Thursday, February 17, 2011

Scariness in Fictionland

Sometimes being a novelist is scary. For example, over the last year or so I’ve seen dozens of emails from other authors who claim they strongly dislike the first person point of view. That’s a frightful development for a serious novelist.

The first person point of view transcends all periods, genres and literary styles. It has existed since the dawn of language. It is as fundamental to literature as oil paint is to visual arts, as antibiotics are to medicine, as the Ten Commandments are to law. For an author to say she doesn’t like an entire point of view is as if a motion picture director had said, “I don’t like male actors,” or an architect had said, “I don’t like south facing windows.” It’s not as if these authors confined themselves to dislike of mere genres, not as if they said, “I don’t enjoy murder mysteries.” It’s more like they said, “I don’t like the letter 'a'.”

If you still don’t understand why I find this so disturbing, imagine if this took hold, and in another decade or two all the seminars and books on how to write started teaching that the first person point of view is against the rules. What if publishers and literary critics jump on this bandwagon? What if everyone decides the first person POV “draws readers out of the story” or “distances us from the action”? What if the day comes when third person is the only acceptable point of view left to us? While you’re at it, imagine living in a world where ice cream shops sell only vanilla.

Don’t scoff at the possibility. This trend which so concerns me is already underway, and has been for many years.

Once upon a time there was a thing called “third person omniscient” narration. You know: a Voice which tells the story from an all-knowing perspective, a “meanwhile back at the ranch” or a “little did she know” kind of storyteller. In centuries past, thousands of wonderful novels were written in this point of view by literary giants such as Dickens, Austen and Tolstoy. Once it was a perfectly acceptable part of the novelist’s tool kit, but you’ll hardly find third person omniscient used today, and when it is, you’ll often hear impatient complaints from The Powers That Be. We’re told it’s “telling, not showing,” and it “draws readers out of the story,” or “distances us from the action.” So they’ve already killed an entire point of view. First person might be next.

Then what? The death of adjectives and adverbs?

Well, as a matter of fact, yes.

While I agree it is a bad idea to dress up weak nouns and verbs with weak descriptors, I also know for a fact that an adverb or adjective can do some very heavy lifting if chosen wisely. For example, Sol Stein in his peerless and pragmatic Stein on Writing (Read it! Read it!) points to this sentence from Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter:

“Wilson sat on the balcony of the Bedford hotel with his bald pink knees thrust against the ironwork.”

Read that sentence again and omit the words “bald pink” for incontrovertible evidence of the power of adjectives—two adjectives in a row, actually!—in the hands of a great writer.

It's Greene's brilliant writing that makes the adjectives so wonderful. Without him, they are simply inert tools with no qualities to like or dislike whatsoever. To say "I don't like adjectives," (or the first person point of view, the third person omniscient, or adverbs), is like saying, “I don’t like guns.” Until the gun is used, it is just a clump of metal. In the wrong hands, a gun can indeed be dangerous and harmful, but in the right hands a gun can put dinner on the table and keep evil at bay. We tend to focus on the damage done by those who don’t know how to use these literary tools, or by those who deliberately abuse them, and we say, “Therefore, I don’t like the tool.” What a sad, irrational mistake.

While I’m at it, let me add I’ve also noticed a growing impatience with “long” (as in, you know, more than one paragraph) descriptions. Of anything.

Sometimes I feel like I’m the only one who sees the king is naked. What in the world is going on here?

To understand how we came to this, it might help to think of where we are in the history of literature. Around the turn of the last century, the reaction against Romanticism and Aestheticism (and a few other egghead “isms”) which had already begun in the visual arts and philosophy also started to take hold in architecture, dance, music, and literature. Some people said the arts were just too fluffy.

By the middle third of the century, Modernist painting had been stripped down to the bare essentials, simple fields of color, or stark lines, and Modernist architecture had been reduced to a “form follows function” approach that removed all ornamentation. In the same way, Modernism began whittling away at the novel, deleting adverbs and adjectives and the “unnecessary” omniscient narrator, until authors like Hemingway and Fitzgerald were hardly even bothering to write descriptions of characters or settings. Everything boiled down to dialogue and action, period.

