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Seeking Certainty

posted in: Writing Craft | 29
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Fiction writing is an awkward compendium of art and craft, and one with very few absolutes. A physicist can drop something off a roof and know with certainty what gravity will cause it to do under all conditions. A writer has dozens of rules, conventions, alternatives, options, and style choices.

Having written, we then hear from critiquers, readers, editors, and publishers that the work is, or isn’t, cohesive, engaging, properly punctuated, correctly formatted, in the currently preferred style and point of view . . . on and on.

We don’t have one Delphic Oracle to pronounce definitely that this way of phrasing the sentence or describing the scene is absolutely correct and that way is definitely incorrect. We lack certainty.

Humans tend to prefer certainty. Consequently, when a respected person says something, we are likely to clutch it like a shipwreck survivor grabbing a passing flotation device. Someone says not to use adverbs as a substitute for strong verbs. Lacking certainty as to what exactly strong verbs would be in any specific situation, we remember and repeat, “Don’t use adverbs.”

Someone says never to repeat words within a few lines of each other. So we make pretzels of ourselves trying to find another word for something that doesn’t really have on-point synonyms. If a kitchen sink is key to a scene, once we’ve called it the sink, and perhaps the basin, do we then reach for awkward alternatives like tub, leaving the reader wondering how we suddenly moved from the kitchen to the bathroom? Or, do we use common sense and just call it a sink again.

As a reader, I never noticed repeated words until writers groups made a big deal about them. I’m not saying to ignore repeated words. I’m saying let’s not go nuts about it. What matters is conveying the meaning and telling the story.

Someone says semi-colons are pretentious in fiction and suddenly we’re writing comma splices or cutting apart clauses that make more sense together. The purpose of a semi-colon is to join two clauses that could be separate sentences, but are so closely related they work better in the same sentence together. There’s nothing wrong with using punctuation marks in the manner they are intended.

Some publishers don’t accept manuscripts written in the omniscient point of view. That’s useful information for a writer who hopes to submit to those publishers. It’s not a reason to tell all writers that their omniscient writing is wrong. Sure, let them know it’s out of fashion, but if they are self-published or submitting to a more open-minded publisher, and want to take a chance, that’s their choice.

Many current, traditionally published, widely read novels are written in the omniscient point of view. Some of the works of Alexander McCall Smith, Nevada Barr, Phillip Pullman, and Terry Pratchett are examples.

Any certainty we may achieve is tenuous at best, full of exceptions, loaded with nuance, and constantly changing. The challenge is to avoid locking our writing into artificially produced straightjackets in the struggle to cope with a chronic lack of certainty.

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Marie Brack writes both fiction and nonfiction. She is the author of My Writer’s Sampler: Exercises in Learning to Write Fiction (a finalist in the 2017 RPLA), and several other works: amazon.com/author/mariebrack. Her mystery, Further Investigation, won third prize in the 2017 RPLA competition. Although she lives primarily in cyberspace, she has a physical home in Daytona Beach, Florida, and is a member of two writers’ groups.

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29 Responses

  1. Veronica H Hart
    | Reply

    An excellent and timely article, Marie. Thank you for making clear what all writing critique group members should understand. Other writers are offering opinions, not law. Well written.

    • Marie Brack
      | Reply

      Thank you. I have to remember we’re all just doing the best we can, without being the final word on anything.

  2. Skip
    | Reply

    I like what you wrote. I understand certainty as feeling we are right to ourselves while being loyal to our craft. Thanks for taking time to create an explanation of a word that has the ability to strangle us.

    • Marie Brack
      | Reply

      Strangle is right. It would be easy to become so choked up with always do this and never do that, one could be paralysed.
      “The centipede was happy, quite,
      Until a toad in fun,
      Said, “Pray, which leg goes after which?”
      This raised his mind to such a pitch,
      He lay distracted in a ditch,
      Considering how to run.”
      –Katherine Craster

  3. RJ Winn
    | Reply

    Marie,
    Thank you for your timely insight into writing. I recently received a declination from a well known publisher on a manuscript I submitted for publication. While their comments on my work did not contain the exact issues you speak about, their comments criticized the first person story telling approach of my novel. Oh, they added a number of praises for character development and such, but declined to publish as the storytelling did not follow their preferred method. As a new writer, I seek comments and suggestions on my writing and tend to incorporate said suggestions. Their comment discouraged me, and left me thinking I should quit writing. Your article changed my thinking. I don’t have to write within a “cookie-cutter” world. Readers have loved my book and clamor for more, so I appreciate your words and comments.

    • Marie Brack
      | Reply

      Publishers have very specific needs and preferences. It’s readers who matter, and since yours love your book, you’re clearly doing something right.

  4. Marie Brack
    | Reply

    Yes–rejections in themselves are mostly meaningless. Publishers receive many times more submissions than they have room to publish. They’re looking for things they think will make money. A story or book can be heartfelt, lovely, and beautifully written, but if the acquisitions editor doesn’t think the public will buy it, then the publishing house won’t buy it.

  5. Judith A Lawrence
    | Reply

    Marie, I love this advise. I always believe it’s about the story. If the story works, some rules can be broken. First it’s necessary to learn the rules, and then choose when to discard them. Judy Lawrence

    • Marie Brack
      | Reply

      Yes, is it important to know the rules and conventions of the craft. Some are easy enough to follow, and doing so prevents people from being annoyed by our writing instead of intrigued by it. To my mind, the main thing is not to be so legalistic about it that the flow of the story suffers.

