Creative Writing Rules: An Oxymoron?

Handwriting, boredom

photo: David Hall, creative commons license

A friend of mine (two friends, in fact) complained to me about a “mystery writing” class they were taking. It turned out to be a critique group of inexperienced writers and no formal instruction. Then, coincidentally, I met the course instructor of heard his rationale for this approach. He believes there aren’t rules for writing and that creative people violate the supposed “rules” all the time.

This puts him on the same page as Somerset Maugham who famously said, “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”

That viewpoint, of course, negates the huge number of useful guidelines that authors and editors—sometimes out of frustration or even desperation—have compiled. While established authors may have internalized them, they are especially useful for writers starting out. The most useful to me currently is Donald Maass’s The Emotional Craft of Fiction, packed with rich examples.

In the blog Criminal Minds last month, mystery/crime writers talked about the usefulness (or not) of online sites offering writing advice. Author Paul D Marks wrote, “The thing with all advice is to take it with a grain of salt,” which would seem to support the class instructor’s point of view, except that Marks follows it up with “First, learn the rules—you need to know them before you can break them.” In other words, budding writers have to start somewhere, and that’s what the instructor’s students seemed to be missing.

The very number of sources for writing advice can be a problem in itself. New writers need some means for separating the wheat from the chaff, the good advice from the irrelevant, the workable idea from the dead end. They need to be able to separate writing advice (structure, characterization, motivation) from editing advice (redundancies, overwriting, flaccid verbs). In their first draft, they need the former. In all the subsequent drafts, they need both. (Here I’ll share a list of powerful editing tips from Repo Kempt. If only I could get its full benefits by tearing it into tiny pieces and eating it.)

Ultimately, the panel of bloggers seemed to agree, the first key to good writing is lots of reading—reading in the genre the author wants to write in, seeing what works and what doesn’t. If they are reading some of the better advice columns and books along the way, they’ll be a bit more critical (in a good way) when they read. If a particular plot or characterization or passage of dialog really works, or falls flat as roadkill, they can take a moment to figure out why then look for a place in their own writing to use that insight or avoid that same carnage.

Novelist and creative writing professor Colum McCann wrote a fine essay of encouragement for aspiring novelists earlier this year, drawing from his recent book. He acknowledges the instructor’s “rules are there to be broken” mantra yet provides enough orientation to the craft that a would-be writer is not snow-blinded by the blank page.

Why Crime/Thriller/Mystery Novels Fall Short

reading, book

photo: Kamil Porembiński, creative commons license

Over the past 21 months, I’ve read and reviewed 62 crime novels and thrillers for crimefictionlover.com. While a number of them rise to greatness and many effectively get the job done, a surprising number were not ready for prime time, and a tiny number should have gone straight to the landfill. Many works fall short because author s believe their book is “done,” and it isn’t. Too often, I find myself saying, “Damn!—With a little more effort, this could have been soooo good.”

As a writer myself, I take into consideration the author’s hopes and effort, knowing it’s hard to see the flaws in one’s own children. That’s what editors are for. Yet, the acknowledgements pages of poor books often heap extravagant praise on their editors, whom I envision curled up under their desks, weeping. Authorial intentions aside, my primary obligation is to potential readers. Will readers’ limited reading time be well invested if they pick up this particular book?

The common problems in crime/thriller books I’ve read recently fit into two overlapping categories: pitfalls in thinking (mostly related to plot and character), listed below, and pitfalls in writing. Thinking and writing problems are mutually reinforcing, since poor writing makes poor thinking more obvious. For those who respond to examples, I’ve included a few from “actual books.”