That spare approach to fiction is a legitimate aesthetic, and it led to some true masterpieces, but as is often the case with human nature, the pendulum swung too far. Andy Warhol’s soup cans overwhelmed a basic concern with beauty in the visual arts world. In the same way, Modernism’s starkly reduced style of storytelling fascinated all the most important editors and critics in the world of literature, and The Powers That Be in New York City developed a universal disdain for such things as adjectives and adverbs, non-participating narrators, and “long” (you know: more than a paragraph) descriptions of settings, no matter how beautiful the language might be. In fact, “beauty” as a fundamental goal of literature was almost totally forgotten, until today we hardly ever speak of it alongside character, plot, theme, setting and so forth, as I have mentioned in this column before.

It’s a well-known psychological fact that our environment conditions us to prefer our environment. (Stockholm syndrome is one extreme example.) So without really knowing anything about the theoretical reasons for the shift, the reading public came to prefer the stark and spare Modernist style of literature which had been almost universally forced upon them, not because it’s necessarily better in any way, but simply because it had indeed been so universally forced upon them.

Also, it’s a well-known psychological fact that we develop habits mainly because they are more convenient. At rush hour, when presented with a choice between a scenic route and a shortcut, a person falls into the habit of taking the shortcut between their home and workplace. But after doing that a while, the person also takes the shortcut even when they’re not in a hurry, and even though they’re missing a chance to see more beautiful scenery.

Why do they do it? Because it’s easier not to think about which route to take, or to have to think about which way to turn at this intersection or that one. They choose against the beautiful scenery because it’s easier (more convenient) to simply do what they always do, with their mind on autopilot, so to speak.

Similarly, a reader learns to “suspend disbelief” and go along for the ride in one form of novel, and then when presented with a different mode of storytelling, they choose not to indulge, even though it may have great promise, because it’s easier to just stay with the form of fiction they already understand.

The near-death of third person omniscient narration is a perfect example of this phenomenon. Although it was once the most popular form of novel, many readers (and authors) today say omniscient narrators tempt them out of the “fictive dream”. It is as if these people think the narrator they experience in the story is somehow outside the story.

Of course, that is not true at all. In the hands of a skilled author, the narrator can be as much a part of the novel as any other character. After all, who has the right to say a character must participate in the action to be in the novel? Who says we can’t make that omniscient narrator character interesting in other ways? Who says a skilled author can’t introduce a reader to that Voice, and get them thinking, “Oh, good. I like this person,” every time the narrator speaks?

We have forgotten that it was our decision to think of adverbs and adjectives as “superfluous”, our decision to be impatient with descriptions of settings or characters, and our decision to think of omniscient narrators as exterior to the story. These are mere fads and opinions, not objective facts. Indeed, millions of authors and readers who went before us would strongly disagree with all of that. We have been told these perfectly fine literary tools are distractions by the so-called “authorities,” or “critics,” and like sheep we have accepted their judgment, not because doing so has actually improved fiction in any way, but simply because the pendulum has swung too far in one direction.


Heaven forbid me to become that much a slave to fashion.

I believe no serious author—no writer who genuinely wants to grow and improve in every way she can as a novelist—would ever reject any literary device out of hand, just as I believe every serious author will immerse herself in novels of every style, genre, and point of view. To always strive to learn, to grow, and to maintain openness to everything that might offer the chance of better storytelling . . . that is the universal hallmark of a true novelist, and a true lover of novels.

Athol Dickson's novels transcend description with a literary style that blends magical realism, suspense, and a strong sense of spirituality. Critics have favorably compared his work to such diverse authors as Octavia Butler (Publisher's Weekly) and Flannery O'Connor (The New York Times). One of his novels is an Audie Award winner and three have won Christy Awards including his most recent novel, Lost Mission. His next story, The Opposite Of Art, is about pride, passion, and death as a spiritual pursuit. Look for it in September, 2011. Athol lives with his wife in southern California.


Diane Moody said...

Yes! Yes! Yes! Finally - a voice of reason in a literary world that's been clinging to so many ridiculous rules! This should be mandatory reading for every student of the craft of writing. Excellent post.

Normandie Fischer said...

Diane, shall we give this one a standing ovation?

Hear my resounding, "Amen."

Dina Sleiman said...

Ha, ha. I was just going to say the same thing. A voice of reason. I'm on my feet clapping with you guys. As a teacher of literature, some of the "rules" we hear about just make me sad. Thanks, Athol.

Brenda Anderson said...

Well said, Athol. All these rules (the reader pays no mind to) have sterilized the art of writing. I applaud you, Gina Holmes, Mary DeMuth and others who have not forgotten to lace their story with beauty.

