Monday, February 9, 2009

No Such Thing as a Writing Sin?

The url below will take you to a short story:

Tall Tales from the Mekong Delta.

It was the Best American Short Story Winner 1991 and O.Henry Prize winner, originally published in Squandering the Blue, (a short story collection):

It contains a hulla bunch of passive constructions, and telling (actual example: 'she was angry'). This story would probably have got critted off the page by any crit group.

This fascinates me.

Someone said at FM recently that the rules of writing are to be learned, and carried around, but not necessarily adhered to.

A while ago I broke down three extracts from published fiction into different categories: dialogue, description, internal reflection, and action.

One of those stories was a piece of lit fic, a bestseller, written in the first person. In a three hundred word extract picked at random (I took the middle page of each book), all of the actions began with 'I...'

Yet the excerpt didn't seem repetitive. I speculated that the writing was so strong, that the situation, tension, and imagery were so much more prevalent than the sentence structure, that the reader was well and truly sucked in, and the professional author 'got away' with it.

Now, a good few months later, I think it's more than that. I think a writer needs to be bold enough to write a scene the way it needs to be written.

I believe mastery of the craft should be pursued, and that the choices we make when writing should be enlightened ones borne of knowledge of the benefits of different methods. However, I'm beginning to think that there are no writing sins for an author who knows both their craft, and how to excite the reader.

I now believe that there is a place for every technique, including passive constructions and telling. Everything, in fact.

Whaddya reckon?


Sarah Jensen said...

I agree. In some passages, it holds the story better to start each sentence with I, or He, or She. Not always.

Sometimes, passive feels and sounds better.

On occasion, if you showed, it'd be too much. So you tell.

The secret is knowing your story. Learning the art of writing well. And listening when others say things work or don't. If many say something is broken, it probably is.

I have read things that were well written, the story enthralled me so much that I didn't notice the "mistakes" until I looked for them, just to see how the author chose his words.

So I believe that if the story can't be put down, then don't worry about the dos and don'ts so much.

Again, great post!

Ink said...

Oddly, I've actually read that short story before. And, yes, it's great, and that greatness partly comes from how it breaks the rules. That passive tense... it's used to create a rhythm, a distance, a sense of inevitability. It distances the main character from her own choices and actions, and that's what the story is about. It's about being mesmerized, captivated, it's about the failure of will, the inability to escape both the present and the past, the inability to escape yourself. And that passivity constructs the almost perfect feel for the odd drifting quality of the story, and also sets up a strong contrast to Lenny's verbal activity.

So, yeah, no sins. You do what works. And almost anything can be made to work. There's no rules, just suggestions. But the suggestions are usually pretty good, it should be said. I think the problem often arises when writers try to do something out of ignorance that they should be doing out of knowledge. It's like the old saying, don't break the rules until you know them.

Just because Cormac McCarthy is breaking the "rules" doesn't mean newbies should be. He's breaking them for a reason, because, say, it's a way to create a vibrant and pitch perfect voice that resonates within the reading ear. Where as I see inexperienced writers doing it because "that's just the way I do it." Well, often, that's just the way you shouldn't do it. Not because it's a "rule", but because it simply doesn't work.

And that's it, really. If it works, use it. But it better work.

Heck, I just wrote a story from the point of view of a giant squid, using a sort of prose-poetry without capitals or punctuation. It, uh... breaks a few rules. Who am I to espouse the words of the establishment? :) Yeah, I like experimenting. I like cheating. And the proof, as I like to think, is always in the pudding. It'll work... or it won't. And sometimes the failures are as important as the successes.

And I think the successes often come down to that sense of an author's authority. It's something you can usually feel right away. Rhythm (I'm big on rhythm). Diction. You can just feel you're in the hands of someone who knows what they're doing. It's command. Everything has a purpose, everything is being shaped and as a reader you're being perfectly manipulated. Whatever the rules say, that feeling of command is what makes great writing.

Heidi C. Vlach said...

I see it as a matter of probability. Anything can work if the author is talented (or lucky) enough. But the more unusual the thing is, or the harder it condradicts the rules, the less likely it is that a particular author is good enough to pull it off. Rules are basically just guidelines for what's likely to work and what isn't.

Bookworm1605 said...


Great example and a very good point. Critters are a lot like spellcheck. Regardless of which version of 'its' you use, your spellcheck program is going to flag it and suggest 'it's'!

We are programmed to look for certain things, often without regard to whether the story calls for that treatment or not. And just like spellcheck, critters are wrong as often as they are right.

For me, great prose fiction is essentially voice + story. If you can get that simple equation to work out everything else is negotiable.

Tania Hershman said...

I'm delighted to have found your blog, always thrilled to be discussing short stories. I've just been reading John Updike's The Afterlife and Other Stories, having not read much of his fiction. And he breaks all the "show not tell" rules etc..., it's almost all "telling", but his writing is so gripping, so confident, he grabs you by the collar and doesn't let you go, that you don't notice unless you are a writer who then goes back to see what the hell was going on.

For me, it's the confidence of his writing, and it is the fact that he knows exactly when to start the story. It begins exactly at the right point, you are thrown in, the main character is instantly there, in front of you, you see and hear him (mostly him), and you just have to find out what happens. I am teaching a short story workshop for the first time and trying to convey that there are guidelines to close reading of a short story, but there are no hard and fast rules about what makes a good story, otherwise the group would always agree and there would be no point discussing anything. I say: grab us at the beginning of the story, and don't give us any reason to stop, to think about stopping reading, and we will follow you anywhere. I think that's the essence of a short story.

Ms Kitty said...

One of the things I always look for, when I crit for others is the simple: Did it work for me?

What I want to hear most from other writers is: Did they hear what I was trying to say?

When I read things that aren't mechanically correct, but that work well, I remember them.

It makes me impatient with the folks who crit for mechanics, but never seem to read the piece for what it is.

It is very difficult to write with a powerful voice. I think that voice is what makes the mechanics, or lack of them work. I always love to read a story with a powerful voice.

Like music, a powerful voice can carry what is otherwise mediocre at best. (Stone Temple Pilots, U2 & Creed are good examples.)

Ink said...


Welcome to the blog! And congrats on the book, it looks great. And I see you're in Jerusalem. As it happens, I'm reading a collection of stories by S.Y. Agnon right now. Have you read him? Any great Israeli writers that have been influential for you? (So that I can look them up. :) I'm always greedy for interesting foreign writers I have yet to read)

Back on topic! Anyone else getting flashbacks from the Pirates of the Carribean movies? The Pirate's Code? Parley? No? Just me? Okay. The Curse of Pop Culture.

A writer's confidence... powerful voice... I like to think of it as a writer's authority, that sense that they're in control. You're in Good Hands with Author's Name... And you can usually feel in on the first page, often in the first paragraph or first line. I think that's what editors and agents often feel (or don't feel) when they start reading. It may be interesting, may have some good writing... but if it doesn't have that sense of commmand, that sense that the writer is in control of the experience, then that story gets pushed aside. It's often not a very concrete thing... it's something you feel, something you respond to. It's like being in a world of static and suddenly picking up a radio signal with perfect clarity. You're in synch with the words, the story. They work.

Tania Hershman said...

Hi Ink,
thanks so much for visiting my blog etc..! The Israel writer I must recommend is Etgar Keret, his short stories are astonishingly good. And also Ahron Applefeld, his novels are fantastic. And may I also direct you and your readers to The Short Review, the website I set up to spotlight short story collections, we review ten collections each month, new and older, so it's a great place to find new reading material!