Monday, August 30, 2010

The paradox that is writing commercial fiction

An agent I met at this summer’s Antioch Writers Workshop, who was gracious enough to request a full copy of my work in progress, Ties that Bind (now posted on Scribd, if anyone is interested) has responded. Not, as she so perceptively noted, with what I wanted to hear necessarily, but with much of what I needed to hear. I’ve spent the past two days since her email mentally defending my work, railing (again, still!) against the inconsistencies in the ‘rules’ of writing. Rather than re-engaging that battle too strenuously, I’ll quote an earlier post from 043010:

“The most difficult part of all this learning-the-craft process is that as soon as I think I’ve got a handle on the rules, occasionally breaking them judiciously only to get slapped down for it, I pick up a book or literary journal that does exactly what I’ve been told not to do. Learning which of those ‘lessons’ to heed and which to ignore is mind-boggling. And all too often it depends on who the reader is at any given point.”

and move on…mostly.

The one specific I will detail is this: one of the last pieces of Ties that I wrote is a three-page prologue. I’m not generally a fan of prologues, but the story needed some history for the main plot to make sense without lots of flashbacks, which I don’t care for either. I’m still not convinced it’s the best way to handle the issue, but that’s where the manuscript stands at this stage.

Here’s the paradox: I have one critique from another well-respected professional who loved the prologue and the opening scenes, specifically: “The prologue is fantastic.” The AWW agent mentioned earlier had this to say: “And worse, the story actually starts on page 12, chapter 2. That's the first place we really see any sense of tension and conflict. You lose 2600 words if you chop the prologue and chapter 1. Building word count isn't just adding words; it's adding the right ones. Like bulking up means adding muscle, not just gaining weight.”


This is even worse than anything in the oft-quoted Writers On Writing: Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle, by Elmore Leonard. I thought I had finally reconciled myself to ‘rules are made to be broken,’ since every one of those ‘always/never’ instructions is disregarded daily by best-selling authors everywhere. I know the rules; I truly thought I knew how and when to break them. Now this.

I am not entirely dissatisfied with the most recent critique. She offered several concrete suggestions on distance, being engaged, etc., that reinforced things I know I need to address. And I’m fighting the urge to frame her closing words and post them over my computer: “You're a good writer. You just need to write more!”

As I said in my response to her kind email, I need to trust my own instincts more and stop trying to please everyone, which is not an easy thing for someone who grew up as the family peacekeeper. But I will persevere.

Fellow writers, am I delusional, or just being my obstinate self?


  1. Hi, did I tell you that my review of your book is up on my site?


  2. No! I will check. I sent you a different project than the one referenced in this post, so no pressure ;-)

    Thanks again for the review!

  3. The whole business of following rules or not is really about whether or not something "works." For years I wondered, who is the arbiter of that? Well, I discovered, it's the reader. If something doesn't work, it pulls you out of what John Gardner calls the "dream" and makes you think about the rule. If it works, you read on blithely, hardly registering that a rule has been broken. This hit me between the eyes in a workshop one day with Sigrid Nunez. We were discussing Alexi Zentner's story "Touch" and Sigrid asked me if it bothered me that the character didn't change. "No," I said. "I was so engaged, I didn't notice." I teach this stuff, for heaven's sake. I'm paid to notice. But the story worked. It was subsequently included in O.Henry Prize stories. And no, the character didn't change.


Your thoughts?