I have been known to question writing “rules.” (See how those quote marks sneaked in?) Sometimes I wonder why… Am I a knee-jerk rebel, one who thinks any piece of written schlock is good as long as it was written sincerely? Do I really think writers who follow rules and comb through their works-in-progress for transgressions are “sheeple,” churning out lifeless overworked prose?
I hope not, but…
One thing I’ve realized: I react negatively to words and phrases I see trotted out repeatedly and without question. Phrases like “Show, don’t tell,” “Kill your darlings,” and “Never use [insert word(s) here].”
Such writing rules are triggers for me.
Now I’ve admitted all that, here are some thoughts that won’t go away…
Why is it OK for established writers to flout the rules? And don’t say it’s because they do it well. If prologues and backstory are bad, they’re bad, no matter who writes them. Right?
Is “info-dump” simply a pejorative term for what is called “rich, detailed description” when it appears in a book by a big-name author published by the Big Five? (Maybe soon to be the Big Four?)
Does anyone really write a first draft that conforms to the three-act story structure? I’m convinced that structure in a work of fiction is discovered after completion, rather than deliberately created by the writer. Especially in a first draft.
Every main character must have a goal, and every scene must contribute to their efforts to reach that goal. No goal, no story. Really? What about characters who are just bumbling along through life? OK, those are found in “literary” novels. (Yes, I know many of these well-worn rules apply to genre fiction.)
Why do some poorly-written books get 5-star ratings and gushing reviews? Could it be that those readers skimmed the boring parts and are happy as long as the book ends with a startling twist or a heartwarming scene? (OK, let’s toss a few sour grapes into the mix.)
I can’t help but notice that many advice-to-writers posts illustrate their points—about creating hooks, or where the first pinch-point should be, or what kinds of conflict you really need—with examples from movies, not books. What does that tell you? Their advice is not directed to screenwriters, after all, but to those who write long-form fiction. Why can’t these folks come up with examples from novels or stories? Maybe they don’t read much? (This is not a rhetorical question; I really don’t know.)
All right, steam has been let off. That’s it for now. (And those colour-gradient backgrounds are fun!)
Does anyone else harbour niggling thoughts like these? Little thought-bugs you can’t swat away? Here’s your chance to share them with your fellow writers and readers!
Uh-oh, it’s happened. I’ve been resisting, but now I’ve caved in. I’m writing a post about the second most popular piece of advice for writers (after “Show, don’t tell”): “Kill your darlings.”
First, the origins of the phrase. My admittedly casual googling led me to Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, who apparently said: “If you here require a practical rule of me, I will present you with this: ‘Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.'”
But what is a writer’s “darling”? I’ve seen the term applied to characters, scenes, sentences, and even single words. Strictly speaking, it’s anything that does not move a story along, however well-written it may be.
I can’t really quibble with that. Anything that weakens a piece of writing, that makes it less readable or creates plot holes or lapses in logic, should be changed or deleted.
I don’t care for the phrase. Especially when it’s trotted out smugly and superciliously, with the unspoken but implied addendum of “…you naïve little writer, you.” It’s not the advice I object to, but the way it’s worded. Because it includes “kill” and “darlings” in close proximity, it’s seized upon with glee by people looking for an “advice to writers” topic.
The main thing that bugs me about “Kill your darlings” is the implication that anything the writer really loves about their writing, any sentence or paragraph they think is especially fine, must necessarily be a “darling,” and so should be ushered to the chopping block.
I don’t think that’s the meaning of the advice, however. Rather than “If you think it’s good, it must be bad,” think of it this way: If a scene or paragraph detracts from or harms the story, consider deleting it, even if it’s well-written.
I wonder how many writers, reviewing a work in progress after a productive writing session, think “Wow, this is really good. Did I really write this? It’s great!” Only to decide the whole thing must be a “darling” (because they like it so much), and therefore they must delete it forthwith. They end the session in a demoralized state, berating themselves for being a “bad writer.”
Getting back to Q (Quiller-Couch’s pen name), I’m wondering if that advice, which appeared in a lecture series, wasn’t intended as a rhetorical exaggeration, rather than an ironclad rule. Some writers–and those who love giving advice to us–are always looking for hard-and-fast rules, as though by adhering to them religiously, we can produce perfect pieces of writing.
