Where Have All The Rules Gone?

1201161657Remember the good old days when strict gatekeepers had total control over what got published? It wasn’t all that long ago, when you think about it. Some of us still have scars from trying to crash those gates. Getting slapped down by relentless rejection was bad enough, but what about all the rules that these guardians of literature enforced? If we were fortunate enough to get replies from them at all, we’d receive a dressing down about all the strictures we had violated in our pitiful attempts to write. We would not merit a second glance, much less true consideration, until we mastered the various commandments they had set up to keep the barriers in place.

There were various telltale signs, the gatekeepers said, that pegged you as an amateur. One of these was overuse of adjectives and adverbs. Well, maybe the occasional odd adjective could be allowed, they conceded, but adverbs were strictly verboten. Likewise, if a character said something, he or she could only say it. No declaring or exclaiming or expostulating. And no exclamation points, ever! Above all, we must avoid overwriting and exposition, two deadly sins that went hand in hand. But even the masters do that, I might protest. What about John Updike with his multiple metaphors, and Pat Conroy with his lush descriptions? But those are famous guys, I was told. They get to play by their own rules, or none at all. Someone without a name had to grab the reader’s attention on the first page, if not the first sentence, since even in those pre-social media days, there were distractions at every turn to keep people from reading. In fact, the average attention span was so minuscule that if a prospective reader didn’t get instantly hooked, he couldn’t be blamed for turning on the TV rather than proceeding to page two.

Prior to the advent of self-publishing, when it seemed next to impossible for a beginner to publish a novel, I tried my hand at a few short stories. It proved equally difficult to penetrate any but the most amateur story markets, the type that paid in copies of the magazine. I decided the only way to get beyond the endless “not suitable for us, but good luck” responses was to pay for advice from a reputable source. I sent several stories to a critique service run by the editor of a well-regarded literary magazine. She tore them to shreds, although not without offering tidbits of encouragement here and there. She offered to go on working with me, since I showed a hint of promise. I didn’t take her up on that offer, since I soon gave up trying to write stories and instead decided to work on novels, which would at least offer a greater reward if successful. My critique contact likewise gave up criticizing stories, saying she was inundated with too many bad ones. She, too, decided to concentrate on longer manuscripts.

I recently reread one of the stories I submitted to this service. It was called “Cheryl’s Lunch Hour,” and was based on what I thought was a clever, if somewhat implausible plot twist. It centers on a Federal government secretary in her mid-twenties, who is mentoring her sister, twenty-year-old Rosie, a gifted dancer. Both girls live with their parents, who are fairly unimaginative about the sisters’ goals. Cheryl frequently uses her lunch hour to take an arduous trip from her Washington office to the Maryland suburbs to watch Rosie rehearse for an upcoming small theater production. She believes in her sister, although she is embittered by her comparatively boring job and a jealous streak she can’t quite suppress, since she once had theatrical aspirations herself.

One day, Cheryl runs into a talent scout outside the theater who mistakes her for her sister. For a fleeting minute or two, Cheryl wonders if she can utilize this instance of mistaken identity for her benefit. Maybe if she dieted and practiced, she could dance again herself, with perhaps less skill but with a depth of maturity that her sister does not yet possess. Her head explodes with dreams. Could she possibly carry off this deception? By the time she gets back to her job (which she had had dreams of quitting on the spot), she’s shaken off the fantasy and resumes her main chore of typing spreadsheets.

No doubt I put both the story and the critique aside for many years because the criticism was harsh. Was my critic too enamored with little rules? Perhaps, as she jumped on every instance of sentences close together that repeated common words and phrases such as “she,” “the,” “it is,” and “there was.” She pointed out the redundancy of sentences such as “She scolded loudly.” She denounced as a cliche the opening device I used of the main character waking up in the morning with yesterday’s problems swirling through her head.

I violated plenty of bigger rules as well. I was scolded for having no hint of the central story problem on page one. In my critic’s judgment, the story lacked a sympathetic viewpoint character, since “Cheryl is jealous of her sister, yet wants to use her to feel good about herself.” But she’s not a total bitch, I protested, just discontent with her life and understandably envious of her talented, younger sister. Is she any less sympathetic than the pedestrian parents or the arrogant, oblivious Rosie? It seemed the critic found all of them pretty despicable, except perhaps the superior at Cheryl’s office who has agreed numerous times to cover for her during her prolonged lunch hours. Even he has an ulterior motive … to start a relationship with her. “Central characters and villains shouldn’t be all good or all bad,” my critic lectured, rather obviously. Additionally, what I considered the clever trick of the tale, the case of mistaken identity, was judged to be unrealistic. Maybe so, I thought, but for crying out loud, it’s fiction.

