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. Conform to the standards you set, don’t write like everyone else, it makes for a refreshing change for everyone.

    LINDA: That is how I used to write … before I got the publishing bug, then I started listening to the rules.


  2. I’m with you. Sometimes the rules drive me crazy. I’ve been in rule-bucking mode lately.

    LINDA: I feel much stronger for it, Kirsten.


  3. You missed one: The second sentence is in present tense.

    I saw another no-no, but cramming several barely-related images into the same sentence seems like a well-loved practice within the literary genre; it’s only a no-no in all other genres.

    I would suggest writing your opening in whichever way pleases you and revise only if reader-readers (not writer-readers) agree the opening needs more oomph, except mynovelopeninghasbeenrevised *gasp* abunchoftimesinanattempt *gasp* tosatisfymyinterpretationoftherules. So, I won’t suggest that.

    Really, though, a prize means less if the author doesn’t like what she created.

    LINDA: Ann, the second sentences only begins in present tense because Henry is “Retired now” and thinking back. I’m going to go edit my original post now because I don’t think I made it as clear as I could that I’m not criticizing Strout’s writing; I think it’s lovely. I’m just ranting about those ridiculous writing rules.


  4. You’re right to be angry. I’m angry almost every time I pick up a book anymore. Angry that the rules which govern the lives of the wannabe millions, the rules arbitrarily and capriciously established the “literati” and self-proclaimed gatekeepers of literature, the rules which are used to systematically weed out any and all hopeful authors who don’t carefully, deliberately — and cheerfully! don’t complain about the process, hea’n forbid! — and completely jump through those “established” hoops …

    … are completely ignored. All bets are off, and for those of us who know we may have the chops (like you) to make it in this business, it’s disheartening, confusing and downright ridiculous. It’s subjective. It’s unfair.

    And that’s the way it is. 😦 Which is yet another reason why I don’t write anymore. *Sigh*

    I know why you’re seething, and if it helps at all, I understand. Empathy isn’t going to get you published any faster, but I do feel your pain.

    LINDA: Well, you know what? I’m not seething anymore. From now on, I will write according to sensible rules (grammar and all … except that I do love fragments and the occasional em dash) but the rules that I think may apply to certain genres, but are touted as applying to ALL fiction, I will now ignore.

    And the rules for query letters are just as confusing. One agent wants you to start by telling her what happens in the book, another wants you to start by telling her the name, genre, and length, and a third wants you to introduce yourself by telling why you’ve chosen to query her. And then, you read a site that shows actual query letters that won the writer an agent, and the winners broke all the rules! This stuff will drive you insane (or totally discourage you) if you let it. I choose not to any longer.


  5. Since I write literary fiction I’ve broken a few rules in my time. I never went out of my way to do this. It’s just the way I write. Coupled with the fact that I tend to read literary fiction a good deal of the time, so it’s easy to see where my influences would come from. Not everyone understands it, though.

    It is true some authors can get away with breaking the rules. I agree it can most annoying. Some novels are even to literary for me. But that’s all part of our individual tastes and a good thing for that!

    But what I like about literary fiction is the fact that the rules can be broken and if/when submitting to publishers/agents who work with literary fiction the rules shouldn’t matter. They should “get it.”

    To be honest, I would write the way I want to. You’ll be creating your own brand, your own style. And your work will stand out because of it.

    I hope that one day you do win the Pulitzer Prize, Linda!

    LINDA: That’s the way it should be, Laura. I just let myself get side-tracked. I’m not one to deliberately break the rules … like the odd new wave of gimmicky writing, but I, too, just want to write the way I write. I think, eventually, I’ll connect with the right agent, like you said.

    Hey, yeah, Pulitzers for all of us, I say!


  6. I have struggled with these questions and you have every right to be angry, or at least question the validity of so many rules attached to the trade.

    Agents preach that they are looking for a “new voice”. I’ve often wondered how writers can develop a voice that is unique if they are restricted by following these dictums. Does the validity of their words hinge on the willful execution of these laws? If we all followed the rules to the letter, wouldn’t that produce works with a similar blanket familiarity?

    I say write from your heart, using the voice and style that is unique to you. In the end, what it all comes down to is the story. A well-written story with a sense of honesty and integrity, that incorporates characters you can connect with, will be loved and well received — no matter how many rules you follow or break.

    LINDA: I’ve wondered the same thing, Ms. Olivia, how to show voice when you’re restricted by all the dos and do nots. I think it’s partly my fault for not realizing how much of the writing rules are geared toward action-driven writing, not character-driven. I’ve been quite discouraged by searching for agents to query, but now I feel liberated. If … as the agents claim … the writing is what matters, then I will write and follow only the rules that make sense to me.


  7. All of the above and more! I’m guessing this is not much different from clinical practice or research although writers are probably more vulnerable to isolation. Nothing new ever came out of conformity but quality means knowing what the rules (or principles) are so that you can manipulate them in pursuit of originality. If we can make them work for us, they might just pull the blinder that gets us the golden gong. I’m with Darksculptures – honesty and integrity seem central whatever line of work you’re in. Then you’re free to experience true enjoyment of the task.

    LINDA: That’s what I’d lost, Suzanne, the “true enjoyment” of writing. It seemed I had begun second guessing every word I wrote, trying to make sure it followed the rules. No more! Like I said to Darcknyt, I will follow most of the grammar and punctuation rules because those are sensible, but the other rules that make no sense to me, no. I will concentrate on honing my skills to let my voice ring true.


  8. I agree we need to write from our hearts, and a good story and good writing will sell itself–but–and here is my but–If the agent/publisher won’t read past the first paragraph how will they know it’s a good story or good writing. If I don’t ‘hook’ them in that all important first page they’ll never know if it’s a great story.
    I have been struggling with my first chapter for this very reason.
    It is infuriating to see some of the awful writing that is being published these days. UGH! Very often I feel like I should ask for my money back after I pay for a book.

    LINDA: Dayner, I will explain why my “rant” was incomplete in my next post, but for now I’ll say this. The thing is, not all rules apply to all writers. I don’t know what you’re writing, but if it’s action-driven, then probably the type of first paragraph “hook” I was talking about is what you should have. But that’s not what I write. Of course, I want an agent to read more than my first paragraph, BUT only if that agent is hooked by my voice that promises I will entertain them with a good story about interesting, though ordinary, people making their way through life because that’s what I write. And that’s what my first paragraph should reflect.


  9. This is why I go out of my way to read books by debut authors. Seems only the famous are breaking the rules. And if and when I make a name for myself, I will relish in that luxury as well.

    I know you’ve read a lot of debuts, but none of them broke the rules? Not a one? (she asks anxiously)


  10. I prefer reading fiction that feels fresh and different, and many of my favorite writers seem to make their own rules.

    I think writing what you FEEL and in the way that resonates most honestly with your core is what’s important and what will make your writing stand out — not following a formula or arbitrary rules.

    Write what I feel … I know this and yet I let myself lose sight of it. I think that’s the danger in reading too many agent blogs and how-to guides.


  11. [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.


  12. 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.


  13. 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!


  14. 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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