Well, no. Writing doesn’t work that way. There is no formula or recipe.
Here is my revision of “Kill your darlings”: If some element in a piece of writing introduces awkwardness or is out of synch with the rest, take a close look at it. Consider changing or deleting it, even if you think it’s well-written.
Okay, that’s not nearly as brief and memorable as “Kill your darlings.” So if KYD is a actually a code for my longer and duller revision, great! But don’t automatically assume the worst of any piece of writing you love. By all means subject it to scrutiny. Seek out the opinions of critique partners, beta-readers, or editors. Consider their opinions (keeping in mind that mean-spirited or envious individuals may apply that “darling” label for reasons of their own). Don’t automatically “kill” something just because you like it.
Fellow writers, do you kill your darlings? How do you identify the ones that deserve deletion?
By the way, my most recent novel, She Who Returns, is free today (July 24th) on Amazon. Click the link below the cover image.
I really must stop reading “advice to writers” posts.
The mother of all writing rules is “Show, don’t tell.” Showing good. Telling bad. Oh, and while you’re at it, don’t use adverbs. You know, those nasty words that end in “-ly.”
The writer wants to convey to the reader that a character is experiencing an emotion. Anger, say, or fear, or joy. She can’t say “X was angry,” because “was” is one of those forbidden words. She can’t have X saying something “angrily.” So what to do?
Okay, the writer thinks, I’ll just show what the character does. X clenched his fists. Y rolled her eyes. Z sighed.
No, no, little writer. You can’t do that. Fist-clenching, eye-rolling, and sighing are overused. And please don’t have eyes wandering around the room or crawling over anyone’s body (I actually agree with that one).
You know what–I just realized something.
Many of these advice posts are written by trad pub gatekeepers and people providing services to writers–editors, book coaches, and similar. These folks read a million submissions or manuscripts in need of help. They are exquisitely attuned to words and phrases. If they are sifting through a deluge of submissions by hopeful writers, they are looking for reasons to reject. An offering has to be sharply different to perk these people’s jaded sensibilities (but not too different, of course). If they are working through a manuscript for a client, they are scrutinizing every word.
So–if you’re hoping to snag an agent, get traditionally published, or win a contest, by all means make sure your offering is free of these offending elements. Read the posts, absorb the advice, and edit accordingly.
But if you are publishing your own work, and your critique partners and beta readers say it’s good, it probably is good, even if your characters sigh or roll eyes more than once in your entire book. It doesn’t hurt to be aware of your go-to phrases and make sure you’re not actually overusing them, but most ordinary readers aren’t instantly annoyed by things that annoy people who read for a living.
Think about it–reading dozens of first chapters or short stories one after the other over several hours is a slog, I’m sure. In such a reading situation, the reader is almost certainly going to notice words and phrases that pop up in all or most of the pieces they read. They jump like fleas into the consciousness of that reader, and are about as welcome. They are the equivalent of the ticking clock or dripping tap to the insomniac. At the end of the session, the battle-weary reader is going to make sarcastic comments, like “Well, this batch had a dozen eye-rolls, fifteen sighs, nine shrugs, and a plethora of pounding hearts. Those writers! Can’t they come up with anything original?”
And what do you suppose that editor or book doctor is going to write about in their blog?
I’ll finish with something from one of the advice-givers in response to a cranky comment on one such post: “The only truly universal writing advice is ‘If it works, it works.’” Capitulation?
Well, maybe I won’t quit reading posts with advice to writers. I wouldn’t want my Audrey the Contrarian persona to run out of things to fulminate about.
I’ve written quite a few posts in my Audrey the Contrarian persona, questioning the validity of some writing rules advice. You know what I mean–don’t use certain words, including “was,” avoid dialogue tags other than “said,” don’t write prologues, etc. and etc. I admit it–as soon as I perceive a wagging finger, my defenses go up.
Well, I’ve had a bit of an epiphany about this recently, in the form of a multi-author, themed box set of more than a dozen novels in ebook form. I acquired it more than a year ago but didn’t start reading it until recently.
