Thursday, June 04, 2020

The Rules of Writing

Cory Doctorow's latest LOCUS column explores the issue of whether there are any truly unbreakable writing rules:

Rules for Writers

You're probably acquainted with the collection of "rules" he cites, the Turkey City Lexicon, to which he faithfully adhered for many years. It's a list of colorfully labeled errors into which writers can fall, many of them specific to science fiction:

Turkey City Lexicon

The page begins with a long introduction by Bruce Sterling about the origin and background of the Lexicon. The errors and frequently perpetrated SF tropes are divided into categories such as Words and Sentences, Plots, Common Workshop Story Types, etc. Some of the entries now familiar to most speculative fiction writers include: Tom Swifties (although I prefer to think of them as "Tom Swiftlies," in keeping with the adverbial theme), e.g., "I'm not lying," Pinocchio said woodenly. "Said-bookisms," substituting an outlandishly obtrusive dialogue tag for a simple "said," e.g., "No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die," Goldfinger gloated. "Call a Rabbit a Smeerp," sticking an exotic name on a mundane animal without changing the creature in any material way. Hand waving, "An attempt to distract the reader with dazzling prose or other verbal fireworks, so as to divert attention from a severe logical flaw."

Doctorow's article links the topic of writing rules to Sterling's nonfiction book THE HACKER CRACKDOWN, leading into the hacker's task of analyzing "which devices were likeliest to contain a fatal error." Inherent difficulty—proneness to error—according to Doctorow, is what the writing "rules" are really all about. At some point in his career, he received the epiphany that the guidelines he'd revered for so long "weren't rules at all! They're merely things that are hard to do right!" In the hands of a Heinlein or an Asimov, for example, an "expository lump" can be fascinating. The rule against exposition is better understood as a warning that "most exposition isn't good, and bad exposition is terrible."

It's sometimes said that there's only one truly unbreakable rule in writing: "Don't be boring." Excellent advice, although hardly specific enough to put into practice. It's on the level of Heinlein's rules for how to succeed as an author, which go something like this: (1) Write. (2) Finish what you write. (3) Submit it to an editor who might buy it. (4) Keep sending it out until it sells. He also advised, "Never rewrite except to editorial order," by which I can't imagine he meant one should submit rough drafts without revision. He apparently meant a writer shouldn't bother rewriting an unsuccessful piece from scratch but should devote his or her energy to producing a new work. Yet Heinlein didn't consistently follow his own advice on that point, as demonstrated by his recent posthumously released book THE PURSUIT OF THE PANKERA. It comprises the abandoned original version of the novel published as THE NUMBER OF THE BEAST. The first half of the text has some differences in detail, while the second half radically diverges. (Personally, I prefer the original draft, which reads much more like "vintage Heinlein" than the fun but meandering, self-indulgent NUMBER OF THE BEAST.)

In short, no ironclad rules, just wise guidelines.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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