. I'm reminded of the comment by J.R.R. Tolkien: "I find from the letters that I have received that the passages or chapters that are to some a blemish are all by others specially approved."

For 25 years, I've been a professional editor (mostly of nonfiction). As an editor, it's my job to make things work better and fit the readers' expectations. That includes imposing a standard style and internal consistency. It's made me realize that the "rules" are often arbitrary. Their value is primarily to keep the reader from stumbling over the language. Anything that pulls the reader out of the experience is the enemy -- for certain types of writing. For other kinds of writing, such as lyric poetry (and the writing of people like Patricia McKillip), drawing attention to the language is part of accomplishing the goal. You just can't generalize.

Rules of writing? I don't think there are any. There are things that work and things that don't, when used in the context of a specific work. And even then different readers will disagree about it.

Jonathan Langford said...

An additional comment (sorry, this is the price you pay for asking interesting questions):

Typically, I find that writing "rules" are the products of people who know one kind of writing very well. Those people are very good to learn from -- if the kind of writing you want to create is the kind they do. On the other hand, it can be disastrous if you try to take the advice of someone whose chosen approach to writing is different from yours.

This is one reason why it's so important to get readers who are (a) part of your target audience, and (b) have a basic sympathy with your story. This can get tricky. Sometimes it's too easy to tell yourself, "Well, he/she just isn't part of my audience." On the other hand, changing your story to win the approval of readers or critics who aren't likely to enjoy it anyway is a futile endeavor, like Ahab's endless quest. At best, you'll fail. At worst, you'll wind up with a story that even you don't like.

That said, practically speaking there's always, I find, a lot that can be done to make a story better. Much of it has to do with basic things like point of view, clarity in writing (including cleaning up grammar and spelling problems), pacing, internal consistency, and logical character development.

"Rules" of good writing are mostly efficient ways of summarizing some of these lessons. As such, they can be very useful -- so long as we realize that following the rules isn't what makes a story good.

Steve Westover said...

Jonathan, thank you for the excellent comments and insight