Thursday, February 3, 2011

Lies You Believe

I get a lot of emails from other writers asking for advice, and most of the time I have no idea what to tell them. Honestly, I'm making things up as I go along, fumbling around the same as everyone else. I suppose, however, that when we reach certain points we forget about things. For instance, I've forgotten how difficult it used to be to start a novel. These days it's nothing. I've written enough first chapters and experimented enough with what kind of outlining and research works for me that starting a novel may still be frightening, but it's not insurmountable by any means. I don't paralyze myself at the thought.

As writers, especially new writers, we believe a lot of things people tell us. Many new writers read blogs like a hungry bear, craving whatever direction they can find. Sadly, I've fed new writers some pretty juicy lies. Not that I knew I was doing such a thing, but I'd like to dispel a few things here today in order to share some advice, in a way.

Lie #1 - write what you know

I am not a spy. I am not Cinderella after she has been married. I do not have a sister with three eyes. I have never been kidnapped or abused.

I don't write what I know. All this deceiving phrase has ever boiled down to is to write confidently. Period.

Lie #2 - you must write like someone else to be successful

No, you must not. Writing like someone (or everyone) else is a Bad Idea. Buried in their actions, I've seen many writers believe that to catch the eye of an agent, they must write like the other popular voices out there. Imitation may be a good writing exercise, but if you continue to ignore your own path and voice you'll never truly stand out. Temporarily, you might make it, but in the long run you will get buried underneath a pile of identical, life-crushing boulders.

Lie #3 - always follow the rules

We've all heard the rules.

Don't use adverbs. Ever.
Flashbacks are bad.
Back story dumping is bad.
Don't use prologues.
Don't ever start a story with your character waking up.
Don't repeat the same word in the same sentence.
You should always outline your book first.

and on and on and on...

The thing to remember is that these are not rules. Rules are things like you must put a period at the end of a sentence or use lay instead of lie if you're talking about an object and not a person. Grammar stuff. Those are rules. Everything else is subject to change. Seriously. You can use adverbs, flashbacks, and a prologue if you want. If you read enough and write enough you'll learn the right balance that works for you. For some writers, flashbacks never work. For others they are a brilliant literary device. Everyone is different. Don't limit yourself to a box made of rules. Experiment. Learn. Write.

More of these "rules" are listed below.

Lie #4 - if you're bored by your own work during the writing process, your reader will be, too

Lie. Lie. Lie. I'm bored by my own work all the time. I work on my novels hours upon hours, days upon days, sometimes years upon years. Yeah, I'm going to get bored. I know things the reader will never know. As writers, we get so close to our work that it's often impossible to judge how a reader will react to certain aspects of the story. We shouldn't be worried about that, anyway. When you're finished, put your book aside for a few months and come back to it later. You'll probably still be bored by certain things, but that gut-feeling inside of you will speak otherwise. Listen to it.

Also, this is why I have a few beta readers. They can often help me spot problematic areas I would never have seen before. I'd like to write in a complete bubble and keep all the credit to myself, but in all honesty, I'll at least need one or two people to see my work before I can call it completely finished.

Lie #5 - your first sentence must hook the reader

Not true, and besides, it's impossible to hook every reader with one sentence.

Lie #6 - your book must fit into a genre

Not true. Genres are best blended, bended, and torn apart, in my opinion.

Lie #7 - you must know your story's theme before you write

Not true. I never discover my story's themes until I've pretty much finished the book. Honestly, I don't think it's any of my business what the themes are. It's my job to write the story, not preach it.

Lie #8 - there must be tension on every page

Not true. Leave your reader room to breathe, for crying out loud.

Lie #9 - here at the literary lab we know everything

We wish.

So, readers, what are some lies you'd like to dispel today? Go on. Write them out. You'll feel better. Anything here you don't agree with? We're always up for discussion!