Julia M. Reffner said...

Amen! I have actually been getting bored with reading so many third person POV books in the CBA. Not that I have a problem with third person POV, mind you, but I love the variety of the different viewpoints. I also occasionally love paragraphs of beautifully descriptive prose that are more than two sentences in length. In the wrong hands it can be deadly but there are some great authors that can pull this off well.

BK said...

Athol said: “…no writer who genuinely wants to grow and improve in every way she can as a novelist—would ever reject any literary device out of hand”

Wow. Reading this post sets my mind chasing off in several directions because it resonates so well. The two foremost things that come to mind are:

With regard to the old novels and telling vs. showing: Having just finished War & Peace, it is fresh on my mind and I can tell you I really enjoyed this work, and while it may be written using a lot of “telling” that is so often poo-pooed in this day and age, I found Tolstoy to be much better at capturing the eccentricities of the human mind than most authors I’ve read.

Athol said: “It’s a well-known psychological fact that our environment conditions us to prefer our environment.” I think this is the one reason I rebel against the advice to read anything and everything I can get my hands on (which you hear a lot from the pros). For two reasons: We are being conditioned to write to an ADHD type mentality. I’m at a loss to understand why inattentiveness should be promoted. Obviously the majority of people don’t feel that way. Personally, my favorite books make good strong use of description. And in fact, the greatest loss I feel is that there are no historical epics in CBA (yes, I know about series fiction and the cost of publishing, but it simply is not the same thing). Second, I want to write like me, not someone else. Sure, I could watch 1500 reality TV shows and come up with a concept for my own reality show, but what if I was really meant to write something altogether different?

I want to write my books free of the “rules baggage”. Yes, when it comes time to edit/revise, I’ll have to make choices between what the greater masses want and what I can accept, but hopefully by that time I will have learned my craft well enough that the writing is so compelling, regardless of perceived broken rules, that my vision for the story comes through.

Diane Moody said...

Yes, Normandie, I'm on my feet with a prolonged standing ovation! This post is such a welcome blast of fresh air. I can't tell you how many times I've finished reading a book and told me husband how much I loved it - and that it broke almost ALL the supposed rules of writing! Story trumps style every stinkin' time, amen?

Ane Mulligan said...

Ah yes, the age old story of rules. I also applaud you, Athol, but we all have to learn the rules before we know HOW and WHEN to break them. And then break them with panache.

So don't miss what Athol said about adjectives and adverbs: I also know for a fact that an adverb or adjective can do some very heavy lifting iIF CHOSEN WISELY.

That's where newer writers go wrong. Not understanding the guidelines of good writing (because those guidelines WORK) they break them without doing it purposely.

I'm just saying ...

Dina Sleiman said...

Ane, I was actually just working on a blog post about that last night. Basically my premise is that you can break any rule...if you do it well.

Ane Mulligan said...

Exactly, Dina! Do it well and with purpose. :-)

sally apokedak said...

What a great post. I have always loved the omniscient pov and have been sorry to see it so misunderstood and disliked in the present publishing world. I have also chafed against the legalists who scan a page looking for adverbs and adjectives so they can quickly reject the work, instead of reading the thing to see if it's interesting and artistic.

Borrowing from Jerry Fletcher in Conspiracy Theory: "That's what they, they start when you're young, y'know. When you're little they, at school they, they Ted Dekker all the boys and they Karen Kingsbury all the girls, and they, then they cookie-cut ya' and bake ya' in the Browne and King Oven and ya' can't breathe any more.

That said, there are some great current works that break all the rules. I firmly believe that if a work is interesting, you can do whatever you want to do.

And I should add that I don't dislike Browne and King (or Dekker or Kingsbury, for that matter). I think they are great. I simply dislike people slavishly following all their rules to a ridiculous extreme.

Athol Dickson said...

BK wrote: "I’m at a loss to understand why inattentiveness should be promoted." To which I must shout YES! It seems to me we have an obligation not to feed the trend toward TV sound bite / Twitter inspired writing. Like candy, that kind of writing is okay as a treat, but a steady diet of it is bad for our readers’ health. Pornography or gratuitous violence may distort how a reader thinks, but a constant flow of novels that require little or no thought will atrophy a reader’s ability to think at all.

