Ever wonder where exactly all the rules about writing come from? Textbooks are filled with them and there’s an ongoing proliferation of writers writing about writing who refer to them. The answer is obvious—writing rules come from writings. Study the action and results of the writings of others and you come up with an explanation that with a few tweaks becomes a rule.
It’s a romantic thought that long ago there was a grand gathering of Lords deep in the forests of Sherwood to plan the Great Vowel Shift (GVS) and come up with rules for the organization, plot, and characterization for fiction writing, all inscribed in grand calligraphic prose on ancient parchment by Sir Arthur Canon of Freytag, but unfortunately lost. One day, some young cleric, working in the bowels of Westminster Abbey, may stumble across the lost volume and we’ll discover that the comma started life as some fly poop on parchment.
In the meantime, we need to be that cleric and rather than stumble, research potential sources of contemporary insights in writing prose. The problem with existent rules, especially those that deal with grammar, is that they have become set, like concrete, and lose the flexibility of the underlying dynamics of language from which they were born. Same for the rules of writing. We need to periodically revisit the foundations of our literary ancestry through more modern perspectives to see if there is anything potentially new to learn about the arts of spelling, grammar, diction, and prose applicable to the contemporary age.
What better way to do that than to read what contemporary writers have to say about contemporary writing, and what better place to do that but in the pages of The New York Times’ Sunday “Book Review,” which keeps its fingers on the pulse of the literary rule-making process.
A careful analysis of several book reviews from a recent edition provided newly phrased phrases and statements that potentially add dynamic perspective into the development of rules of good prose, not by directly explaining how, precisely, but by describing the desired impact of one’s writing. From these literary tidbits and fragments, one can deduce and ascertain contemporary rules of writing.
So let’s revisit this technique to determine what we can glean from critics’ critiques that will help us become better writers. Obviously, these book reviewers don’t stop in the middle of their efforts, and, like some Plato or Socrates, spell out a new rule in specific terms. As an evolutionary process, rule development requires the application of a certain level of analysis mixed with yet another certain, but albeit indefinable, level of conjecture to tease from the reviewers’ prose those observations and insights potentially “honeable” into rules of writing. This is exciting stuff. It’s almost like being there as the Tyrannosaurus Rex walked across that soggy alluvial plain to leave its footprint in geological history.
As our elementary school teachers said, we need to put on our thinking caps as we read and carefully analyze, conjecture, deduce, decipher, and restate the wisdom of writing contained in contemporary writings into literary rules.
Katie Kitamura, in her review of Ann Packer’s The Children’s Crusade, explores characterization, or as she puts it: “How do we become who we are?” She refers this as the “slipperiest of questions, from the experimental rigor of cognitive neuroscience to the teasing excavations of psychoanalysis.”
Ms. Kitamura does not actually give us a rule, but something more important—the need to apply analysis to determine just what the hell she said. She suggests the application of psychology and neuroscience, which might require that you return to graduate school to fully understand what’s she saying about Packer’s skills, but her comment makes us think of the need to think when we sit down to write.
In his review of Jacob Rubin’s The Poser,” Mr. Kevin Brockmeier also refers to characterization, saying, “If a novel can be measured by its imaginative precision, the shrewdness of its characterization and the authority of its prose, [you must] claim its power early and rarely surrender it.” Mr. Rubin seems to be saying get into characterization early and with some intensity and don’t let it get watered down; strong characterizations need to remain strong throughout your novel or short story.
In reviewing Paul B. Janeczko’s Death of a Hat: A Brief History of Poetry in 50 Objects, Daisy Fried commends Janeczko’s “excellent selections” because they “are mainly grown-up poems that children will like for their emotional authenticity, verbal texture, accessibility and figurative magic.” Obviously, you’re likely going to struggle at first to define the key terms Mr. Janeczko employs: emotional authenticity, verbal texture, and the combination of accessible and figurative magic. Of these words, only figurative has a previous literary application as in figurative language. I’m not sure if “language” and “magic” are synonyms, but figurative language is defined, in simple terms, as “language that goes beyond the normal meaning of words used.”
Depending how far beyond normal it lies, “figurative language” might mean the same thing as figurative magic. Obviously, more research is called for, so your efforts might require you to break new ground literally in coming up with something figuratively.
However, a bit of insight might come from a description Daisy Fried employs to describe the impact of Janeczko’s efforts:
At times, though, the enchantment waivers. The coincidences of found diaries and scraps of paper seem less fated than convenient. Deep familial rifts are healed seemingly without scars, and characters make abrupt emotional leaps that jar after the story’s steady buildup. The actual mechanics of the curse afflicting the Fowlers is also sadly tame for the transformations that result.
This is an example where you need to flip the comment on its head to extract valuable insights from it. Let’s take it from the top. “Enchantment” probably refers to the level of pleasure and delight a book provides the reader. Devices that move the plot forward should not be contrived conveniences but have individual and credible credibility. If there are conflicts, make them run strong and deep and leave an impact on your characters. These impacts and resulting change(s) in your character(s) need to be well grounded in credibly factual realities. Don’t make the conflicts and challenges your characters must face come across too wimpish.
See how easy that is? As an exercise, you can list the rules “gleanable” from such an analysis and you are on your way to coming up with writing rule.
One more. This one applies to writers who target a younger market. M.T. Anderson, in his review of Chris Grabenstein’s The Island of Dr. Libris (Note: I have put key terms in italics.):
Though the premise is familiar, kids will enjoy the mayhem, especially given Grabenstein’s breezy narrative voice and jaunty wit. The solutions to the book’s conundrums are somewhat less ingenious and more haphazard than those in Grabenstein’s earlier, Wonka-esque “Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library.” On the other hand, as in “Lemoncello,” there is a winning generosity and sweetness to the story’s telling.”
Mr. Anderson adds, “The plot’s allegorical logic—it is really about the struggles of a young writer trying to find courage and her own voice—is occasionally a little hazy, especially because the book’s view of authorship is not so much practical as heroic and mystical.”
Note that the reviewer’s view of mystical is less a positive attribute here. She seems to endorse being more practical.
However, I think reviewer Jason Reynolds’ observations about Andrew Smith’s The Alex Crow, offers an intensely concentrated list of attributes that will serve any writer well. As you read the excerpt below, think of how many rules of writing you could harvest from what he says:
In all three narratives, we see hubris, manipulation, brutality, the perpetuation of a ludicrous pecking order, and the glaring absence of women with any nuance . . . Smith somehow finds a way to bring balance and even a glint of salvation, weaving sensitivity and compassion into a seemingly ice-cold tale.”
Distilling and restating these insights into succinct rules of writing might take a little time and great effort, but if you find that you’re not up to the task, don’t feel bad, just work on writing a good story. Remember the one critically important rule that can be deduced from the above examples: Write clearly!