  1. Clearly, you at The Literary Lab *do* know everything. Otherwise, I agree. :)

  2. Donald Maass's minions are hunting you down as we speak. Let's hope you absorbed some of those spy skillz from your Monarch MC....

    Also, yes. I blow my nose at rules. Rules's mother was a hamster, and its father smelled of elderberries.

  3. Tara: We pretend. This post might be a whole sham.

    Simon: I'll take on Donald Maass any day. No awesome classic novel ever came about from following the danged rules.

  4. This post makes a little bit of the tension regarding my story go away. Thanks!

  5. Love this. Also LOVE the new heading. Gorgeous.

    Donald ass will get over it. He's successful enough to no longer give a damn who says what where (or about whom). Oops, did I miss a couple letters there? Shame. And nice Monty Python reference btw.

  6. I'll confess to really mixed feelings about Lie #1 and I actually have a blog post on it that I've been stewing over for some time and hope to post very soon. I will save my comments for my blog, except to say that I think this one is complicated. It's often misapplied, misunderstood, and outright abused, but I don't think it's entirely invalid.

    Lie #6 does bother me. A lot. It essentially reverse taxonomy, which is stupid. A genre is a classification. A classification is a label that's given to something so that it can be categorized, understood, worked with, etc... So pressuring people to force a book into a genre is like trying to force a biologist to describe a particular organism in a way that it fits into a particular classification. Dumb, useless, and counter-productive.

    I've actually never heard Lie #7 promulgated before. That's goofy. I think where a writer starts varies a ton between writers, and it's crazy to think that one starting point is better or worse. I definitely know my themes ahead of time. I also know that there are probably other themes that I don't know. But that's just me, and I don't think there's any special reason to do it that way unless you're me.

  7. Great list, and oh, so true!

    But . . . can write what you know, be more cleverly translated to: follow your heart . . . because your heart/gut, well, knows?


  8. I did a whole series on my take on rule #1. I've never tried #2. I've just written my stories, my way without thought to imitating. #3 I disregard a lot. Like a lot a lot.

    I must say that last one doesn't strike me as a lie. :D

  9. Tiffany: I'm glad it was helpful! I thought it would mostly tick people off. Hahaha.

    Breanne: This post all came about because of our little conversations. :)

    Nevets: Lie #10 - Nevets should always take Michelle completely seriously

    Of course, I AM being serious in this post, but I also understand how almost nothing writing-related is absolute, even these lies I've listed. You're seeing things from a different perspective on them.

    Lie #1 about writing what you know is something I will not argue about. It's possibly the dumbest thing ever said and the most misdirecting thing a new writer can listen to.

    Lie #6 - Glad you agree. :)

    Lie #7 - I beg to say that knowing your themes ahead of time can make your writing feel very forced. Now, having read your writing, I saw this in your flashback scenes but we've already discussed that.

    Anyway, notice that Lie #7 says "ME", not everyone, and I don't think it's bad if a writer DOES know the themes going in. I just said they don't have to know them, that's all.

    Scott: Yes, you could say that, but I still think it's writing confidently. Following your heart is writing confidently.

    Stephanie: I enjoyed what you said about #1 in your posts! I'm really happy you disregard #3. :)

  10. It has been awhile since I've visited the blogoshpere but I'm happy that I came back to this post. Thanks!

  11. > Lie #4 - if you're bored by your own work, your reader will be, too.

    Thank you. I soooooo needed to read this today!

  12. I suppose #10 might well be - "Before you finish your novel tie up all loose plot threads and turn the light out when you leave."

    I don't do plots personally and I hate to read a book or watch something on TV where the bones of the plot show through. It's ugly.

  13. I've hear these lies, but pay them no attention. I write what I write how I write it.

    I'm pretty sure that a novel adhering to all of the rules would suck.

    Other rules:

    - Never use the word "that"

    - The only dialogue tag to be used is said. Maybe asked, once in a great while. If you have any other words (with the exception of a name or pronoun alongside the said) you will die a slow horrible death.