As an author, as a part of the “media”, I have a rare opportunity to take an effective stand against the sad decline of intellectual ability we’re witnessing. What kind of person would I be if I fed into it instead? And especially may God forgive me if I ever did that simply to see my name in print, or to make money.

And Ane and Dina, you make an excellent follow-on point. In fact, I went back and made a few revisions to strengthen the idea that Graham Greene was a brilliant author, therefore he was able to use those two adjectives brilliantly. Another author—not understanding the rules—might have chosen a pair of adjectives which added nothing to that sentence, but instead only served to bog it down. (When it comes to knees, the overused “knobby” and “pudgy” spring to mind.) So yes, it is vital (non-negotiable, essential, absolutely and unequivocally REQUIRED, etcetera, etcetera) to know the rules—and the reason for the rules—very well before we give ourselves permission to bend or break them.

But this column is not really about bending or breaking “how to” rules. What I am saying here is this: we have allowed ourselves to accept there is a rule against using these tools at all, a prohibition of them, a complete banishment from our pages. This is not about a rule GOVERNING the use of fictive tools; it is about a rule FORBIDDING their use, and regarding that one rule only, I say, "Disobey!"

Whether you are a published novelist, a new author, or a reader, there is one thing everyone who loves good novels can do to stand against this sad erosion of the art form: buy, read, and recommend novels that dare to move outside the current fads and fashions. Do that, and it will be good for your heart and mind, good for literature, and good for society.

Noël De Vries said...

I think Lewis' comments on Christian thought can also be well applied to technique as discussed in this post.

"Naturally, since I myself am a writer, I do not wish the ordinary reader to read no modern books. But if he must read only the new or only the old, I would advise him to read the old. And I would give him this advice precisely because he is an amateur and therefore much less protected than the expert against the dangers of an exclusive contemporary diet. A new book is still on its trial and the amateur is not in a position to judge it. It has to be tested against the great body of Christian thought down the ages, and all its hidden implications (often unsuspected by the author himself) have to be brought to light. Often it cannot be fully understood without the knowledge of a good many other modern books. If you join at eleven o’clock a conversation which began at eight you will often not see the real bearing of what is said. Remarks which seem to you very ordinary will produce laughter or irritation and you will not see why – the reason, of course, being that the earlier stages of the conversation have given them a special point. In the same way sentences in a modern book which look quite ordinary may be directed at some other book; in this way you may be led to accept what you would have indignantly rejected if you knew its real significance. The only safety is to have a standard of plain, central Christianity (“mere Christianity” as Baxter called it) which puts the controversies of the moment in their proper perspective. Such a standard can be acquired only from the old books. It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones.

Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook – even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it. Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny. They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united – united with each other and against earlier and later ages – by a great mass of common assumptions. We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century – the blindness about which posterity will ask, “But how could they have thought that?” – lies where we have never suspected it, and concerns something about which there is untroubled agreement between Hitler and President Roosevelt or between Mr. H. G. Wells and Karl Barth. None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books. Where they are true they will give us truths which we half knew already. Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill. The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction. To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them.

D. Ann Graham said...

This situation is never truer than in the children's market. That audience (who have little to no say in their reading material), has now been given a steady diet of dark literature for over a generation. Publishers -- who must bear the ultimate responsibility -- have fashioned the philosophy that children prefer to be scared spitless by goo and horrors rather than dream of "whatsoever is good, whatsoever is pure, whatsoever is lovely..." This is not true. Nor can they blame the sagging juvenile market on a tumbling economy.

People thoughout history have always plunked down their money for what is valuable, no matter how dismal their situations were. Could it be that the entire foundations of the industry are trembling more out of rot than hard times? Nature proves that there is nothing more fascinating or breathtaking than unlimited variety in a well-executed perfect order. Literature is no different. To remove good things from the entertainment industry has had the same effect as removing good food from a diet: people eventually lose their appetites. And those publishers that have used shock value as their main medium of exchange are simply experiencing the reaction of their reading public finally going numb. Sure proof of how dangerous "dumbing down" really is. No, let me rephrase that. Dumbing down is death.

A better view? (viewpoint) More beauty? (description) A lift on the ban of enlightenment? (no limits) -- bring them back! They are the only things left that might save us.

Wonderful post, Athol, you have struck nerves.

Anonymous said...

While there’s a great deal of sense to this argument, it’s also important to point out that far too much Christian fiction sounds as if someone threw a thesaurus onto the floor and shattered it around the room.