  6. Jerry Tabbott
    | Reply

    Marie – Thank you. I thoroughly enjoyed your post. When I first joined writer’s groups (much later than I should have), their first consensus was that my story was “omniscient third person, and nobody writes ‘that’ anymore”. I felt I had to defend it. First person seems to be today’s accepted norm.

    It made me realize that – although I liked many forms of storytelling – that my favorite authors presented overlapping story lines with multiple characters and multiple points of view. I still strongly embrace that form.

    What I quickly learned though is to make sure readers can always recognize whose voice is being shared – something that is more of a challenge when wiring omniscient.

    There are many other writing advice memes, and the trick is to take most advice with a grain of salt. Little is written in stone.

    • Marie Brack
      | Reply

      As I wander around the internet world of writing, I find that there is almost nothing that “nobody” is doing. Someone somewhere is doing just about everything, and being out of fashion is not the same thing as being wrong or badly done.

  7. Ann Henry
    | Reply

    Thank you, Marie, for this most appropriate article written in these uncertain times. I wholeheartedly endorse your sentiment and also appreciate the comments contributed by the above writers. When wrangling with the “rules” for fiction writing, perhaps it would stand us all in good stead just to sit back and take a deep breath before carrying on with telling our stories the best way we know how. The longer we work at it, the better we are likely to become. Study the craft, and then craft your stories in your own unique way. And remember, when it comes to fiction, there really are no rules, only guidelines.

  8. Wayne Haroutunian
    | Reply

    Great article Marie 🙂

  9. Marie Brack
    | Reply

    Guidelines is a great word for it, because they guide our written lines. Guidelines invite questioning, and questioning the framework, the “rules,” the guidelines, leads to knowing of your own knowledge why you are writing a certain way, because of the usefulness of it, the practical benefits, not because “they” said so.

  10. Peter Guinta
    | Reply

    I disagree with Ms. Brack about rejections being meaningless. If I were courageous enough to submit a work to a publisher (not yet), I’d consider what they said, even negative comments, as an opportunity to learn what maybe not to do. One shouldn’t quit writing because one editor says your writing isn’t good for them. That’s like remaining alone because the one girl you wanted turned down your marriage proposal. Like potential spouses, there are many editors in the sea.

    • Marie Brack
      | Reply

      A rejection with suggestions shows they see some potential in the work, and the suggestions are certainly worth considering.

      • Marie Brack
        | Reply

        I meant a rejection doesn’t mean the work is bad or the author is unskilled. Comments are meaningful and if taken with the right amount of salt can be helpful.

  11. June Gordon
    | Reply

    OH MARIE, OH MARIE…MY HEAD IS SPINNING, GRAVITY IS PULLING ME DOWN TO WRITING REALITIES…HAVE MERCY! I LOVE MY SEMI-COLON AND DOTS… I HATE REJECTION. I WANT TO BE LOVED…IS THAT A SIN? MIA CULPA. I WISH I WAS A PHYSICIST.

  12. June Gordon
    | Reply

    ON THE SANE SIDE, YOUR ARTICLE HIGHLIGHTS EXCELLENT WRITING POINTS.
    I DON’T LIKE THE WORD “REJECTION”. IT MAKES ME FEEL LIKE I’M BEING KICKED OUT OF EDEN. AS YOU INDICATED,THERE IS HOPE FOR MOST WRITERS IF THE RIGHT PUBLISHER IS APPROACHED. HOW MANY WRITERS NEVER SUBMIT A STORY TO A PUBLISHER? IT’S A SCARY TERRITORY! THANK GOODNESS MY FAMILY IS NICE TO ME.

  13. Robert Bellam
    | Reply

    I facilitate a writers group and have for 7 years. Rejoined FWA this year because I felt stale and needed to learn more to give more. Your Post was inspiring, I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard from members everything you’ve said about, semicolon’s, sinks, adverbs and strong verbs and repeated the same mantra myself and to myself. I am ready to send something out and I had a word I’d written…hut…I did the disco dance for words to use. Shack, shanty, cabin, etc; I have copied your Post and will bring it to next meeting as a handout, and I will read it for more emphasis. Loved your Post or should I say article so I don’t repeat.

    • Marie Brack
      | Reply

      Thank you, that’s very gratifying to hear.
      I feel that rules should be tools, not straitjackets.

      • Marie Brack
        | Reply

        The alleged prohibition on semicolons seems to have originated with Kurt Vonnegut, if it’s true that he said “First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.”

        With all due respect, semicolons serve a genuine function, and they are taught well below the college level. It’s one man’s opinion, and for all I know a mis-quote at that.

        This is an example of why I feel it’s important to ask “Why?” when presented with any absolute. What I really want to know is: will doing, or not doing, whatever it is make my writing clearer, smoother, more readable?
        http://theeditorsblog.net/2012/01/11/punctuation-in-fiction-are-there-prohibitions

  14. June Gordon
    | Reply

    THANK YOU MARIE BRACK
    I FEEL OK ABOUT USING SEMICOLONS.

    • Marie Brack
      | Reply

      My view is that all punctuation marks were invented for a reason, usually to make the meaning of the words more clear. At the same time, I know it can be distracting to have an avalanche of dashes or exclamation points on the page. The key is to use them appropriately and moderately. Usually the prose can be made exciting enough not to need the emphasis of an exclamation point, but not always.

  15. Elle Andrews Patt
    | Reply

    Great post, Marie! A great reminder to use common sense with writing “rules” 🙂

    • Marie Brack
      | Reply

      Thank you. I have a tendency to be legalistic, so I have to remind myself to ask whether the practical application of a “rule” truly makes an improvement in the writing.

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