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Breaking the Chains; An Editorial Comment

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    Posted: Mar-09-2015 at 7:05am
Breaking the Chains; An Editorial Comment
by Edward Knight
Editor, Journey Books Publishing/Amazing Journeys Magazine

In a recent online discussion I had the chance to talk to some editors and writers about rules for writing.  Specifically, we were talking about how to relay back-story, but dialogue tags and point-of-view also came up.  As the discussion unfolded I found myself questioning many of the conventional techniques, guidelines, rules, even laws as one writer/editor put it. I'm referring to the stylistic techniques that seem to have become concrete rules for many writers and editors.

In the past year or so I have found myself drawn deeper and deeper into the works of speculative fiction writers who were prominent in the years between 1930 and 1960.  When I ask myself why I find these works so intriguing, I always come back to the same answer, their writing style.  Compared to these later works I find the writing style of more modern fiction to be almost boring.  I'm not referring to content.  The new stories are exciting.  I am referring to the style the writers use to convey the message.  Why do I find these latter day writers' works to be superior?  Modern writers are being tied down by all these technical writing rules.

Let's take the "show, don't tell" rule for example.  Some times this gets a bit old with me.  Yes, I agree with the rule in general, but there are times when I just want a writer to tell me the facts and move on.  Sometimes, showing slows a story's pace to a crawl if a writer isn't careful.  To me, as a reader, there are times when I would rather a writer tell me that a car is old and broken down rather than write a dialogue with 20 adjectives in an attempt to show me.  Sometimes telling me, "The car was old and broken down." is good enough.  It isn't necessary to show me every dent and the exact color of the rust to get the point across.

If one looks back at the works of Heinlein, Asimov, Pohl, Hubbard … expository writing is frequent.  There is a lot of telling rather than showing going on.  Go back even farther to the writing of Verne and Burroughs and it is even more prevalent.  The same types of examples could be made for rules regarding dialogue tags and point of view.  Heinlein used tags other than said and Verne wasn't afraid to change his point of view character in mid-chapter.  For this reason I will suggest that the stylistic rules many in the literary world hold to be so dear are little more than stylistic fads, like bell-bottoms and mini-skirts.  Rules are steadfast.  Fads come and go.

We live in a conservative age.  As writing goes, that conservatism has bee applied to style rather than content.  The problem isn't the writer; it's the rules and editors who insist that they must be applied.  I my opinion, the story is more important than the rules.  Most readers understand that; many editors do not.  Readers want good stories.  Story, above all else, is most important.

Piers Anthony came up in our discussion.  Anthony is well known in speculative fiction as a maverick, a writer who doesn't play by the rules.  So why is he successful despite being a literary throwback?

Look at it this way.  Suppose 100,000 copies of Anthony's new novel sells within a week of its release.  How many of those 100,000 readers give a rip about rules concerning show-don't-tell, POV, dialogue tags, and the like.  Only literary minded people, who must find some objective rather than subjective way to critique writing, think that way.  The average reader doesn't dissect a story in that manner.  They read a story and either like it or don't.  

So where did these rules come from?  That's simple.  They came from successful writers who developed a style that works for them and their readers.  The problem is that mainstream publishers and editors have taken those popular styles and used them as a cookie cutter.  They've created a mold, and a writer's work must fit.   They've developed a formula in which the mix must be just right.  From a financial point of view, it makes sense.  Publishers seem to think that if readers buy thousands upon thousands of books by King, Crichton, and Clancy, then it would be a good thing if all writers emulate that style.  Writers who follow the rules are published and some become popular.  Writers who do not follow the rules are never given the opportunity.  The writers who gain success are sought out to do workshops, and they teach other writers how to fit the mold.  This creates stylistic dogma, rules for writing. One contributor to our discussion put it this way:
I believe you are right that many gatekeepers have too much power and apply it without thinking.  I recall one online writers' workshop where I was surrounded by disciples of one editor's dogma. - Howard Jones
Writers are to blame as well.  They seek the formula; they want a set of rules to play by.  Rather than rely on their imagination, their own creativity, or a uniquely developed style, they seek to mimic the successful.  When a rejection comes they expect suggestions regarding which rules were broken.  Rejection seems easier to accept when it comes via a measurable broken rule as opposed to having an editor tell them, "I didn't like your story and don't think my readers will like it either." Writers get angry when a rejection comes back without comments.  They want a reason why, some concrete structural element within the story that caused it to be rejected.  They want a rule.  Writers sometimes don't realize that holding a rule too closely is like being chained.  Breaking loose every now and again is a good thing. In our discussion one contributor said:
I think the "rules" of composition or Laws of Technique are "given" in good faith, not meant as dogma, but all laws become dogmatic at some level and there are always examples of the laws being broken to "good" effect. - Daniel Blackston
In this editor's humble opinion; editors, agents, and reviewers who push rules down writers' throats are damaging the creative process.  There are some who just have to have a list of right and wrong ways to write.  Outside of good grammar and spelling, the rules are made up by publishers, editors, reviewers, and writers.  If we can make the rules, we can change them, break them, and bend them, twist them into knots, or throw them out the window.  Like Anthony, we need more radical thinkers in fiction these days.  Editors have been forcing writers to fit their mold for some time now.  The mold is getting a bit moldy, however.  To be honest, I am getting bored with the style of modern fiction as it is being published today.  I continue to look back to those golden age writers, to a time when the edges were not so sharp and the rules less clearly defined.  The pendulum swings both ways.  I think the current stylistic binge in writing has reached its apex and it is time for the pendulum to swing to the left.  Editors need to open up a bit, be more flexible and quit insisting that all writers follow all the rules.  Anthony doesn't follow them to the tee.  His readers love him for it, and his editor probably kicks and screams while his publisher smiles at his bank statement.

Copyright© 2005,  Edward Knight

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