Carrie L. Lewis said...

A light in the wilderness! Thank you!

I love George MacDonald's writing and patterned a lot of my early writing after his. His third person omniscient was part of the reason I decided I should try my hand at novel writing.

Imagine my dismay to begin educating myself on writing only to discover that my preferred point of view and voice was passe.

I'm an artist, too, (I paint portraits of horses) and have had to deal with the fact that my preferred style (realism) and preferred subject (equine) is considered by many to not be art at all but a 'technical skill'. I've decided to paint what God gave me an interest in and to paint it in the manner that brings the most enjoyment no matter what the critics say.

Do you know what? My portraits sell!

I guess it's time to do the same with my writing!

Thank you again!

Carrie L. Lewis

Ane Mulligan said...

Absolutely, Athol. THere I fully agree, and I've finally learned to let the story flow, using everything in my arsenal to make it sing. And nothing in that arsenal is forbidden!! :) It's all in HOW we incorporate it.

Athol Dickson said...

Anonymous, I understand why you might not want to use your name, for fear of being pounced upon by those too easily offended by criticism. I, however, being perhaps more foolish than you are, (or more thick skinned), will go ahead and say I agree with you.

It's true, too many Christian novels read as if they were the aftermath of thesaurus explosions, due to the very issue Ane and Dina mentioned: people breaking rules before they understand them. But I'll hasten to go further and say I've found the same problem in most other kinds of novels. Laziness and the resulting mediocrity are not just in the Christian culture. The problem exists throughout the western world.

Perhaps it only seems to be a Christian problem because as Christians, we can't help thinking our work--as in every part of Christian life--ought to set a higher standard. But that’s really a different topic, which I already wrote about in this column:

Nicole said...

Way to bring it, Athol! Yeah, baby.

I've been spouting this with far less backup and articulation--and clout--as you've done. This makes me want to shout "Hallelujah!"

You get it. And you pegged "the establishment". You go, guy.

Unfortunately, so many have bought into "the rules" they simply can't see that the shield they're carrying is made of glass.

Sibella Giorello said...

Athol, reading this essay was like watching a beach jetty break eroding waves -- those waves of contemporary thinking that would destroy the harbor of good storytelling.

Whenever people complain that they dislike first-person POV, I've always wondered if they've simply read bad examples. Few devices will reveal laziness in an author faster than first-person POV (perhaps second place goes to third-person omniscient, which allows for more telling than showing).

But that's not the POV's fault. The fact is, within a vain or self-centered brain, "I" becomes a wicked crutch, and makes for tiresome storytelling -- like listening to a self-involved woman describe her visit to the dietician. Readers blame the POV but to continue your gun analogy, I'd echo the NRA's old slogan: "Guns don't kill people, people kill people." Authors kill POVs, not the other way around.

Thanks for the food for thought. Again. Truly terrific post. (Adverb and adjective were earned).

Lynn Dean said...

Loved the article as well as this jewel in your comment, Athol:

< is vital (non-negotiable, essential, absolutely and unequivocally REQUIRED, etcetera, etcetera) to know the rules—and the reason for the rules>

The difference between trite fiction and art in writing is a little like the difference between a religion of legalism and a vibrant relationship with our Creator, Redeemer, and Friend.

A look at recent secular best-sellers reveals many first person stories that became breakout novels: The Help, the Twilight series (no matter how you feel about vampires), the Amanda Hocking phenomenon. Maybe tastes are changing?

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Athol, for the kind and thoughtful response to my previous post. Thinking a bit more deeply, it seems you’ve hit upon the crux of the matter: The range of quality between good and bad in secular and Christian fiction is similar, but the critical reactions by the two artistic communities are vastly different.

There is plenty of bad secular fiction — evidenced by a shelf full of pretty novels in my library that were abandoned after a hundred pages. But in the secular literary world, bad books are panned or ignored until they go away. Christian reviewers, however, convince themselves — and the reading public — that poorly-written books must be good, despite the quality of the writing, because they are written by good people who are “on their team.”

This disillusions many readers who then abandon the genre altogether. Unless honest criticism of Christian fiction is allowed to mature, numinous writing will be forever relegated to the faith-ghetto.

There is a need for transparency, in both classification and evaluation of Christian fiction. Let the reader know what to expect, (why the phobia over being honestly categorized?), and don’t pretend bad writing is quality writing.