  14. hehe I understand you don't take these things as absolutes. I just like them as talking points, that's all. :)

    #1 - lol Well, you can read my post when it goes up tonight and then tell me it's all dumb, that's fine. :)

    #7 - Think you mistook what I was saying. I wasn't disagreeing with you. I was agreeing that it's a lie by saying yes I write that way but it's dumb to think others should. lol

    And, re: my flashbacks. Those were bad, but not because of themes. They actually didn't really even touch on my themes. They were just bad. hahahaha

  15. K.Hinny: Glad this was a good welcome post! Hope you stick around. :)

    Deb: I need to staple that to my forehead. Seriously.

    Jim: Oh my gosh, YES. Tying everything up is not a must. It's fun for certain books, but if every story did that I think I'd go crazy. Talk about not leaving anything open to interpretation.

    Rick: I love your "that" rule. I'm always thinking I overuse "that" word, when "that" is not he case at all. Oh, wait. Haha, no really, it's all about balance.

    Nevets: #1 - I would never tell you that YOU are dumb. Your take on that stupid phrase is brilliant, I'm sure. Hopefully you bring more meaning to it.

    #7 - Oh, I see. Hah, sorry about that.

    Your flashbacks were not "just bad." They just felt a little forced is all. You didn't even have to do much to them to make them work for the story.

  16. This is a great post, Michelle! Thanks for writing it. I think you've covered pretty much all of the lies that I used to worry about. The one about boredom still concerns me, as you well know.

    Maybe another important lie (that you've covered well in the past) is to never self-publish. Obviously self-publishing can work well. And, obviously traditional publishing can work well.

  17. I think #4 needs to be clarified. If you are bored during the writng process, it doesn't mean that the novel is necessarily boring; it could just mean that you need a break from the ms because you're not concentrating or you're too close to the work. But if you the writer are bored with what you have written when you are merely reading it, you really might have a problem.

    Otherwise, I think this is a fine list. #1 has resulted in some awful, truly awful writing. I think it should be "Write about what interests you."

    And grammar, yes! Adverb use and all the rest is style, which is fluid. But grammar isn't a rule, it's a basic component of language, which is our only tool and we should learn how to use it well. Blah blah blah is there coffee yet?

  18. Davin: Thank you! I think a lot of writers get bored while they're writing, and switching to other products is a good idea for some. Like you. I need to learn how to do that!

    And yes about the self-publishing. It's a case-by-case basis, for sure.

    Scott: Yes, that's exactly what I meant. I may go clarify that in the post, thank you!

  19. Did I say products. Oh, dear. I meant PROJECTS. Where is my brain?

  20. And here I was, ready to focus on a can of corn.

  21. Davin, that could solve a lot of things, you know. That or buying an eel for a bet. Or for dinner. Either way.

  22. I mean PET. Oh my gosh, I give up. Curse my fingers!

  23. Now that could be an interesting story.

  24. "Experiment. Learn. Write" possibly the best bit of advice I will ever recieve. :D

  25. The best advice I ever got was to read better books.

  26. Taryn: Thanks! I think "Read" needs to be added to it to make it complete. I agree with Scott that reading better books is a must. Of course "better books" is subjective. Classics are a given. :)

  27. Excellent post! Learning the rules is important. Being shackled to them is the problem.

  28. J'Adore this post!

    Thanks for that. I've read so many pieces that say the exact opposite.

    My favourite rule to break is 'Thou must outline.' I write best "by the seat of my pants," so to speak.

    I have my protagonist, and how the story ends. How it gets there is really up to the story. One story ended up being two books long. The other is now six books long (still writing that one), and that might change, depending on where my characters go.

    I find it keeps the thrill in writing. I discover new things about the characters I write every day!

    Thanks again for this post. I shall share it with everyone I know.

  29. Thanks soooo much for this! These are things I know, but deep inside I believe them. Thank you for reminding me they are false. I can breathe.

