RULES ABOUT WRITING RULES FOR WRITERS

Do I really have to write a post in response to “Jonathan Franzen’s 10 Rules for Novelists”? Does that need to be critiqued again? Am I required to jump all over him like a lot of the Internet has already done in the past week or so?

Let’s answer all those questions with no, then, taken in order: …but I’m going to anyway; …so I won’t critique it but will try to add and/or clarify as best I can, not being Jonathan Franzen, myself; and …I guess I sorta did already, responding to some tweets from Chuck Wendig then feeling bad about it after seeing some more tweets from Joe McDermott.

I’ll come at Franzen’s rules from a place of love. If you haven’t read them, they can be found at Lit Hub. G’head and read through them if you haven’t already then come back.

Many, if not most of the responses to this I saw online fell back on the idea that there are no rules for fiction—or any creative endeavor—and anyone who tries to impose any rules on anyone in any context is terrible and should be shamed into silence. A few people were just kinda having a laugh about it. And some people picked through and did what I think we should all do, which is take them in the spirit in which they were offered, either in response to a direct question or as an effort to help, and, y’know… just try not to be pricks about it.

And as for that first group, those who feel there are not now nor shall there ever be rules for novelists, I both agree and disagree with you. After all, working through a similar list of “commandments” from novelist Henry Miller, I offered my own list of rules. Here they are again:

PHIL’S TEN COMMANDMENTS OF WRITING (AFTER HENRY MILLER)

  1. Work on one novel at a time until finished, while also writing the occasional poem, short story, article, and weekly blog post.
  2. Start on your next novel only when you feel you’re done with your last novel, and take a break from the new novel only to revise that last novel according to editorial advice or flash of inspiration, then get back to the new novel as soon as you can.
  3. Write in ecstasy, edit with intent.
  4. Work according to the best program of your own devising, built honestly and sincerely around the realities of your individual life, which can and should—even must—include writing.
  5. Write something… anything… but write!
  6. Clean up yesterday’s writing then write the next section, which you’ll clean up tomorrow before adding tomorrow’s new text. Do no further revision until the rough draft is done.
  7. Keep human! Interact with other humans everyday, in whatever way you can, and from time to time, take a full week off.
  8. Rejoice in the act of writing itself.
  9. Give yourself a break and realize that sometimes you have to set aside the project at hand, but you can, and will, come back to it as soon as possible.
  10. Write the book you care the most about—the story that speaks to you, that won’t let you sleep at night, that won’t go away.

 

Mine are based on Miller’s, meant as a direct response to that list. But at the same time I think you’ll see me working reasonably hard to walk back from the strict interpretation of the word “commandment.” I try not to engage in “you always have to…” or “you can never…” when talking about creative writing. Maybe the problem started for Mr. Franzen with that word: rules.

“Commandments,” to me, anyway, from both myself and Henry Miller, felt hyperbolic enough that it came with an implied sense of the ridiculousness of applying a strict set of rules to a creative endeavor, much less a creative life. If that article had been called “Jonathan Franzen’s 10 Pieces of Advice for Novelists,” I’d like to think he would have seen less pushback. In fact, that’s really the way I read them—at least the second time.

I think, also, that trouble came from his lack of context or further explanation, so we’re left to puzzle through what he actually means by “Fiction that isn’t an author’s personal adventure into the frightening or the unknown isn’t worth writing for anything but money.” That can be read as all fiction that isn’t “frightening” (horror?) is bad, but I’m sure that’s not what he meant. Is he talking about something like I wrote about in terms of sometimes having to peer into your darkest corners? What does “You have to love before you can be relentless” have to do with writing a novel? I honestly don’t understand.

I’d like to find a few that I agree with, or that, at least, I can interpret as something helpful—and that’s much, much more important than any otherwise unknown intent on the part of Jonathan Franzen. Take this list not as some author whose books you may or may not have read or may or may not have liked demanding that you write only a certain sort of book in a certain sort of way—I honestly don’t see that there anyway—but as free-floating ideas that you can play with on your own, bending, stretching, or discarding as you see fit.

And by the way, you don’t need me to give you permission to do that, any more than you need Jonathan Franzen to tell you when, exactly, to use “first-person voice.” And anyway, in that rule (#4) he’s pretty much saying: third person unless you want it to be first person in which case, first person, which is easy enough to take as: think for yourself, but do things in your writing as a result of thinking not just because you think you’re supposed to or because someone told you you’re not supposed to so here comes that second person future tense epic fantasy novel!

See how I twisted that around to serve my own purposes? Like that.

