The conversation was about the “rules.” Mr. McGrumpypants insisted that he knew what agents and editors wanted, despite having never actually landed an agent, and having only been “edited” by a very, very small press publisher who went out of business shortly thereafter, and many years later by a one-man shop “e-book publisher.” In spite of his extremely dismal sales numbers, he was quite adamant that his ability to have “sold” to a “publisher” gave him special insight that all others lacked, and if we’d only read Dwight Swain’s Techniques for the Selling Writer. we’d be enlightened and as successful as he.
The above took place on a forum in one my old haunts — an online writer’s community filled mostly with those desperate for publication. I found the same “debate” raging as when I left months before. Except it wasn’t exactly a debate, since all but one old sourpuss seemed to be in agreement.
I don’t claim to know what anyone wants. I’ve never landed an agent despite several “full manuscript requests” for Loisaida — A New York Story. I know a few people who found agents who were enthusiastic about their work, but failed to sell it to editors. So apparently even those gatekeepers don’t always know what editors want.
I should know more. I have one of those MFA’s, but I’ll tell you a dirty secret — at least back in the 1980’s when I got it, we almost never talked about publishing though we probably should have. That was at Sarah Lawrence. I’m pretty sure they were talking about publication at Columbia.
The truth is at this particular moment in publishing history, as I wrote months ago, “nobody knows anything.” Bookstores are closing, even the big chains that not so long ago devoured the independents. Some legitimately published writers like Stephen Leather are choosing Kindle to self-publish their old titles and the ones their agent couldn’t use. The success of a purely “indie” author like Amanda Hocking is a shock to the system. Yet, yesterday I read a story of a first novel being published by a major house. It read like a fairytale, and was enough of an anomaly to make it to the pages of The New York Times, but is it sign that good books will always find a way?
As a reader, I know what I like. What I like isn’t formulaic. It bends and breaks “the rules” and does so with such grace that the writer makes it look as natural as Fred Astaire’s dancing.
As a reader who’s also a writer, it gives me a thrill to see the risks great writers take in their storytelling especially around “point of view” and “backstory.” Think of One Hundred Years of Solitude, which opens with a man about to be shot by a firing squad, remembering an incident from his childhood. Then we go into the “backstory” including the lives of several characters besides the man in front of the firing squad, and we don’t get back to the firing squad for another 200 pages or so.
More recently, Jonathon Franzen, pulls off a similar trick with Freedom which starts off with a distant narrator telling a story about some neighbors who moved away long ago and were recently involved in a “scandal” which we don’t get any details about. We then go back twenty years or so to when they first moved into the neighborhood. Later we go further into the past and then up to the present with shifting points of view including a journal in which the first person narrator refers to herself in the third person. Neat trick, that. We don’t find out about the “scandal” till around the last quarter of the book.
Then there’s James Hynes, whose novel Next almost stopped my heart. It’s a close third-person tale. The story itself takes place over the span of a single day. A man travels from one city to another for a job interview. We are privy not only to what occurs in real time, but his thoughts and memories. You know the rule about avoiding “info dumps” or “too much backstory?” This is almost all “backstory” and it’s riveting. And while its ending is perfection, I can easily imagine an editor rejecting it for not being “upbeat.”
Warning: The following statements are purely the opinion of the blogger, and may not lead you to find an agent or write a bestseller. The following “advice” is meant for writers interested in honing their craft for non-commercial purposes:
I’m not advising that untested writers attempt the trickiest ways to tell a story, but I am suggesting to think more of guidelines than rules and not to be afraid to drive off road for a while. Even a failed experiment might teach you something, or yield unexpected results.
Writing guidelines can be simple and should be aimed at keeping the story moving. As Elmore Leonard helpfully suggests, “leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.” I would humbly add that most of us may need readers to tell us what those parts are, so its a good idea to have some workshop buddies, or others whose reading skills we respect, who are willing to be honest with us, and it’s a good idea for all of us to be open to critique.
This brings me back to Sarah Lawrence, and one day in a writing workshop taught by the late great Grace Paley. There was a conversation about the short-hand “rules,” like “show don’t tell,” which Paley joked she sometimes turned around. Someone brought up, “write what you know.” Paley replied that if you only wrote what you already knew, it would be boring, and then she stated the one rule that I always attempt to follow, “Write what you don’t know about what you know.”