Thursday, February 21, 2013

the auto mechanic and the cello: when writing advice goes wrong

As INTERN, I wrote plenty of writing advice posts on this blog. As Hilary-the-bumbling-novelist, I've sometimes found myself at odds with the very kind of advice I used to give. Most writing advice is geared towards a certain kind of linear, straightforward book, and lately I've been realizing how few of my favorite novels fit that description, and how tragic a mistake it would be for aspiring authors to let the available writing advice dictate the kind of novels they write—to let the tail wag the dog, in other words.

If you were an alien surveying online writing advice, it would be easy to believe that all earthling novels consist of "scenes and sequels" or that each one needs a "main character" and an "impact character" or that scenes must alternate between positive and negative or that x must follow y. If you were an alien with the good fortune of being beamed into a library, you discover that in fact there are a plethora of fine novels in which there are no scenes whatsoever, or that the impact character is a kitchen sponge, or that x never follows y at all.

In celebration of the beauty and diversity of the novel form, here are some rules that deserve to be broken.

Advice: "Scene = goal + disaster."

When You Should Ignore It:

Some novels, such as The Hunger Games, lend themselves well to the goal + disaster pattern, where each scene looks something like this:

            "character needs to reach her wounded friend BUT she falls into a snare"

            Or like this:

            "character needs to get to his best friend's wedding BUT he gets pulled over for             speeding."

Plenty of great books have been written in this style. But plenty of novels do not work through a string of clearly identifiable goals and disasters. If you read a few pages from The Perks of Being a Wallflower or Where Things Come Back, you'll encounter narrators who seem to meander, talking about their friends and families and favorite books, weaving a story through a process of subtle accumulation rather than scene after straightforward scene.

If every writer subscribed to the goal + disaster scenario of novel-writing, we would not have The Edge of the Alphabet or Near to the Wild Heart. We would not have Holden Caulfield. The goal + disaster pattern lends itself well to a certain kind of narrator and a certain kind of story, but not to every narrator and every story.

Advice: "Conflict on every page."

When You Should Ignore It:

After reading this sort of advice, it can be tempting to fire off a novel that consists of nothing but characters arguing, falling into snares, and experiencing setback after crushing setback. There is no time for self-indulgent things like description and philosophy and character development—on to the next flight of poison arrows!

Novels need to breathe. What would Life of Pi be without its discussions of zoo animals and swimming pools? What would Infinite Jest be without its digressions on just about everything? Great novels have a richness and texture that come from more than just conflict, conflict, conflict in its most obvious sense. Tension can be created in all sorts of ways, on all sorts of timelines. The literal, "conflict-as-plot-setback" technique is not the only one—nor should it be.

Advice: "Raise the stakes."

When You Should Ignore It:

Sometimes, we use so-called high stakes situations to distract readers from a weakness in our writing. The protagonist's voice isn't working and the plot is unoriginal, but hey, there's a meteor hurtling towards earth and we're all going to die!

Most people can make a car crash or an invasion of enemy warlords exciting, but some of the most beautiful and interesting novels manage to create devastatingly high stakes in tending an apple orchard or trying on a pair of shoes. Alternatively, a novel can show the emptiness and confusion of a world in which there are no stakes—in which goals and their achievement are themselves an ambiguous and problematic terrain. The thing at stake may not be the lives of millions or the outcome of a war, but a worldview or question of existence.


There are millions of ways of writing novels, but the vast majority of writing advice applies to only a handful of common techniques. You won't find a blog post or magazine article that teaches you how to write The Tiger's Wife or Look At Me or House of Leaves; this is the problem with reading too much writing advice as opposed to conducting your own studies of actual novels you admire.

This post isn't to say that the novel-writing advice in books and on the internet is useless or wrong; but neither should we let it blind us to the infinite possibilities of form and structure, or make us adhere to patterns and formulas that may not be appropriate for our own particular projects. Would you look to an auto-repair handbook for instructions on tuning a cello? Why expect any and every piece of novel advice to apply to your story and writing style?