  30. Michael: That is it exactly!

    S.M.: Thank you for your enthusiasm and for sharing! I am an outliner, kind of, but everyone is different. We must write how it works for us.

    spacedlaw: Thank you!

    Thoeba: You're very welcome! It is freeing when we realize we can KNOW the "rules" but not have to do them to create good writing. We must create our own guidelines that work for us.

  31. Well, those aren't really "lies", they're "myths." A myth has some actual basis and is used as a lesson, whereas a lie is the opposite of truth.
    The "truth" is that every single one of those points has some validity.

    1. Learn about your subject matter so you know WTF you are talking about. Do the research. Talk with people.

    2. Learn from other writers. Study how they do it. Yes, you can write your book in Klingonese but the market just isn't that big.

    3. The "rules" are there to help you achieve comprehensible sentences. The people who write the rules have BTDT and are just trying to impart some wisdom.

    4. Being bored drafting is different from being bored revising. But IMHO if writing bores you, choose another profession.

    5. Hooking the reader definitely helps. At some point you must hook the reader or they will put the book down. Why not do it on Page 1?

    6. You don't need to have a genre to write but it helps when you go to sell.

    7. Actually I totally agree with you on this. Where did you hear this one?

    8. I've heard it as "conflict on every page" which I agree with. But if there's no tension then why am I still reading the book? Is there nothing in doubt? Is there nothing at stake? If there is no tension, there is no story. Don't conflate "tension" and "action". Some of my highest tension scenes is when 2 characters are sitting on opposite sides of a table just talking.

    9. I agree with that one. You guys are da lit masters.

  32. Another great post Michelle. I love hanging out here.

  33. Andrew: Lies sounded more dramatic. :P

    1. Yes, I think that's part of it.

    2. Exactly.

    3. Yeah, true.

    4. I don't necessarily mean if writing in general bores you - I mostly mean if you are bored during a specific scene. You know, like not entirely pumped about it like you used to be because you've worked on it about 5 bazillion times.

    5. Um, the first sentence does not have to be a hook. You can't catch every fish in the sea with one hook. I think this is often misinterpreted into "your first page should be so exciting no one should walk away." Honestly, if I put down every book where the first page didn't hook me, I'd be missing out on some of the best books I've ever read. Good writing isn't 100% about entertaining a lazy mind.

    6. That's kind of true, but not 100%. A good agent/publisher/editor will find the right fit no matter what it is. If you're forcing your work into a cookie-cutter genre just so it will sell easily, I think that's a mistake from an artistic standpoint. Of course, not everyone cares about artistic standpoints. Hah.

    7. I heard it from Scott once in a post.

    8. I could argue about this one, but I won't right now. Perhaps for another post. I'm sure I can get Scott to back me up on it... :)

    Thanks for your thoughts!

    Anne: We love to have you here!

  34. Thank you. I needed to hear this. It's been a rough few weeks in my writing world and I think I needed to be reminded that there is no 'one way' to write a novel, other than just to write.

    Thank you.

  35. I think "write what you know" should be banished and replaced with "write what you love."

    Rules? We don't need no stinkin' rules!

    Bored now.

    -Alex MacKenzie

  36. Agree with everything you said, especially the last one.

  37. A long time ago I was reading a novel by Fowles and somewhere in there he inserted himself, (The Author) right into the novel for a moment.
    That struck me and I had to think about it. I came to the happy conclucion that "Hey, it's his damned novel and he can write anything he want to!"
    Since that time, I've never had any problem with writing what I want to write. Sometimes I have a problem saying exactly what I want to say, but I'm not afraid to say whatever I feel fits.
    True, if you write whatever you want, you may have a harder time finding a publisher, but hey, how much harder can it get?

  38. What's number 8? Tension on every page? Oh, yeah, that's just crap. A novel serves more purposes than just the laying out of a conflict resolution. There are more reasons to keep reading a book than to just find out how the dramatic arc ends, and there are plenty of narrative techniques that happily don't support the dramatic arc.