So far, I’ve read six of the novels. All were previously published and most are parts of series. Several of them were probably #1 Bestsellers at some point. All begin with pages of the usual gushy blurbs (which I always skip). At least two of them so far are really good reads, well-written and interesting, but it’s the others I’m concerned with here.
One of these books begins with a prologue. That’s okay with me; I’m not opposed to prologues on principle. This one must have been designed to give the reader a jolt right from the start, and it did its job. But neither the characters nor the situation ever appear in the story that follows, with the exception of a single fleeting reference in the first chapter. Otherwise the story was fairly good, until it was spoiled by plot chasms, unnecessary references to events in other books in the series, and twists that failed my credibility test.
I don’t usually skim and skip when I read, but another of these books was so mushy-gushy, I ended up doing that. In the first chapter, the main character describes a person in minute detail, complete with a mini-backstory, fashion choices, and incredible devotion to said m.c. That person never appears again. The story is told in first person point of view, except for the occasional paragraph in third person. And no, those third person paragraphs are not deliberate stylistic devices, but errors. Finally, the m.c.’s personality and background are completely wrong for her profession, which severely strains the story’s credibility. Not only that, but the reader is treated to a detailed description of every emotional blip and bump the m.c. experiences.
A third example is a clunky sandwich of two different genres–the beginning and end are one genre, the filling in the middle the second. It doesn’t work well, but what really annoyed me was all the murmuring. Even the bad guy murmurs a typical bad guy command. “Drop the gun!” he murmured. Every time I pressed the next page button I made a bet with myself that someone would murmur on that page. And most of the time I was right. One more thing–the name of the m.c. changes between page 1 and page 2. I read those pages a couple of times, wondering what happened to X, before I realized he was actually Y.
Out of curiosity, I looked up these books on Goodreads to see what other readers might have said about them.
Guess what? All three had many 5-star ratings and rave reviews! A few reviews mentioned some of the problems I had noticed, but they were a tiny minority. It’s possible, of course, that some readers abandoned the books partway through and did not post reviews.
So now I wonder why, when we writers are told repeatedly that readers will not tolerate problems like the ones I’ve described, reviews and ratings don’t bear this out. Here are a few theories:
The reviews are biased, either because the individuals who wrote them are doing the author a favour, or the reviews were paid for, or some other suspect reason.
These particular readers/reviewers just happened to be exceedingly uncritical.
Readers of genre fiction don’t care about many of the things writers are advised to care about.
Extrapolating from #3, I think there are two kinds of readers (well, there are probably more than two, but bear with me while I make my point). There are casual readers who just want to whiz through a story as light entertainment. As long as the plot holds together, they don’t notice details. Then there are critical readers who notice stuff like the above. In the latter group are writers, authors, and editors–in other words, the folks who write and read those blog posts telling you not to commit those sins.
So what is a writer to conclude from this?
Cynical me says don’t sweat the rewrites and proofreading. Forget the advice and bang out a plot-driven story every three months with the expected elements for your genre. Then put your real efforts into cultivating your readers and marketing. Writer me says striving to perfect my writing is a worthwhile end in itself even if no one reads it. Which makes sense, as I’m a dismal failure at marketing.
What say you, fellow writers and readers? Have you noticed this apparent disconnect between reviews and writing quality?
Artist Richard Diebenkorn had some rules about the way he should approach his work. I can’t remember where I got these, but I was inspired enough to copy and paste them at the time. I was also inspired enough to come up with a few of my own. When the going gets tough, it’s always good to have some reliable aphorisms you can fall back on.
1. Attempt what is not certain. Certainty may or may not come later. It may then be a valuable delusion.
2. The pretty, initial position which falls short of completeness is not to be valued—except as a stimulus for further moves.
3. DO search.
4. Use and respond to the initial fresh qualities but consider them absolutely expendable.
5. Don’t “discover” a subject—of any kind.
6. Somehow don’t be bored but if you must, use it in action. Use its destructive potential.
Here’s the old contrarian again, revving up to question yet another piece of Advice to Writers.
