Writing Craft

Surviving as an Anachronism

Friday, November 2, 2012

Carroll County News

Anachronism: Chronological inconsistency, juxtaposition of objects or customs from different time periods. A relic, archaism, leftover, holdover.

I was born too late. Had I lived in the time of “War and Peace” or “Madame Bovary,” I imagine myself seriously hot as a writer. I might have been George Eliot.

But “War and Peace” wouldn’t be published today. This is not my opinion. It’s standard wisdom in the publishing industry — an expression tossed about frequently by agents and publishers to describe the current climate and market trends.

And “Madame Bovary?” Perfectly structured, fascinating characters, gritty realism.

But, too long, too much exposition, too preachy. An agent would quickly bog down. Hit that one key: standard rejection letter to Gustave Flaubert.

Aspiring writers are told to read: read the classics, read everything, read voraciously. True. But to be published, read what’s been written in the last fifteen years. Or five. And pay attention.

If I had to name the most important lesson I learned while getting an MFA in Fiction, it would not be how to create realistic characters, or set up scenes, or write powerful dialogue. The most important principle I bought with my $30,000 is that “War and Peace” would not be published today.

So what exactly does that mean to a writer who sits down to his keyboard and faces the blank screen? Page One. You’d better hook that reader now. Right now.

People no longer sit by the fire in the evenings and read by a oil lamp for the sheer pleasure of the process.

Writers no longer get to begin with “I am born.” You don’t get to create your character from childhood forward. You can show us one dramatic childhood scene, but any necessary background must be woven in later.

That means that you should give us just enough information to pique our interest and then get us into scene. Characters doing and saying things. In other words, a movie.

You also don’t get to explain anything or make any judgments. You do not get to intrude as the writer. This is the standard wisdom: show, don’t tell. But now it’s on steroids.

Don’t tell me anything. Don’t tell me the character was angry. Show me by his actions, his words, or the tiny details of what he notices about the room. Make me, the reader, figure it out. Don’t hand it to me — that’s as interesting as a completed crossword puzzle.

When characters speak, you, the writer, don’t get to say that they whined, stormed, bitched, explained, cried, screeched, screamed, wailed, expostulated, admonished, protested, complained. No. They “said.” That’s it.

Current wisdom is that “said” is invisible. It passes directly into the reader’s brain without registering as a word. All those other words scream, “Author here. You’re reading a book.” Those other words are the writer commenting on how the character spoke. Don’t comment. Show us how the character spoke through what he said or how he moved.

These are some examples of what I call “writing fashion rules.” There are many others, right down to how many spaces go after a period. Two? Wrong.

Are these rules really deal-breakers when it comes to publication? Agents say that if they see a word other than “said” in dialogue, they know the writer is an amateur, who will require massive re-education to make his work marketable. And agents are not in the writer re-education business.

Some of these fashion rules, in my opinion, are just that — fashion. A hundred years from now, we may be back to writing “I am born.” Retro fiction may be vogue. Especially if we’re back to oil lamps.

But today’s writer has two choices. He can ignore these rules, stubbornly remaining anachronistic. In that case, his hope for publication lies in sealing his manuscript into the wall of his house and hoping that it is discovered in a century when retro fiction is in.

Or he can learn the rules, the trends, the market. We are careful to teach these in the Community Writing Program. So that your version of War and Peace won’t die on the vine just because your character “admonished” rather than “said.”