The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it’s definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it honestly, and tell it as best you can. I’m not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.
July 4 sees the publication of my contrarian guide to writing craft, Drown the Cat: the Rebel Author’s Guide to Writing Beyond the Rules. The book is a direct rebuttal of the formula-driven approach taken in the Blake Snyder’s cult screenwriting book, Save the Cat! which attempts to reduce everything to a tidy, predictable, one-size-fits-all formula. A glance at the “Blake Snyder Beat Sheet” will tell you that the theme must be stated on page 5 of a script; that the catalyst occurs on page 12; that all is lost on page 75; and that the curtain comes down on page 110. “Isn’t this pure? And easy?” the author tells us.
Here’s why I wrote this book.
A Clarion West grad from ’02, I’ve been writing since the late 1990s, and branched out into editing and publishing in 2009; if you know me at all (unlikely) it’s from the Panverse all-novella anthology series which I edited and published on a shoestring in 2009-2011, with very little idea of what I was doing.
Among the stories featured in Panverse Three was Ken Liu’s searing work, “The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary”. Ken was just starting to sell at the time, but this unique and provocative novella was clearly considered too risky for every pro market out there. Since I was an unknown paying $75 a novella, I was well aware that any good story landing in my slush pile had been rejected everywhere else. I snatched it up, making both of us happy in the process, and the novella was nominated for the Nebula that year (it didn’t win, but Ken’s “The Paper Menagerie” did) [ref]Alan Smale’s terrific novella, “A Clash of Eagles” (Panverse Two), which won the Sidewise Award and went on to become an acclaimed trilogy (publ.: Del Rey), was also rejected by every pro market.[/ref].
My point in relating this anecdote is that, quite apart from its hot-button subject matter (the horrors perpetrated on Chinese prisoners by Japanese forces in the camp known as Unit 731 during the 1930s and 1940s), this core SF work with its externally-narrated documentary approach and cool examination of the rhetoric of denialism breaks a raft-load of rules and takes enormous risks.
Editors get set in their ways and don’t take well to risk. Since I wasn’t then a professional and didn’t need to see x page count as y reader dollars, I had no such inhibitions.
More to the point, editors, agents, and industry professionals are prone to forget that what readers want isn’t necessarily aligned with what the publishing industry sees as good fiction. As author, literary critic, and university professor John Gardner famously put it, “One should fight like the devil the temptation to think well of editors…. By the nature of their profession they read too much, with the result they grow jaded and cannot recognize talent though it dances in front of their eyes.”
As a writer and someone who today makes a good part of his living as a freelance editor and copyeditor, I believe the worst thing any editor can do is to forget that it’s about the reader. It’s always been about the reader, not the industry professional. And when I work on a client’s novel today, I always bear that in mind. And readers loved Ken’s novella.
Any young writer coming into SF (or any genre, or even literary writing) today will find themselves drowning in a deluge of writing books, websites, and blogs, most of which parrot the same, tired dogma to new writers desperate to publish by any means possible. Although there’s plenty of excellent advice out there, so much of it is buried among mountains of generalization, dross, and sheer nonsense that a writer just learning their craft is likely to become confused and overwhelmed or else feel straitjacketed into churning out the same cookie-cutter fiction as everyone else. It’s a sad truth that publishing industry professionals, from agents on up, and certainly Hollywood professionals, buy into the write-by-numbers approach.
Another multiple award-winning author, Aliette de Bodard, in a superb and heartfelt 2011 blog post on the prevalence of U.S. tropes in storytelling, wrote:
I’m tired of how genre(s) put(s) a disproportionate value on heroes who are active and not passive (and, by extension, belittles and dismisses every use of passive voice, and always asks for sentences to be frenetically punchy); […] I don’t want to hear about the Hero’s Journey, or the Three-Act Plot, or the Thirty-Six or Fifty-Five Basic Plots as if they were all some kinds of Holy Gospel). I want novels which can be complex and organic like life itself, and which don’t have to be neatly pigeon-holed in order to be read and enjoyed.
The best fiction defies pigeonholing and breaks “rules” all the time. For proof of this, you need only look at de Bodard’s gothic fantasy series, Dominion of the Fallen, or Ken Liu’s The Dandelion Dynasty series, or Andy Weir’s massively successful The Martian—which, not being a name, he had to of course publish as an indie after getting fed up with the rejections.
Every art, from painting to film to literature, goes in more or less generational cycles. In both literature and film, the young Turks who came into the field a few decades ago and shook things up are now the establishment. Today, the signal-boosting power of the web and the ascendancy of suits and marketing people over creative professionals in film and publishing conspire to make it very hard for newer and intermediate-level writers to see beyond the dogma and rules and take the kind of chances that the New Wave authors of the early 1960s did, or that the early punks took to upend the cozy, staid music scene of the mid-1970s. Would someone like Cordwainer Smith, Roger Zelazny, or Norman Spinrad get a publishing deal today if they showed up as an unknown?
I wrote Drown the Cat for new and intermediate writers who are sick to death of being lectured about active prose, adverb use, story beats, character change, the Hero’s Journey, and all the rest. Yes, a (very) few rules are important, and it’s wise to understand the reason that people parrot them before you throw the rulebook out. But it’s time to call BS on writing-by numbers and empower writers to tell their story, their way.
The truth is that most readers aren’t writers, agents, or editors. They’re not prose wonks. They aren’t swayed by technical mastery or compliance with the latest fashion taught in the prose madrassas. Nor do they care whether a book neatly fits into a genre, category, or reader demographic. Readers want a story, pure and simple. If you don’t believe that, then I guess J.K. Rowling, John Grisham, Dan Simmons, Jacqueline Susann, E.L. James, Robert James Waller, Dean Koontz, Ayn Rand, Dan Brown, and Isaac Asimov’s bestsellers were all just accidents. Because although some of these are good writers and others arguably mediocre, all of them have and do flout one or more of the “rules”, flagrantly and often. Their readers love them, and it has not hurt their sales one bit.
In conclusion, I think part of being a professional in any field is to always question received wisdom. Yes, you certainly should learn the protocols and conventions; but slavish adherence to other people’s dogma and assumptions not only limits your range, but also buys into what I believe is an unhealthy, timid mindset. What’s important is to tell your story in the way that best serves the reader.
Ultimately, only two things matter: to keep the reader turning the pages to the end, and leave them satisfied, feeling that their time and money was well-spent. All the rest is chaff and passing fashion.
About the Author
Dario Ciriello is a professional author and editor as well as the founder of Panverse Publishing.
His first novel, Sutherland’s Rules, a crime caper/thriller with a shimmer of the fantastic, was published in 2013. Free Verse and Other Stories, a collection of Dario’s short science fiction work, was released in June 2014.
His 2015 novel, a supernatural suspense thriller titled Black Easter, pits love against black magic and demonic possession on a remote, idyllic Greek island. Dario’s nonfiction book, Aegean Dream, the bittersweet memoir of a year spent on the small Greek island of Skópelos (the real Mamma Mia! island), was an Amazon UK bestseller for several months in 2012. Drown the Cat: the Rebel Author’s Guide to Writing Beyond the Rules (Panverse, July 4 2017) is his second nonfiction work.
In addition to writing, Dario, who lives in the Los Angeles Area, offers professional editing, copyediting, and mentoring services to indie authors. His blog is at http://dariospeaks.wordpress.com