This time it’s “Avoid dialogue tags.” If you must use them, stick to “said” and (maybe) “asked.” Often, Elmore Leonard is cited as endorsing this practice. Leonard wrote Westerns, gritty crime fiction, and thrillers. His prose style was crafted for those genres, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best style for all writing. And I’ve read that his essay, “Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing,” may have been somewhat tongue in cheek.
Using only “said” and “asked” is recommended because these words are non-distinctive and do not call attention to themselves, because that would distract the reader.
As with so many of these dictums (well, it should be “dicta,” but let’s not be pedantic), there’s a good deal of wiggle room. First of all, dialogue tags are needed when a conversation between two (and especially more than two) characters goes on for more than a few lines. How many readers have had to scrutinize a page of dialogue, labelling sentences as “he” and “she,” or “Bob” and “Tom” to figure out exactly who said what, because the writer omitted dialogue tags altogether? Talk about being distracted from the story!
Writers are also advised to use strong verbs for actions. “Sprinted,” for example, is preferred to a weak, wimpy word like “ran” to describe what a character does. Dialogue tags are verbs and speaking is an action, so why is it good when a character sprints or ambles, but bad when they bellow or shriek?
And no, I don’t advocate words such as “smiled” or “laughed” as dialogue tags. I agree they’re not appropriate because they do not describe ways of articulating words. But many strong verbs do just that.
“Bellowed,” “shrieked,” “muttered,” and “murmured” can show how a character utters something, when “said” would be too bland. Like spices, these words are most effective sprinkled sparingly throughout a piece of writing, but they’re no less valuable than other strong verbs. (Come to that, strong verbs can be overdone. I’ve read books stuffed with so many picturesque verbs that I’ve almost lost track of the story while bedazzled by the author’s verbal gymnastics.)
In both dialogue and action, sometimes you need a memorable, splashy verb, and sometimes a plain and common one. Recognizing these situations is part of learning how to write well.
Words are a writer’s tools. Learning to write is all about selecting the most effective words and combining them artfully. I will always question advice that puts certain words or classes of words into a verbal jail with “Do Not Use” on the door.
(Hops off soapbox.)
Does anyone else think this “rule” is a contradiction? Do you mostly stick to “said” or avoid dialogue tags altogether, or do you sometimes slip in another word of utterance?
Any writer who follows blogs has seen advice that certain words “stop” your reader: adverbs, “weak” words, “filter words.” Dialogue tags other than “said.” The word “that.” The word “was.” Writers carry out search and delete missions in their documents, hunting down these toxic words. No one wants to take a chance of alienating a reader.
As some of you know, I am a self-declared rule quibbler. Not that I’m a fan of bad writing, but when I read these sermons from the blog, I wonder what evidence supports their declarations. Has anyone carried out a scientific study of reading and how readers actually process written fiction?
Book sales may be taken as an indicator of effective writing, but as most of us know, buying a book does not necessarily equal reading it or enjoying it. Maybe sales are more an indicator of effective marketing than of brilliant writing.
There are peer-reviewed academic journals on the subject: Reading Research Quarterly, for example, and the Journal of Research in Reading. From my admittedly cursory look at the sorts of articles that appear in them, the main focus of the research they publish is how people learn to read and comprehend written language, and not so much what constitutes compelling fiction.
Is there a way to quantify good writing? Do certain words bore or otherwise alienate readers? How might such a study look?
Here’s my idea and thought process: test subjects are given two different texts of a piece of writing long enough to require a reader’s attention for more than a few minutes. A couple of thousand words, perhaps Chapter 1 of a novel. One version follows all the rules about words not to use. The other breaks them. Both texts have the same storyline, but different vocabularies.
After reading, test subjects would be asked which version of each piece would incline them to read further. But wait — would a single test subject see both samples or only one? By the time they read the second, they will have an idea of the plot, so there would be a spoiler effect. So maybe we have two stories, i.e., four different texts. Each subject gets a text from each story, one that follows the rules and one that does not. Because the stories are different, the “I’ve seen this already” effect is avoided.
But surely it would be necessary to minimize differences in reader preference? The test subjects would have to be matched with their preferred types of fiction. If a subject reacts unfavourably to the genre of the text rather than the words used, the test wouldn’t be valid. Okay, the researcher would have to interview potential subjects so the members of the subject pool would be similar to one another, in how much time they devote to reading, types of fiction preferred, etc.