    C.M. Albrecht: In one of A.S. Byatt's novels (one of the Babel Tower quartet), Byatt herself steps into the narrative and says, "This image is the very image that sparked the writing of this novel." She also ends the first book of the series with "A book has to end somewhere, and this is as good a place as any." In Moby-Dick, Melville steps into the narrative about halfway through to tell the reader about the difficulty he's having writing about the spouting of whales. And so on.

  39. Just write. Worry about what it all means later.

    I write a story, and I write it as scenes with connections. I stopped worrying about writing a "novel." It is what it is.

    I want there to be a story and not just words, but it's me that's coming out spattering on the page.

  40. Well, between your post and all the comments thus far, that about covers any of the 'lies' or myths I can think of.
    Right now, I'm clinging to your dismissal of the one about getting 'bored' with a project. Thank you so much for this post!

  41. betweentwowhirlds: I like "just write" and "just tell a story." Those are very attractive statements. But as far as practical advice goes, they're not very helpful. I might also suggest that in genearal, people are less interested in the writer spattering onto the page than they are interested in an engaging, well-crafted story.

    I don't mean to pick on you specifically, and I'm just generalizing so don't take this as a direct response to your comment. But I do think that as a whole, we need to take the "I'm just being true to myself and my vision" out of the writing, or at least dial it way way way back, and concentrate on the process and the ends and less on ideas of self-actualization. When someone "speaks their own truth" or whatever, it isn't necessarily good reading. We should think about why that is, and likely we'll come down to issues of craft. So craft is important, and we need to be mindful of it and move beyond the "just write" mindset. Which is less fun, but them's the breaks.

  42. I don't think there even needs to be conflict on every page. Every page needs to serve a purpose, but there is way more to a narrative than conflict.

  43. You can write what you know and still write fantasy. It's not advice that means you have to stick rigidly to your areas of personal experience.

    You don't need to be Cinderella to write about her, but you should familiarize yourself with the story if you're going to continue it after her marriage.

    You don't have to be a sociopath to write about one, but you should familiarize yourself with the traits of the pathology.

    You don't have to be anything similar to the people in your books, but you should do your research and know the basics of whatever genre you choose to write in.

    That's how you write what you know.

  44. Great blog, Michelle. Mostly I agree with it. Especially #9.

    As others have said, I think you have to be careful breaking the rules but especially careful breaking rule number 1. I don't live in a fantasy world but I write about them. While that is true, my readers don't live in my fantasy world so it can be however I want it to be. But where you have to be careful is in writing about something people DO know about. If you decided to write a story about the fire department, you'd better do your research. And I don't mean reading fire text books either or popping by the fire house for an hour or two either. If you don't intimately know how ffs talk, act, or handle emergencies, you will come off as phony. It is very hard to fake. Very hard. If your book has a ff as a main character, and firefighting has a strong theme, you will alienate a lot of readers by not getting it right. In that regard, I think the first rule isn't a bad one for new writers. My first book was about firefighting and I learned a lot about writing and researching and being genuine by starting with what I knew. I'm by no means saying writers should live (and write) in a box but just to be careful. When I watch a TV show or movie and they have the FD show up for a scene, I can be turned off in three seconds by the entire show and stop watching. It isn't that I'm shallow or that only what I think is right is right, but if a scene takes me too far out of a reality that I know a lot about I can't believe the rest of what I'm watching. You, as the directer, author, whatever have lost me and probably most of the firefighters who are watching. Does that make sense?

    But back to the blog. Great idea and fun to read.

  45. glnoroz: That's good!

    Mel: I'm glad this was helpful. I must stress that while it's great to "just write", you should also be discovering your own set of rules and guidelines to follow. I'm sure that's what you're doing! Good luck!

    Alex: Yeah, writing what you love is very important. When you love something you'll put the right amount of work into it, including research and telling a dang good story. That leads to confidence.

    Rogue: Awesome! Thanks for coming by!

