The Rules of Writing

All genres of writing have their rules. For example, you can’t put a spaceship in literary fiction (though Michael Chabon could probably get away with it).

In science fiction, one of the rules is that you can’t write about writers.

Some people take this rule very literally. I once wrote a story about a freelance writer in a gig economy who needed to go from Washington, D.C., to Virginia at a time when passports were required between states. Hers had expired, so she had to cross illegally.

(Once again I realize that a story that I never spent much time submitting was ahead of its time and now is so obvious that it doesn’t seem prescient. I mean, we’re now living in a time where states are purporting to prevent their residents from traveling to other states for health care, not to mention one with an economy built on gig work.)

But back to the subject of fiction rules. One of the criticisms I got from my writers group was that it was about a writer and that wasn’t acceptable.

But that’s not what the rule means, really. There’s no reason your character can’t be a writer. The purpose of the rule is to keep science fiction writers from producing the navel gazing stories that revolve around writing.

There are any number of exceedingly boring literary stories and even novels that revolve around editorial assistants who are working on a novel and having an affair with their much older editor boss.

Others focus on creative writing professors in minor colleges and their inability to write and their affairs with their students.

This is the kind of fiction you get when a writer takes that major writing instruction “write what you know” literally. And this is the kind of fiction that the rule against writing about writers is trying to avoid.

I am thinking about this because I just read a couple of positive reviews in The New York Times of books that I can’t imagine being of interest to anyone at all. Perhaps there is a small subset of writers who want to read books about aging writers who can’t produce anything and younger writers who are trying to get some dirt on them to feed their own writing.

However, I know a lot of writers and those stories don’t bear any resemblance to their lives. The ones I know lead ordinary lives with all the usual joys and stresses. Mostly they are supportive and encouraging to other writers and, when writing, deeply involved in their own work.

One review was about a book in which a young woman who discovered an older writer had written about her decided to dig into what he had done as a writing assignment of her own after his death. Another seemed to be about a man worming his way into the life of an aging writer who isn’t producing anymore.

I’m sure these books are written with care, but the stories sound so tedious, not to mention unrealistic.

Then there was the review that discussed a memoir focused more on the unreliability of that genre than on the actual memories. That is, the author apparently spends the memoir wondering if they remember things right.

It seems obvious to me that a memoir is by necessity unreliable. The very word memoir implies that it is rooted in the author’s memories and those are not composed of a file of facts.

I don’t want to read a memoir that agonizes over the unreliability of the memory any more than I want to read (or write) a novel about writers obsessed with other writers in a way that suggests either serious mental illness or a major lack of morality.

Writers should get obsessed, of course. I just don’t think it’s productive for them to obsess about other writers.

Though I swear I saw a tweet by Joyce Carol Oates the other day in which she said she never gets obsessed, but I can’t find it again, so I hope I misread something.

All the writers I know get obsessed, whether by historical characters or what ifs or the glimmer of an idea that leads to multiple rabbit holes.

Right now I’m obsessed by many things, some of which might make it into fiction. But I’m not obsessed by the lives of other writers even if I’m curious enough to read good biographies of some of them. I mean, Julie Phillips’s biography of James Tiptree/Alice Sheldon is a brilliant book and I am looking forward to her upcoming book on Ursula K. Le Guin.

I don’t think I’d be interested in a biography of Joyce Carol Oates, though, because near as I can tell, what she mostly does is write. That’s not a bad thing; in fact it’s a good thing. But I can’t imagine it being particularly interesting to read about someone sitting at their desk and producing stories every day.

The interesting part is the stories she produces and we already have those.

2 thoughts on “The Rules of Writing

  1. There are a few–very few–writers in whose lives I’m interested: Louisa Alcott, Mary Shelley, and Charlotte Brontë. None, you’ll note, are from this century or the last. I suspect it’s because, in order to be a writer and be published, you had to have lived an extraordinary life in some way. But as a general rule of thumb I actively avoid books about writers–I suspect because I’m nuts enough to take them as a critique of how or why or what I write. But also: there are very few writers whose work I care about for whom an understanding of their lives is material to my enjoyment of their work. In some cases it may be illuminating, but often enough, as you say, it’s “got up, drank coffee, bought groceries, wrote for three hours, walked the dog…” or something like that.

    1. It occurred to me that I have a very good idea for a fantasy story about Virginia Woolf and even made a lot of notes about it at one point. Maybe I’ll get back to it. I did read the biography of Woolf by Hermione Lee, which is very thorough but rather plodding. It is probably the parts of life that deviate from “got up, had breakfast, and wrote for three hours” that make a writer’s life interesting. Some do things, even relatively quiet things, that are important beyond their lives. Most of us do not.

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