Carefully devised follow-up questions would be needed to elicit and quantify the effect of specific words on individual reading experiences. Formulating questions for studies is a field of study in itself.
My conclusion: devising, carrying out, and writing up credible experiments is not a simple matter.
The closest I got to an actual study of the kind I’ve envisioned is a paper published in 1988, entitled The Psychology of Reading for Pleasure: Needs and Gratifications. It describes five different studies on different aspects of the reading experience. The two that seemed most relevant to my question examined reading speed and readers’ rankings of texts for preference, merit and difficulty. There was even a study of readers’ physiological reactions to reading different texts. Even a cursory look at this paper shows how complex and elaborate a scientific study of reading can be.
The works from which texts were obtained for testing are varied, including fiction and nonfiction, literary fiction, classics, and genre fiction. Authors include Jane Austen, Saul Bellow, Louis L’Amour, Ayn Rand, Graham Greene, Hunter S. Thompson, James Michener, Ian Fleming, Essie Summers, Arthur Hailey, Joseph Conrad, Agatha Christie, and W. Somerset Maugham. The most recent publication date is 1975.
One thing I found interesting was that some of the books are labelled “trash” by the study’s author. The test subjects showed a preference for this “trash” as pleasure reading material, but at the same time they assigned higher ranks for merit to “elite” works that were harder to read. The final page of the paper shows extracts from three of the works, along with the ratings they were assigned.
Despite labelling certain books as “trash,” the study does not analyze the writing, only the test subjects’ responses to it. While the studies documented in this paper don’t answer my question, they are examples of the kind of effort needed to obtain solid data on reading, and by extension, on writing.
The paper does contain some great academic terms. One that jumped out at me is ludic reading, which means “reading for pleasure.” Books can be called “ludic vehicles.” So, fellow writers, that’s what we’re trying to do: turn our books into ludic vehicles to transport readers into realms of the imagination.
My final thought (for now): Read this blog post, which contains a short piece of fiction that deliberately breaks all kinds of writing rules. I couldn’t stop reading, which suggests the words an author uses aren’t as important as the way she or he arranges them (and a few other factors too, of course).
Is anyone aware of any scientific studies on the effectiveness of specific words on recreational reading? Is there any objective science to back up the “rules” for writers? Or is it just a matter of, “Well, everyone knows…”?
Writing and editing have been compared to cooking. Here’s another analogy (from my contrarian side).
Two approaches to diet: forbid yourself all foods high in calories, carbohydrates, and/or fat, OR eat a variety of foods (including ones you like), limiting those highest in fats and carbs.
Which one are you most likely to adopt as a way of life?
Two approaches to writing: follow all the rules and make sure you don’t use forbidden words, OR use whatever goddamn words you like, as long as they bring your story to life in the reader’s mind.
Which one will you regard with zest and enthusiasm?
Eating a variety of healthy, palate-pleasing foods from the entire range of available edibles is a better approach than restrictive regimes that label certain foods as forbidden. Of course, it helps to learn something about nutrition, and what “moderate” really means.
We writers have the entire panoply of words available to us. Words are the writer’s tools. Learning to write is learning how to use them well, all of them. Some words — cliches, maybe? — are analogous to processed foods. Flat, boring prose may be likened to vegetables boiled into a khaki-coloured mush. Well-chosen words skillfully assembled are like magical combinations of juice and crunch and richly blended flavours. A dialogue tag other than “said,” or the occasional adverb, are like touches of spice or a few hot peppers.
I’m not a fan of advice that labels certain words as weak words, crutch words, or filter words. The implication is that if you avoid those words or replace them with other, better, words, your writing will be good. But it’s not really about using some words and avoiding others. Writers must develop the ability to embody their imaginings in words that engage, delight, intrigue, or appall readers and keep them reading to the end.
If it was simply a matter of avoiding adjectives and not using “was,” writing would be a snap. It isn’t.