    C.M. Albrecht: That's a great example, and it's true that we should write what we want. I think we're cheating ourselves of a lot of pleasure and happiness if we do otherwise.

    Christine: I'm glad!

    Scott: Yeah, that's how I feel about tension. It's certainly an important element of storytelling, but that's as far as it goes.

    between: That's a great way to get out a first draft for a lot of writers. Sometimes I think new, and even some seasoned writers can't listen to anything or do anything more than that. That's a first step, though. I think Scott has some important things to say down below.

    Bridget: Good! Getting bored is a tricky thing to decipher. I would think if none of your readers are getting excited about the book, and neither are you, there might be a problem. I haven't reached that point with a book yet. I hope I never do.

    Scott: Excellent points. I hope this post doesn't come off as "dismiss everything and do whatever the heck you want" kind of post. Maybe it does. Oh well.

    Nevets: Exactly.

    Josin: Good thoughts on that phrase. That phrase just gets under my skin. *shudders* I still hold firm to the fact that it's writing confidently. Proper research will give you confidence, for sure.

    Doug: Yes, it makes sense, for sure. I do think that phrase is bad for new writers, though, because I think it is mistaken for something entirely different - especially by young writers who don't understand how important it is to get facts right. I think when they read that phrase they're understanding that they literally have to write what they know. That's why I can't stand it. New writers don't usually pick apart things as much as a seasoned one will. I know I didn't when I started writing.

    Anyway, I'm probably being way too harsh on that phrase. It seems to be a hot button for everyone, and that's why it bugs me. :)

  46. I love, love, love this post! Personally, I have struggled with #1 but am nowhere near as daunted by it as I was at first. Most books are written about things the author has no first-hand knowledge of. That's why we've been blessed with that wonderful thing called an imagination. Although, yes, lots of careful research is essential to writing as realistically as possible, and we should never forget that.

    I love what you said: write confidently.

    As for #3, those rules were created--as most rules are--because they've been abused repeatedly. I love how you differentiated them from grammar rules, and I wholeheartedly agree. Not all rules apply to every writer. It's as simple as that. Lots of books out there prove that very thing.

    Thanks for this post! I'm sure it'll be a good one to refer to when we're feeling bogged down by all of our writerly woes. ;-)

  47. You're right about Melville. I thought I was the only guy who actually swam through the entire book.
    If whaling were legal, I could get right in there and do the job.
    Earlier I should have added that I too have read all those caveats about what not to write, etc. and in reading books by well-known, even best-selling authors, I see all of them repeated time and again. I've reached the point where I don't worry about all that. I just write what comes out and try to clean it up so that it's readable.
    One thing I remember. In my first book I brought the reader to a coffee shop that had seen better days. I believe I spend two pages describing the coffee shop in great detail. I thought it looked pretty good, but at some later point I looked at it and thought, "Who the hell cares? We all know what a run-down coffee shop looks like." So I ripped out the entire thing and just sketched the coffee shop in a sentence or two and the entire thing was just as clear and a lot more readable.

  48. Perhaps the biggest lie of all is so-called "writers block." It's the number one excuse people use for not writing, and it's total BS.

    Watch the movie:

  49. Hey Gerald: Thanks for spamming our blog! I am sorely tempted to delete your comment!

  50. Well . . . if making up stories is a lie, then I'm a pretty good liar. ;)

  51. Scott, if you think I'm spamming, please delete my contribution. Or I'd be glad to do it. I thought I was following your credo on your home page:

    "We'll be creating some fantastic experiments. But only with your help. Interactive is our goal. Leave comments. Discuss. We'll do the best we can to answer questions and help everybody, including us, refine our craft."

    That was my intention. I do think "writers block" is a lie, or a myth, and that it causes untold harm to writers' careers.

  52. Gerald: My mistake, I thought you were selling something. Please accept my apologies.

  53. I love the list! I especially agree with #1. I don't know anything about half the things I write and, while that can sometimes complicate things, it's so much more fun!