It got worse. Most painful of all was the critic’s judgment that the prose tended to be “unnatural in both narration and dialogue.” My heroine was in the habit of delivering long monologues. For example, she sarcastically describes her State Department job to her father, a higher-up in the department: “You may think all I do is type operating budgets for the Weapons Evaluation Division. But I have the secret knowledge that keeps the operation going. Nobody else in that office knows how to set up charts on the computer. You think it’s easy getting those huge numbers to fall into neat columns? If I were to quit today, I don’t know what you administrators at Main State would do without your nifty charts. And if you didn’t have those numbers always at hand to feed to the negotiators, what would they bargain with? That might be the end of any hopes for world peace in our time!”

Have I gotten better at this stuff over the years? I knew even then that my critic made excellent points. It was kind of her, after all that, to find a shred of hope for me as a writer. Nowadays, I choose to look on the bright side. If I cringe at my earlier efforts, it must mean I’ve improved, at least a little.


21 thoughts on “Where Have All The Rules Gone?

  1. The gatekeepers on this side of the pond seem equally determined to promote the rules so readily disregarded by their commercially successful authors. Thanks for another fascinating post and best wishes from the UK.

  2. My wife is fond of saying that ‘rules are for fools’. I am happy to follow any injunction that makes sense but reserve the right to break any rule that my own artistic or manic sensibility rejects. I bet you see that violation of the period outside the quotation mark above; it’s a thing I have that just seems to make sense to me. Got into many a fight with my professors over that little bit of nonsense.

  3. What a great post. I am feeling all of that in the work I only just published a few months ago with some friends. It wasn’t ready. I published (all self) a romance last month and I could see I had grown but there are always things to make better. When your post arrived I was in the middle of writing a post for my blog on a similar topic (about improvements).
    Its not about the rules, its about our ability to know the rules and work from that. I am sure me playing ball at this age might be easier than what I am doing but I love the challenge, and love the people I am meeting..
    Enjoy reading your posts every time.

  4. Ha! Sounds like she didn’t get your character’s personality. Rules are good. It’s when they hinder your characters from really shining through that you have to break them, I think. My characters are all pretty cliche. But it’s also what makes them interesting. Then again, I write graphic novels. You have to get straight to the point when writing a comic. I don’t think I’d personally like any of my characters if I’d met them in real life. lol. But I suppose it helps if you make them sympathetic on some level.

    1. I get the same criticism constantly–that my characters aren’t very likeable, and therefore the reader doesn’t really care what happens to them. I thought they were just normal people! Neither heroes nor villains.

  5. This is a really interesting perspective, and one it’s important to get out there. Having worked in the publishing industry, I can attest to the fact that many of us are ‘cyncial’ about first time writers, so I cringed when reading your account. But good for you for using that criticism and turning it into something positive!

  6. I remember those days! I used to read writers digest and get this feeling in the pit of my stomach, one of complete hopelessness. There were too many writers, I would never make the cut… needless to say I’m very thankful for the boom in self-publishing, esp. since it means I can write whatever I want (every publishers has list of no no’s, I sometimes, rather unintentionally manage to break one).


  7. The rules are still there and, as you’ve found out, become easier over time. Practice and critique are the only ways we ever get good at anything – from throwing a football to writing a novel. Eventually, the rules (aka, the things that make a good reader experience) become second nature. After that, breaking them is perfectly acceptable, as long as it’s on purpose and for a good reason.
    When people come to my class, I always explain how passive voice, weak verbs, repeated words and phrases, etc. affect the reader, because that’s the most important thing. I’ve never been one to listen to people who say, “Those are the rules and that’s just the way it is.” I’m an annoying ‘why… why… why…?’ person. My poor mother sighed and rolled her eyes a lot when I was a child.
    With practice, you can use some of the no-no’s on purpose to manipulate the reader by slowing the story down, hinting at an unreliable narrator, all kinds of things.
    I applaud you for a) the plot for the story you mentioned sounds compelling (have you rewritten it?) and b) in the long run, you didn’t confuse ‘critique’ with ‘criticism’ and let it stop you from writing.

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