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Cardinal Sins. (Or: Things not to do when writing.)

Cardinal Sins. (Or: Things not to do when writing.)

If you’ve ever wondered why so many books you read seem so similar and thought that it was just you, or your taste in literature, or the fact that you only read one certain genre, take heart; it’s not just you. A sad fact of human literary existence is that books are all similar. The five archetypal plots aside, writers lament this. We discuss it in hushed tones over coffee in the back of little socialist bistros while consuming entire cartons of Parliaments. It’s not fun.

Ironically, though, one of the reasons we complain is that we’re constrained. I know what you’re thinking, art isn’t about being constrained. It should be about freedom to explore life and to explore it in a way that you the artist finds interesting, appealing, and real. Piccasso said that Art (note the capitol A) is a lie that makes us see the truth. While every artist you ask will agree that art is our own perspective, our own little lie if you will, we can’t help feeling claustrophobic, tied up by the patterns of the five plots or the archetypes. The sad truth is that, while we so long for a life of Bohemian freedoms, we have to eat. To eat, we have to sell books. And readers like books that follow the rules.

Don’t blink. That’s right. The rules. There are actual rules to ‘good fiction’ that ‘every writer simply must follow.’ Are you surprised? Don’t be. Inevitably, when I tell people I’m a writer, they ask a question then make two statements. Unless I’m speaking to a group of writers, the conversation goes something like this:

Them: What do you do?
Me: I’m a writer.
Them: That’s cool. So what else do you do?

Aside–lucky for me I usually have a day job. Sometimes I can deflect the second, crass and annoying part of this conversation. Sometimes, though, I can’t.

Me: Fill in the blank with the current stop-gap dayjob.
Them: That’s cool. But you’re a writer writer? Like you write books and stories and stuff? (I nod. Now wait for it, because here comes the other two parts of it…) I have this really great idea for a story. If I could write it I would.

They then launch into a monologue about the dream they had about their aunt’s car wreck the night before she died in a toaster-stroodle explosion incident, how the dream and the death were just too coincidental and would make a great book. They will then ask me if it’s hard to write. Now, beyond the fact that the person sitting across from me is virtually assured to be some toothless bubba fresh out of Redneck Hell, I don’t flinch. “Of course, you should try to write it.”

I will then launch into a description of the grueling writing process. The hours spent in front of blank pages are just the beginning, I tell them. Writing it is the easy part. Your hard part comes with editing. That’s when you start fixing problems like coincidence. “But coincidences is parts of life ain’t they?” the redneck asks.

I nod, thoughtfully, then say, “Unfortunately you can’t rely on them in fiction. It pisses readers off.”

Eventually, we go through the other rules of fiction–like crowd control. Don’t have too many characters in a scene. “But I’s got twenty two cousins and all of them will be real upset if I publish a book about them and don’t have the time we all went skinny dippin’ together down at the cow pond and Sally-Jane and JimBubba hooked up cause they’s was drunk.”

I don’t think you’ll have to worry about your relatives getting angry about that book getting published, Billy Bob, because in that one scene you’ve broken eight rules. Maybe it’s the rules that make us capable of writing. Almost like an artistic fate laid out before us, writers must follow the rules to find out what happens next. We avoid the pitfalls of everyday life and just try to work through the problems that arise in ways that are interesting. We do it to edify and delight ourselves, to escape the world or to more adequately understand our place in it; some of us right to define ourselves or those around us or to lend voice to the voiceless and sight to the blind. We only hope that you the reader receives some of the same edification and delight we ourselves find. And if, somewhere along the way, we stumble into the Truth, that’s just the gravy.