Perhaps some of the problem comes from misunderstanding criticism as a literary concept. As believers, we rightly recoil from mean-spirited attacks. But that’s an entirely different matter from honest evaluation that trumpets the good, while quietly encouraging the inferior.

By the way: My apologies for derailing the main thrust of your initial essay. I’m not sure I completely agree with all you have to say about first-person point of view, but I think it’s a discussion worth having. Best regards.

Michael Ehret said...

This may put me in the "uncool" camp, but I like the rules or guidelines. When I read your exceptionally well-written post, Athol, I wondered what the dust up was about.

But then saw the chorus of "Amens" that followed and shrugged, honestly.

I've never felt constrained by the guidelines (am not published yet, but admittedly, haven't made much effort toward it either).

Every profession has guidelines one must follow. Some are more strict (and more policed) than others--try working in the financial services industry--but guidelines are just a fact of life.

As a personal guideline, I do not like first person. Have I read fabulous books in first person? Yep, and I expect to read more. But I never seek it out. Nor would I choose to read omniscient.

But if someone wants to write for the audiences that appreciate both, go for it. Story rules.

Aren't these things cyclical anyway? Omniscient may come back into vogue.

KC Frantzen said...

My friend and mentor directed her FB followers here.


Athol, this is a "printer-offer" to peruse and savor.

Thank you for taking your time to write it.

Must also reference: At 11:31 AM, D. Ann Graham said...
This situation is never truer than in the children's market. That audience (who have little to no say in their reading material), has now been given a steady diet of dark literature for over a generation. Publishers -- who must bear the ultimate responsibility -- have fashioned the philosophy that children prefer to be scared spitless by goo and horrors rather than dream of "whatsoever is good, whatsoever is pure, whatsoever is lovely..." This is not true. Nor can they blame the sagging juvenile market on a tumbling economy.

I literally pushed back in my chair and shouted YES!!!! when I read that.

To further belabor your point, I'm in SCBWI and attended the October, 2010 regional conference in Nashville. During a packed with 120 people First Pages session, (a reading of anonymous first pages to a NY editor and NY agent), one young adult story was read. In this story, told in the thoughts of a 15 year old girl, the protagonist is IN THE ACT - graphically... or rather pornographically - in the ACT of losing her virginity with a 20 something year old boy she just met.

The lady reading the piece was appalled, her face turning more red by the moment. The audience fidgeted uncomfortably. It was painful.

This was not some erotic conference, this was a CHILDREN'S conference in Nashville, TN!!!!

The kicker was, both the NY agent and editor said they would most definitely be interested in hearing more of the story, encouraging the author to submit.

Later one of the NY Powers That Be said her current favorite TV character is Dexter, the Serial Killer. Yes. These are the people deciding what our kids will read.

It was at that conference I knew my manuscript would never be submitted to these Powers That Be in New York.

I'd prayed before attending, and received my answer, loud and clear.

D. Ann Graham, I can't agree with you more. Which is why, contrary to what most have advised, we have formed our own small publishing house and are going to publish to the best of our ability and we pray to honor God in the process.

My middle grade novel emphasizes moral absolutes, with good triumphing over evil and embraces the notion that there is HOPE and a PURPOSE for all. (And it involves a K9 spy!)

Athol, thank you again for a most excellent, thoughtful post and discussion. I'm so glad to have found your blog. New fan waving!!!

Nicole said...

"Every profession has guidelines one must follow. Some are more strict (and more policed) than others--try working in the financial services industry--but guidelines are just a fact of life."

Michael, it isn't the fact there are "guidelines". It's the fact that these "guidelines" are presented as hard and fast "rules" in order to be published in CBA, as if these rules constitute the true measure of quality creativity. Yes, they're broken by different authors successfully (Athol among them), but they're literally preached on nearly every industry professional's blog and consequently every wannabe's blog as absolute and the only way to write "well". Simply not true as Athol eloquently unfolded here.

S.L. Stevens said...

Thank you so much for this post! I love writing in the first person, although it doesn't work for every story. And I don't think there's anything wrong with third person omniscient. If it's done right, it doesn't have to pull the reader out of the story. In fact, sometimes there's no other way to tell the story.

Dina Sleiman said...