So then here’s one I think he got right:

The most purely autobiographical fiction requires pure invention. Nobody ever wrote a more autobiographical story than The Metamorphosis.

Everything you write, including fiction, and including genre fiction, is inherently autobiographical because you are the only person you know, for sure, how to be. Your emotions are the only emotions you are absolutely qualified to experience. Everything else, everyone else, you have to observe, interpret, and invent. Whether or not this constitutes a rule, per se, I’m not sure. I think it ends up being true—it’s a default position with which I agree, but if it serves as advice it’s to remind you to be yourself and not think you have to provide some kind of literal transcript of a character’s life.

I think?

Now I’m actually getting confused.

What if I just boiled it down to…

I agree with 1, 4, 6, and 8.

I disagree with 3.

I’m not sure I understand 2, 5, 7, 9, or 10.

Whatever. Your list might be completely different.

Look, rules are good for grammar, punctuation, spelling, and usage. Learn those rules and break them as you wish, but on purpose, not because you just don’t know. Other “rules” or “commandments” from anyone, including me, should be taken as suggestions, as inspiration, as food for thought, and so on. Don’t fall into lockstep, but also don’t shit on them. We’re just trying to help as best we can.

 

 

—Philip Athans

 

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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2 Responses to RULES ABOUT WRITING RULES FOR WRITERS

  1. Amanda Niehaus-Hard says:

    I’ve been thinking about this post for a while now, and looking back over the various “rules” I learned in my MFA program, from online classes, and from discussions with other writers. I think, of your rules, number 10 intrigued me the most. Stephen King once said that the best ideas are the ones that won’t let you alone. They pick at you and bug you. They keep you awake at night until you finally agree to work through them in writing. Personally, I’ve found that the pieces that I’m most proud of are the ones that did exactly that. They bothered me until I wrote them, and then once I wrote them, I was happy with how I was able to articulate that nagging persistence the idea had over me.

    Regarding Franzen, I do think the lack of context makes his “rules” a little confusing, but I think your assessment of his number 2 – fiction being a personal adventure into the frightening – is spot on. I read your other blog post and I agree that “going THERE” is what makes so much great fiction (horror and other) really resonate with us. We’re all human and for the most part we share the same deep-seated fears about ourselves and the world around us. I’ve read a few short story collections this year that really “went there” and I was almost overwhelmed by the impact they had on me.
    His advice to use third person makes sense to me, at least until the novice writer has a handle on voice and narration. I do think that sometimes novice writers (or novice literary critics) have trouble separating themselves from the “I” point of view in first-person stories. Instead of speaking in the character’s voice, they end up speaking as themselves and the character falls flat. But I think I would position this as “guidance” rather than some kind of rule, and I do believe most writers sort of grow out of that habit as they progress.

    Number 5 I suppose is Franzen’s way of warning against spending too much time world-building? I don’t quite understand that one either. Moby Dick is still one of my favorite novels – not in spite of, but BECAUSE of all the wonderful description of an industry I’ll never experience. Yes, I can Google Appalachian and southern culture, but reading Tom Franklin’s descriptions are infinitely more interesting, at least to me.

    His number 6 I believe is in response to a plethora of thinly-veiled memoir that certain kinds of writers tend to produce. (I say this, knowing I myself produced a ton of this during my grad school years.) In workshop settings, there is always an author who, when provided with critique, will respond with “but it didn’t happen that way!” (Yes, Janice. But life isn’t fiction and story isn’t the chronology of events as you remember them.)

    Although number 4 needs to be repeated over and over again for some of us – (Do what works for YOU!) — what I most enjoyed about this post is your “rule” number 8. Rejoice in the act of writing. So many times I see posts on social media where people are complaining about the amount of writing they “had” to do that day, or hating on how much they hate writing – and I wonder what these people are getting wrong. I LOVE the act of writing. I certainly rejoice in every word I put on the page. It thrills me to no end to know that I can actually craft stories that amuse not only me, but sometimes other people as well. I like to know that I can self-express with language.

    Anyway, I enjoyed this post and I’m grateful for your blog. Thanks for being one of the top go-to sites for authors, and thank you for sharing your knowledge and perspective!

    • Philip Athans says:

      Thank you, Amanda, for such a thoughtful response! If all these lists of rules end up folding back into one point and that’s to write with passion and sincerity that thing (novel, short story, graphic novel, poem, play… etc.) that moves you most, and do that (as Jane Yolen suggests) with JOY, then I’m happy to follow that rule and spread it far and wide.

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