In writing, as in diet, it’s all about good choices and optimal combinations. Experimentation, mistakes and failures, adjustments, and fresh attempts are part of the process. Too much focus on rules can result in paralysis. Ignorance and total disregard of good writing practices can result in bloated or crippled prose.
When the writer embarks on a journey of creation, the rules should be in the luggage and the editor in the back seat. When the writer’s inspiration and intention have been given shape in the form of words, they may be unpacked and summoned to do their parts.
A sudden painting project means at least one more retread for the blog. I saw a post about Elmore Leonard’s writing rules recently, which brought to mind this post from February 2012. No grumpiness warning needed.
Recently [in 2012] CBC Radio issued a challenge to its followers to write sentences breaking Elmore Leonard’s ten rules of writing. I suspect the assumption was that the results would be examples of really bad writing, and therefore chuckleworthy.
Setting the challenge aside here, I wonder if that assumption is justified. Surely it depends on what kind of thing a writer is writing. Rules that apply to gritty, hard-boiled urban fiction may be totally wrong for romance, or fantasy, or Literature with a capital “L.” There may be a few fundamental rules that apply to all writing, but I’m not sure that Elmore Leonard’s list qualifies.
I have to admit, this topic of Rules of Writing is one that I find hard to leave alone. It’s like salted nuts, or maybe like a burr, because I find such rules irritating. Never mind whose rules they are; as soon as I perceive that someone is pontificating to writers (even other writers), I go into combat mode, or at least argument mode. A year ago the Guardian newspaper published writing rules by a large number of writers. Some are quirky, or just funny. From Canada’s own Margaret Atwood: take two [italics mine] pencils with you on planes, in case one breaks and you can’t sharpen it because no one can take a knife on a plane any more. (But are those little stick-it-in-and-twist pencil sharpeners confiscated by security, I wonder?) See what I mean about arguing?
So what about Mr. Leonard’s rules? I agree with a few of them, such as the one about avoiding adverbs (words that end in “ly,” including “suddenly”) — and not just to modify “said.” Ditto exclamation points and dialect. Also, I would add, italics.
But I think some of the rules are too restrictive. Yes, it’s best to carry dialogue with “said,” but sometimes you need another word, as when a character doesn’t just say something, but splutters, groans, sighs or mutters. Words like these add texture and juiciness. They should be used sparingly, like spices, but not banished from a writer’s vocabulary.
Come to think of it, Mr. L. uses “never” way too many times in his rules.
Weather and description. Mr. L. says never to start a book with weather and to avoid descriptions of people, places or things. I think it’s a matter of degree. Having your character stand there like a dummy while you give a verbal snapshot of their clothing, hair and accessories doesn’t work. But readers want to know something about your main characters, including what they look like. The trick is to create vivid images of them by slipping details into sections of action or dialogue, so people don’t even recognize the descriptive bits as such.
As for weather and places, these can be opportunities for “beautiful writing,” the kind that gives the writer a frisson when he or she reads it over at the end of a writing session. The trouble is that readers don’t always share those frissons and often skip over those sections to find out what happens next. Sad but true, at least for plot-driven books. Writers of the literary type may get away with beautiful writing, because they attract readers who enjoy that sort of thing.
Rule #10 is one of those sneaky lines that gets remembered and quoted; it’s also guaranteed to induce anxiety in the insecure writer (and just about all of us are insecure at some point). “Try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.” So what parts are those? Here is my quick top-of-brain list of what to look for in your never-ending revision sessions: 1. Long paragraphs that contain extended descriptions or backstory, even though the writing is beautiful. Consider cuts or moves. 2. Extended sections of dialogue with no action, especially those where the speakers are not identified. 3. Long action sequences of the sort where all hell breaks loose for several pages. They may be crammed with verbs, but when they go on and on, the little movie-maker in the reader’s brain gets tired and wants a break. Have your characters go for a drink and talk about the weather.
Here’s a post from 2011, when I frequently opined on various writing rules. This one is a bit more interesting and less grumpy than some. The text is unchanged, but I’ve bolded a few bits to zing it up visually.
In a previous post I said how partial I am to first person narrator for writing fiction. Without realizing it, I have at times been seduced by a style within that category, the reminiscing voice.