Trust yourself. Take risks. Be curious. Above all, don't let anyone fool you into thinking you need to treat your cello like a Toyota.


  1. There are few writing rules, only lots of reasonable suggestions that should be followed or ignored as the story and the writing dictate.

    Good to read you again! I was afraid the road to Morocco had become an endless one. (And your letter was one of the very best I have received, ever. Thanks!)

    -- Tom

    1. Oh, I'm so glad the letter arrived! It is one of the best letters I've written :) Three more weeks in Portugal, and then back to the US to float around in the van...

  2. I love this post so much I want to marry it.

    I believe it's important to begin the writing process learning these rules. It's so important to understand how and why they work and why they ARE rules to begin with, but you are spot on. Some of my favorite books bend these rules in ways that make me forget they are there, or ignore them all together.

    I'm bookmarking this one.

    btw - I own a cello and a Toyota. Awesome!

    1. thanks! honestly, I'm siding more and more with the "just read a lot and think about what you read" school of writing advice. look to the books that inspire and excite you, not to a list of "tips" that may or may not apply to your goals and vision.

      PS. you should create a cello-Toyota hybrid and play it/drive it :)

  3. Just about every rule in life (not just writing) has a particular domain of applicability. The domain should be taught along with the rule, but rarely is.

    A large number of writing rules seem to be applicable to writing genre dramatic novels. Sometimes I suspect that the folks who promote said rules are only vaguely aware that there *is* any kind of writing but genre dramatic novels. Move to literary works, or humor, or short stories, or non-fiction, or screenplays, or whatever, and the rules don't necessarily apply.

    Even with a genre dramatic novel, there's nothing wrong with occasionally flouting some rule or other, as long as you do so to make the work *better*.

  4. Well said! I couldn't agree with this post more. I think writing rules are good to an extent, but just like rules in real life, it's important to know when to bend them and when to break them and when to ignore completely!

  5. I was going to have the kitchen sponge fight the Brillo Pad, but I think he'll just hang with the spork.

    And I needed to hear this, so thanks.

  6. I agree that there doesn't have to be conflict on every page, and I also agree that it's okay to let the characters meander; some of my favorite books included narration that was "meandering", so to speak. However, sometimes the narrators in certain books go off on a tangent too often, and it can get distracting and confusing. I often find myself peeking ahead to see when the next "action" sequence will occur.

  7. I think it's often more useful to look at how authors successfully break these kinds of rules than to follow them. Having said that, this involves understanding the rules and their intended effects first - even if you use that information to fight against them!

  8. Hilary's back, and in good form!
    I'm big on ignoring writing advice and poo-pooing rules, unless I sense something is wrong and don't quite know how or what. Then I find the advice checklist and question how the rules might help.
    Because it's an *art*. Not a science.

    1. hello, Mirka! *waves* how are you?

      I think that's the key—to seek writing advice when you are already firmly in the flow of your work and encounter a problem—not to read tons 'o' writing advice and let it define what you write and how you write it. because if everyone wrote scenes and sequels or whatever, without bothering to follow their own intuition or discover new things, we'd be so impoverished! writing advice can give you the fear that you're doing it "wrong"—"oh no, I didn't start my Ch. 1 in the middle of an action scene!"—and it can be very hard to undo that kind of inner damage...

  9. I'm wondering how much of this is that the rules are flawed and how much is actually that people interpret them too literally. I'm currently reading "Some Tame Gazelle" by Barbara Pym, which is a wonderful book, and yes, there is conflict on every page. But it's all internal conflict. Everyone is far too polite or self absorbed to actually start any outward conflict (except about the vegetable stand!), but what maintains interest is the simple tension of the main character wanting to do something nice for the archdeacon (who probably won't appreciate it), but not letting herself because it might be unseemly.

    Yet. Gripping.

  10. I LOVE this post, so glad I came across it. I find that rules like those are most useful for fixing chunks of book that refuse to work--then it can be very helpful to ask "what are the stakes here?" or "is everything happening too easily for her?" -- etc. But if every book were written to rules like those I'd be such a sad reader.