Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Rules of Riting: Epic Fail

I love Loretta Chase. I mean, I want to build a shrine to the woman and light a candle and slaughter a goat for her. I LOVE Loretta Chase.

Loretta Chase is not a good writer though, according to the rules of writing and the fervid followers of such. Would you believe that Ms. Chase on occasion, tells and doesn't show? She starts sentences with But. (In fact, in one paragraph she did it twice and I was ready to call her publisher and ask to speak to the lazy editor who allowed that.)

Oh she can tell a wonderful story, write beautifully, create characters I'm totally invested in and make me laugh out loud in public places as I read her but she's just not a good writer. She doesn't start in the action, she allows the reader to use their imagination to fill in spots and she trusts in her reader's intelligence to believe that she'll follow along and not have to have everything spelled out.

This little rant is coming because of the writing advice that peppers the online writing community. So many writers out there who know the rules and are quick to quote what you may or may not do.

Start with the action. Show, never tell. Don't head-hop. Keep description to a minimum.

I doon't understand where these rules come from. A creative writing class I was in with Robert Ray many years ago, Mr. Ray gave rules of riting, one that included no stories allowed with only two characters in a romantic moment. I left the class never to return. His rule was ridiculous (the author in question was writing a short story about an anniversary dinner) and I knew that such arbitrary rules would never work for me.

I worry about these arbitrary rules and how they stifle writers. I happen to know a certain writer who loves description and a little head hopping and when she writes it flows. Then she says it's all wrong because rules are broken and the writer dips her head in shame and dismay.

I don't believe in rules unless you plan on breaking them.

Did I mention that I love Loretta Chase? Oh I do. She's such a rule breaker. And she does it so damned well.

(By the way, reading Not Quite A Lady right now and am LOVING it. Highly recommended.)


  1. I like to know the rules, so then I can break them. It's the rebel in me. Like a thirty something Jedi warrior fighting the evil galatic empire, in my sweats.

  2. Oh wow, totally with you on this, though not as big a fan of Chase as you are! I am also thinking of Lisa Kleypas a writer whom I totally love and would die happy if someone said one of my books was in the same league as hers. And yet talk about internal monlogues up the wazoo and intense focus all the time on feeling but on dialog, not so much. And I would say her books do not rely so much on action, as on feeling, and her plots are not that greatest. BUT I loooooooove her books. And her writing. And I laugh quietly over what I imagine a "writing teacher" would say about her literautre. Sometimes I do that for fun. And it works with the "classics" as well -start running a book through the filter of all the writing rules we have learned in the classes and from our crit partners and groups. How altered would much of the worlds great literature be with all these rules!

    I think when you are just starting out (no matter how old or young you are) people tell you the rules to help you, because what else are they gonna do? If you get as established as Chase and Kleypas, I think you have more than earned the right to make your own rules.

    Perhaps the best way to look upon this (hah! another rule!) is before publishing one is very much an apprentice -soaking up the "correct" (however this time period defines writing as "correct" ) way of doing things, just to prove to the gatekeepers (editors, agents, etc.,) that you can do it, you can be the master of the game. Then once you start selling, perhaps you have more freedom to break the mold a bit.

    Unless you don't care about selling then you have the most freedom of all.

    The rules are stifling, annoying and arbitrary, yeah. Couldn't agree with you more. But them's the rules.....

  3. Mr. Ray was into menage? 0-0

  4. Oh Carolyn, you know you shouldn't post when you're on pain pills. You also should share with your BFF.

    Mary, I'm going to disagree. The thing is that I believe some of these rules are coming into existance not because they're real rules but because they're repeated often enough that people start thinking they're true.

    When I was younger many of the best sellers were big on geneology (which I hated) but also vast descriptive scenes. I miss some of that description. I don't need to know about a mole on the heroine's inner arm but a sense of scene in rolling hills or mountains or land rich in culture is something I want to see.

    Also, head hopping is so criticized yet why? As long as it's a distinct separation and you know where you're at, why can't multiple points of view be allowed?

    I really don't get it.

  5. I agree with you to a certain extent Lori, and I adore Loretta Chase's style too. She makes me care about her characters, believe in the conflict, and keeps me turning the pages. I think I've read most of her books as all-nighters. Love 'em.

    But I don't think for one minute that she makes the style 'errors' you mention out of ignorance. I'm sure she chooses every word very deliberately. Besides, it's not like she's writing so fast that she's being careless. She's SO slow! (It's killing me waiting for her next one.)

    I think that the current batch of rules are there to make the reading experience more pleasant for the reader.

    I agree with Mary that it would be interesting to run some 'proper' literature through a modern rules filter.

    However I'm sure you'll agree that head-hopping can be really distracting to a reader.
    If I have to reread a page to work out whose head I'm in, it's pulling me out of the story - and one step closer to putting it down.

    Suzanne Brockmann uses multiple POVs in her books, and often on the same page. She manages to delineate them really well and there is never any ambiguity over whose head she is in at any time. I really admire her skill in doing that, but I don't regard that as head hopping either.

    However, if she did it in the same paragraph, THEN I'd have a problem.

    I think it all comes down to striking a balance. There is a place for 'telling' backstory and using descriptions to give the story some depth and flavour. I don't have a problem with that when it's well done.

    Having said that, taking umpteen pages to describe a sunrise makes my eyes roll back in my head. I'm afraid I'm impatient. I want to be swept along in the narrative, thank you very much.

    One final comment. We've all read some rubbish out there, eg where a bombardment of info-dumping at the beginning makes us think 'So what?', the POV shifts around so much we're confused, and the events described feel distant because the writer hasn't used strong verbs.

    Such stories are boring, and flat and well - just bad - and you'll browse away or put them right back on the shelf after one page (or less).

    I think these are the folk who should be learning 'the rules', and when they get to be as good as Loretta and Suzanne, they can think about breaking them.

    That's my two cents worth anyway.

    Thanks for an interesting topic for discussion Lori. I look forward to another one soon

  6. Do we really need to be so deeply inside someone's head?

    Magdalena had a great post on her blog re Georgette Heyer; she noted that These Old Shades was written in an almost omniscient POV. Heyer doesn't go inside the character's heads. You learn about them through action and dialogue.

    I've loved Heyer's books for years - decades. And the way she writes has never diminished my enjoyment of them. I don't mind having some distance between me and the characters (that's a complaint I often read in reviews).

    But perhaps that's the difference between a writer and a story*teller*. A well told tale will pull me in regardless of thoughts or non-thoughts.

    Perhaps I should be reading suspense where everything's a secret til the end. *grin*

  7. Yeah. I don't mind an omniscient viewpoint either. I rather like Georgette Heyer's books too.

    Sometimes I worry about the large age differences between her H/Hs, but that's got nothing to do with this.

    And I agree there can be quite a difference between a writer and a storyteller.

    I've read some books recently where the POV has been so deep and introspective that I've felt like telling the character to just get on with it!