It took me a while to figure this out. I am right now in the process of editing the second novel of my Herbert West series in preparation for publication later this year. A fellow writer who has read most of the manuscript recently commented that certain sections were too slow, with too many details not relevant to the story. Years ago, a letter from a publisher rejecting this work annoyed me by using the term “plodding prose.” When I discussed this at the time with another fellow writer, we concluded that the removed, reflective quality of the narrative voice may have been what led to this opinion.
Thinking about this some more, I have identified this style of narrative as the reminiscing voice. The narrator is remembering events long after they have occurred, from a perspective of stillness and calm. Whatever the narrator’s problems, conflicts and sufferings may have been, they are over, but they were important events in the life of this character, and he or she is about to relate them to the reader.
Today I took a quick look among my books to find examples of the reminiscing voice. As an aside, I will mention that many of the books I own — never to be dignified with the terms “collection” or “library” — were purchased in the 1970s and ’80s at used bookstores with no pretensions to the antiquarian. One of these, Ted Fraser’s Book Bin in Vancouver, B.C., actually had “bargain barrels” — big wooden barrels full of books selling at ten cents apiece. Lord only knows what was at the bottom of those barrels. The fact that many of my best-loved reads came from sources such as this should tell you something.
Back to the reminiscing voice. Here is the beginning of The Crystal Cave, the first book in Mary Stewart’s Merlin series:
I am an old man now, but then I was already past my prime when Arthur was crowned King. The years since then seem to me now more dim and faded than the earlier years, as if my life were a growing tree which burst to flower and leaf with him, and now has nothing more to do than yellow to the grave.
This is followed by four substantial paragraphs about memory and remembering, before the story begins. And even then, we are still in the Prologue.
Another example, this one the first paragraph of The Girl in a Swing by Richard Adams (a book that has huge flaws, but which I re-read every few years because… Well, I don’t actually know why):
All day it has been windy — strange weather for late July — the wind swirling through the hedges like an invisible flood-tide among seaweed; tugging, compelling them in its own direction, dragging them one way until the patches of elder and privet sagged outward from the tougher stretches of blackthorn on either side. It ripped the purple clematis from its trellis and whirled away twigs and green leaves from the oaks at the bottom of the shrubbery.
And on and on like this for another two long paragraphs which are word-pictures of a garden and landscape, really quite vivid, but definitely not germane to the story of how the narrator met and lost his wife, the mysterious Karin. Adams breaks another Rule of Writing here, which is never to begin with a description of weather.
For some reason, I find beginnings of this sort compelling, both to read and to write. To me, they are like slow crescendos, starting out quietly and building to a climax in which the narrator is no longer merely remembering, but reliving. But it appears that others disagree. Slow and not sufficiently relevant, they say, and it is difficult to argue with these assessments. “Yes, but I like it, ” isn’t really an argument.
I think it’s OK to use the reminiscing voice if it suits the narrator and his or her situation, but as with so many other things, moderation is the key. Use the reflective style to set the scene and indicate something about the narrator’s personality, but move fairly soon into reliving mode. This is related to the advice about “back story,” that it’s best presented in small, cunningly concealed doses, rather than as a lengthy, identifiable section — sort of like coating a cat pill in butter to make it slip down more easily.
That is if you are following the rules because you must please those who make them, be they instructors, editors or publishers. If you are writing to please only yourself or whatever spirit has inspired you to write, and the reminiscing voice is the voice that speaks, go for it. When I was only a reader and not a writer, I would begin to read a novel and continue to read it to the end, if its voice pleased, allured or fascinated me, never mind why. Much of this writing, I suspect, broke some sort of rule. It’s nearly impossible to identify the precise qualities of prose that attract or repel a particular reader, which is why it is also nearly impossible to come up with a set of definitive rules for writing.
I consider the reminiscing voice at the beginning of a novel to be a signal to the reader that the narrator has something important to say, but isn’t going to launch into the story until the reader is ready to listen. It’s sort of like the opening credits in a movie, that let you settle into your seat, position your popcorn and get set to watch. Or like fancy gift wrapping on a special present, that gives you an opportunity to whet your anticipation. Or like foreplay.