  54. Great post. I agree that "lies" sounds dramatic, so I would have said that too. (I wrote a little verse on my blog, saying much the same thing a month or so ago.)

    But I think we all have to learn these rules so we can break them effectively--and not get intimidated by control freaks who quote them at us all the time.

    Re #5--I think it's interesting that out of the 1000+ entries in Nathan's first paragraph contest this week, the the writing of the finalists and hon. mentions seemed quiet and un-needy. Most of them didn't scream "hook."

  55. Scott,
    No need to apologize. It was probably my fault for providing a url, which is what people do when the spam my blog.

    I LOVE your list, and am passing the url around to all my writer colleagues. As for Rule #1, I believe you've put it in the right place. What I teach to take its place is "Never write about something you don't CARE about."

    Violating this rule (guide) leads to the mushiest, flabbiest, most spineless writing you'll ever read.

    Keep up the great work.

  56. I really enjoyed this post.

    When it comes to writing, there is one whopper that gets repeated in some form or the other:

    Follow the rules.

    Uhm... No...

    Follow the guidelines for as long as they guide you. If they don't... well then, that's where the fun starts.


  57. Ashley: I'm so happy the list appealed to you! I think #1 is my biggest pet peeve, which is why I put it as #1. I think it needs some redefining, mostly.

    Gerald: Thanks for your link. Scott just saw the URL and thought spam, is all. Thanks for reading the post and visiting our blog!

    Amber: Me, too!

    writergal: Hehe, yes, it is more fun to use our imaginations and discover whole new worlds we've never experienced before. :)

    Anne: We definitely have to know the "lies" so we are aware of them, yes. We also have to know them to see if they work for us or not.

    Yes about Nathan's contest. Very interesting!

    Misha: Great way to put that! :)

  58. I tend to agree with Andrew Rosenberg that there's a kernel of truth in most of these "lies," but it's been so abused, misinterpreted, and misapplied over time that it's difficult to salvage.

    I think what we should be saying is, "Here are some guidelines. They're not laws written in stone--they just help you avoid common beginner mistakes. But you should treat them like rules until you are ready to intelligently and deliberately break them, because that's what the best writers have done."

    Also, regarding "tension on every page"--while I think it's largely misapplied junk advice that comes from the How To Write a Bestselling [Whatever] industry, there's definitely some truth to it. Tension on every page doesn't have to mean ticking bombs and tawdry flirting--it means there's something unresolved that the reader wants to know, something that keeps them in suspense. It doesn't have to be a pressing, immediate issue. Who are X's real parents? Why did Y dump Z five years ago without explanation? Will P ever tell Q that the dog didn't run away, but got run over? Is R an unreliable narrator?

    Anyway, great post. What it comes down to is knowing the "rules" well enough to break them with purpose, IMO.

  59. Loren: Well, if you say so. :)

    Leah: Excellent, yes! We should know these "lies," or "guidelnes," or whatever they are, but we shouldn't build walls with them. Thank you for your comment!

  60. I would argue that "suspense" on every page isn't necessary either. Sometimes you just want to read something interesting (even if it's unrelated to the story) or written in pretty language. Or just a funny aside (see Cervantes or Sterne or Melville or Thurber or Joyce or Beckett et cetera).

  61. @Michelle, @Leah, @scott:
    I threw up my own interpretation of the "tension" issue on my blog. Would love to hear your thoughts.

    @scott: Your examples seem to conflict with lie #2, so which is it?

  62. Andrew: Saying Cervantes or Sterne or Melville or Thurber or Joyce or Beckett et cetera did something isn't the same as saying we have to write like them. It's saying that if they obeyed the "suspense on every page" rule, they'd not have written their masterpieces and that would be a loss. So no conflict that I see.

  63. @Scott: Ahh, but would their "masterpieces" sell in today's market?
    The problem with your examples is that they were written for a different market with different expectations. But all of us are trying to sell into today's market that carries perhaps different expectations for pacing, plot development, etc.
    So I'd much rather try to write like today's authors than yesterday's...but I still respect the fact that those were great writers that I can learn from.