Thinking Pitfalls

  • Using increasingly gruesome torture and death methods (or a surfeit of comely young women/child victims) in the hope of sustaining reader interest. Bloodletting is easy; creating complex, unique, and engaging characters with grounded, understandable motivations is hard.
  • Mechanical problems—Where and when did stuff happen? Chris Roerden calls lack of clarity about the story timeline “crazy time,” and it drives readers crazy.
  • Galloping unreality—Example: after a big-city police chief spoke at a news conference, “several reporters broke into a round of applause.” Not any journalists I know. Another: two undercover CIA agents are scouting a computer research lab on a busy Chinese university campus. “‘That’s the building the lab’s in,’ XX said, pointing.” Pointing? And I don’t know how many times a bad guy has used a chloroform-soaked cloth to disable a victim, when a single moment of fact-checking would reveal this doesn’t work!
  • Technological non-fixes—Either using technology when it’s not needed just to sound cool, using it wrong (weapons, especially), or not using it at all–say, not picking up the phone to ask a simple question that would solve everything.
  • Lack of engagement—Some authors just want to sell books, often choosing the method describe in the first bullet, not provide the reader with a deeper, emotionally engaging experience. Crime/thrillers often appeal to the head, but the best ones capture the heart too. “When a plot resolves, readers are satisfied, but what they remember of a novel is what they felt while reading it,” says Donald Maass.
  • Cheesy theorizing—When characters come up with premature but enthusiastically adopted explanations of what happened or whodunnit, readers know they are being misled.
  • Failure to answer all the plot questions—Did the author just forget a main character’s spouse mysteriously committed suicide? Did he forget the police psychologist dropped the case’s murder book on a city street? For that matter, why was he carrying it out of the office anyway? Big questions need answers.

Further Reading for Authors

Finding Your Story

Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn, banned books

(photo: wikipedia.org)

Whether you think of yourself as a plot-driven author, a character-driven writer, or one who relies on creating a compelling situation, stuff has to happen on your pages or readers will stop turning them. Stuff that truly tests your characters.

In an excellent recent online essay about plot, novelist and former literary agent Barbara Rogan cites Mark Twain’s advice: “The writer’s job is to chase characters up a tree and throw rocks at them.” Think Huck Finn and Jim on the raft. In other words, keep the problems coming. Readers want to see characters succeed, fail, change, and grow, but, she says, “Characters cannot rise to a challenge that never comes.” I would append this thought “and overcoming a wildly unrealistic challenge doesn’t work, either.” It’s the author’s victory, not the character’s.” Some thrillers cross that line.

Maybe an author starts with an exciting, possibly (fingers crossed) film-worthy opening scene. That and its aftermath are dealt with, then there’s a slog to the skating-on-the-edge-of-disaster conclusion. What happened in the middle? Not enough, very likely. A saggy middle is the bane of new authors and people over 40 alike. Says Donald Maass, another widely respected literary agent and author, “For virtually all novelists, the challenge is to push farther, go deeper, and get mean and nasty.” Plot-driven novelists do it with incident, character-driven ones by ramping up internal conflict. Stephen King doesn’t rely on plot at all. He starts with a situation, a predicament, and then watches his character “try to work themselves free.”

Tellingly, King says, “my job isn’t to try to help them” free themselves, but to observe them and write it down. That’s such an important point. You can’t go easy on your characters, however attached you are to them. Rogan says when authors “smooth the way for their protagonists”—making clues come too easily or difficulties to easily overcome, giving them a midtown Manhattan parking place just when they need it (!), authors are behaving like “benevolent gods”—a trap my own writing sometimes falls into. I like my characters, even some of the baddies; but I cannot be their mum. What characters learn, they must learn at a cost in physical or emotional pain—preferably both. That makes readers care about them.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Jonathan Safran FoerExtremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Jonathan Safran Foer

Thomas Horn as Oskar Schell

In Jonathan Safran Foer’s 2005 novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close the protagonist, precocious nine-year-old Oskar Schell, has a mysterious key belonging to his dead father, and he want to find the lock it will open. He believes someone named Black knows what lock that is. Lots of people in the New York City phone book are named Black, and Oskar visits them all. If the key had belonged to Aaron Black, this would have been a short story.

As in real life, Oskar and other successful fictional characters have to work hard to find their answers. As do the writers who create them.