Yes, I’m angry!

PLEASE NOTE: This post is not a criticism of Elizabeth Strout’s writing, which I love. It is only a rant about some arbitrary writing rules.

This is the post that will probably get me in trouble. On Friday, I finally got a copy of Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, which won a Pulitzer last year. Accessible literary books are what I normally read, but for some reason, after reading the first paragraph of this one, a light flashed on in the writer section of my brain and I began to seethe. Here’s that paragraph:

“For many years Henry Kitteridge was a pharmacist in the next town over, driving every morning on snowy roads, or rainy roads, or summer-time roads, when the wild raspberries shot their new growth in brambles along the last section of town before he turned off to where the wider road led to the pharmacy. Retired now, he still wakes early and remembers how mornings used to be his favorite, as though the world were his secret, tires rumbling softly beneath him and the light emerging through the early fog, the brief sight of the bay off to his right, then the pines, tall and slender, and almost always he rode with the window partly open because he loved the smell of the pines and the heavy salt air, and in the winter he loved the smell of the cold.”

Okay, I love this, but where’s the obligatory punch ’em in the face opening line? You know, the almighty hook! And … oh, no it can’t be … this entire paragraph is made up of only two sentences?! One of which is fifty-four words and the other is eighty-five words long! And whoa, what’s this? It couldn’t be snow and rain and fog in that opening because that’s the dreaded no-no weather. Oh … I get it, this is a hoax. This book was never published because no agent or editor would ever read past that first paragraph because nothing happens in it!

Yes, I know, I know, Strout had two books published before this one, so she’s allowed to break the rules. She’s a member of the “In Crowd” now. But if this had been her first novel, would any agent who reps literary fiction reject this book because of her “rule breaking” opening? Really?

So why am I seething? I’m angry at myself for taking to heart these arbitrary rules. I’m angry that I’ve rewritten my novel opening—as well as my query letter—a dozen times because they didn’t have enough in-your-face oomph! I’m angry that I’ve broken up uncountable melodic, well-punctuated sentences because they were “too long” and revised whole paragraphs because they were too “literary.”

I’m angry that I listened to my head and not my heart and soul!

So, now I’m taking a deep breath and going off to write the way I love to write. Who knows, maybe some day I’ll win a Pulitzer Prize.


Part Two, coming soon.

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15 thoughts on “Yes, I’m angry!

  1. [em]So, now I’m taking a deep breath and going off to write the way I love to write. Who knows, maybe some day I’ll win a Pulitzer Prize.[/em]

    There is nothing more to say about the way you are writing.

    It is your writing. Your work.

    Some people will love it. Some will not…

    There is place for more than a point of view in the literary.

    You’re right, Mireille, I need only write my heart’s desire and let come what may.

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  2. Thank you thank you thank you. I’ve changed the way I write so much – so very very much – as I’ve chased the dream of publication. I used to write literary fiction, but I’ve given it up for a more plot-driven and salable style. sigh.

    52 Faces, not sure you’ll see this (per your comment on Tuesday’s post) but I’ll try. You’re welcome. I hope you reserve some time to write what your heart wants to write.

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  3. In one of my writing books by Elizabeth Lyon she actually used this type of writing as an example of proper openings. She calls it the setting opening. And she warns that only excellent writers should attempt it.

    Oh dear!

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  4. Linda, I’m so happy to finally have the time to see what you’ve been up to. I love this post. In the last few months one of the things I’ve done is to list opening sentences. And I’ve been surprised, just as you were, that most of them just ground the reader in the real world. If you have an Alice Munro around, take a look at her openings. Nothing flamboyant, no teasers, just solid details. Interesting.

    Cynthia, I really think these “hit ’em between the eyes” openings are more suited for action driven stories. Again, I frustrated myself by listening to advice not meant for my style. And yes, if I’d paid closer attention to the books on my shelves I could have avoided some anxiety. There’s a fine line, I think. Of course, you want to pull the reader into your story, but you also don’t want to mislead the reader into expecting a different kind of story.

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