  64. Andrew: Have a look at last year's Pulitzer Prize winner. Have a look at anything by Michel Houellebeque, a best-selling and prize-winning French writer. Have a look beyond commercial/genre fiction, in today's market. You'll see that you're mistaken.

    Also, all of those authors I mention are still in print, in new (and multiple) editions every year, and they sell in respectable numbers. Because readers read them. Today. And they buy them in today's market.

  65. Scott, I think you'll be one of them one day. Hey, look, two agents have taken your work and now it's on submission. That says something, because from what I've read of yours there isn't tension/suspense on every page, yet I'm still really into the book and fascinated with the story, the writing, and the characters.

  66. Andrew: I will go check out your post. I used to believe in the tension on every page thing until I stopped and really thought about what art is to me. Not all art has to entertain. Some of the best art and books I've ever read made me think and question things. Most of that came from tension in the book, but not on every page. I think readers these days are simply getting lazier as readers. They want tension on every page, but maybe we're doing a disservice to ourselves thinking that is something that must be done 100% of the time.

  67. FWIW, I just looked through several novels of the past 20 years and I could find pages without tension on them in every one. Some were even thrillers.

    I'm not trying to downplay suspense and tension, honestly, nor trying to deny that the reading market has changed.

    Just saying that even today some description and some breathing space is an okay thing.

  68. Nevets: I think it's an absolutely okay thing, yes. Writers need to chill out more when it comes to these guidelines and rules. Me included.

  69. Yeesh I'm getting comments faster than I can reply!

    @Scott: You do realize those are famous authors...and we're not.
    Of course they're going to sell. I meant that if no one had ever heard of them, would they still sell today.

    I'm coming from a "what can I do to make my book marketable" POV and tension is a tool I can use to enhance my novel's marketability. It's not the only tool. "Every page" is just a way to keep the narrative lively.
    Can you have description that's there for it's own sake? Yes, of course. I'm totally with you that there are no rules. Are there readers and editors out there who appreciate it? Of course.
    It really comes down to your goals as a writer. My goals are to create a gripping narrative that keep people up reading late into the night. My strategy is to use tension among other things.

    So maybe can we agree that tension is a good tool for strengthening many stories?

  70. Andrew: Certain types of stories are more effective when the level of dramatic tension is kept high. No question about it. Some people like those kinds of stories more than they like any other kind. And good for them that there are writers who write them.

    I think that the "I meant that if no one had ever heard of them, would they still sell today." argument is unsolvable and kind of pointless. Every debut author was unknown. Lots of experimental, cutting-edge art novels are being published. If you look at the litary/art novels from the past to the present on a year-by-year basis, I'll bet that you'll find that more of them are being published now than there were back in the so-called "golden age." Whichever golden age you choose to pick. I'm pretty sure that my literary/art novels are going to be published. I don't look to the marketplace for writing advice.

    But then, when you also get a book deal, you'll likely sell way more copies than I will, because of our choices of genre. I'm fine with that and I realize that the idea that I write for a small audience influences my attitudes about writing and books in general. Them's the breaks.

  71. @Scott: You can count me in your audience. :)

    If someone described my work as "pulp fiction" it would be as great an honor as if someone called yours "a literary masterpiece."

    We all have our dreams. :)

  72. I truly appreciate this list. I've read my own MS so many times I'm getting a little bored, but my critique group isn't. I guess that's a good sign.

  73. Love it! Especially the giving the reader room to breathe. I've definitely crammed way too much into my opening scenes...

  74. Thank you, Julie and Deniz! Isn't it a great relief to know you don't have to follow rules once you know them? Hehe!

  75. I'm glad I finally found this post! :) It's wonderful. And I don't think I've ever found a theme sooner than halfway through a book. Maybe on the next one I write...


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