So it's days later, and I'm still dwelling on anonymous's exploding thesaurus metaphor. I'm concerned he's doing the same thing Ahtol is talking about from a different angle. I assume he (and I do assume it's a he) prefers a terse Hemingway style. But other styles are valid as well. Many authors love to explore the beauty of words. Yes, this can be done poorly - thus the term purple prose. But, if done well, this is my favorite writing of all. I hope no one out there is trying to stigmatize actual poetic writing by calling it thesaurus shrapnel.

Nicole said...

True, Dina. No fan of Hemingway's writing here.

Anonymous said...

I think probably the majority of readers out there (and publishers too) don't care one tiny bit about whether a story is written in first person or third person or omniscient points of view, or whether the prose is spare or protracted, or poetic and lilting, including beautiful descriptions and metaphors--ornamentation that too often is a departure from the story. For what most readers seem to care about, and are drawn to, is a good story, as well as a flesh-and-blood character they can identify with on a human level, on an emotional level--to be reminded that they're not alone in the world, and that "we're all one in Christ." The rest is sort of academic. After all, it isn't so much the narrative approach and style and language skills of folks like Tolstoy, Dickens or Austen, or today, T. Morrison, D. Koontz, S. King or M. Albom that has made such names as these recognizable to us. My guess is it's their ability to relate a story from the heart and keep that Priority 1 from the first sentence to the last period, plus do so with honesty and vulnerability. This is storytelling that speaks to people and mysteriously compels them. It's almost a spiritual thing. As far as the CBA situation, the big issue there as I see it (something that sprouted in the 1970s and is still with us today like a flu virus): Here we have fiction--not all of it but enough to tip the scales--that sets out as its purpose and design direct moral instruction or sermonizing. Often, too, character development is nearly nonexistent, making a lot of these novels depressingly difficult to read, another way of saying the dreaded b-word. It's easy for writers to forget, like King himself has said, that "the object of fiction...[is] to make the reader feel welcome and then tell a make him/her forget, whenever possible, that he/she is reading a story at all. Me, I can't remember the last novel I read where I had that kind of dreamy and welcoming experience--where the novelist wasn't, every now and then, reminding me in a condescending manner who the writer is, and oh, 'see how talented and clever and original I am...with this or that witty line, keen insight. Look at how I can break the rules....' Which feels like a short break for an ego massage. Meanwhile I haven't a clue what the point of the story is, or for that matter, what the story is. So, what's the difference whether a viewpoint character is coming at the reader as "I saw the light flicker" or "Mary saw the light flicker"? For 98% of writers, that's the least of the obstacles they must overcome.

Dan Walsh said...

Wow, Athol. Simply outstanding. The sizable number of comments and interaction shows you've hit a sustainable chord.

Got me wondering if you shouldn't consider putting the contents of this post, as well as some of your other well-developed thoughts on this concern, into something of a primer, something that could be communicated at a writer's conference.

I'd sign up for it in a heartbeat. Would love to see a gently put, well-built seminar with this content that, in the end, gets a new generation of writers fired up about some of the things that matter most (or should) in a writer's psyche.

Joining those calling for a standing ovation here.

Dan Walsh

Bea Sempere said...

This is actually one of the few articles I’ve read regarding writing. I’m not one in favor of reading about how I should write, I just write. Here you have written from the heart, and you happened to have spoken mine too. As a society, we should be sad by the decline of our environment, and the higher ups who feel ‘obligated’ to dictate what’s good and what’s not. We allow the media to tell us what’s important in our lives, and we continue to follow others without question because of ease.

How can ANYONE dictate the liberal arts that not only embody the beauty of selection, but also provide an open mind to individual and community taste? I also apply this article to Kindles, iPads, and the likes. Book stores are selling these electronics, which will ultimately be their demise, and I’m constantly told I should buy one. I want my books in my hand, bound and smelling, wrapped up with gorgeous pages of wonder—not a cold technical device.

I can’t be closed minded toward writing style, genre, etc. I might have a preference, but to dismiss any style, voice, adjective, genre, would only be a disservice to myself who hopes to publish her manuscript this year—which is in first person. And to add, I can’t fathom first person POV distancing the reader. As a matter of fact, I love the first person POV because I feel like I am a part of the story with the narrator.

Any writer true to their craft should NEVER write for what sells, meaning those who tell us what to write. A writer should write for themselves and their audience, and from the heart, as you demonstrated in this article. Thank you for sharing your voice.