In the wee hours of Monday morning, I received a jolt of inspiration I wanted to share. Every once in a while, I read something that reminds me of why I decided to become an author. It’s easy to lose sight of the why, and instead get lost in all of the how: the stylistic conventions (show, don’t tell; and lose the adverbs, please), drive for productivity (You aren’t writing a thousand words per day yet?); the platform building (free content in exchange for email addresses). But shortly after midnight, I chanced to read the opening pages of an old book that brought my priorities back into focus.
The book is called The Way Station, by Clifford D. Simak. It’s science fiction, which is not a genre I often read. I was blown away by the prologue. The writing is that good.
The first pages show us the aftermath of war, a subject about which an enormous amount of ink has been spilled over the centuries. He’s boiled it down, reduced it to its essential essence. His words form a rich literary broth, and the taste lingers in memory long after the reading. He presents timeless truths and universal realities. This is writing as art, rather than mere commerce. It’s hard to imagine Simak thinking about his work as product, or as a lead magnet, or as a way to create multiple streams of income around whatever business he engaged in. He was creating something of substantial value, something that would outlast him. And indeed it has; the author has been dead for over 30 years, yet his 54-year-old book will surely feel as powerful in the year 2050 as it did back in 1963.
It violates many of the rules the experts preach in their blogs, podcasts, writing workshops, and online courses.
- The opening page does not introduce you to a point-of-view character — or any character, for that matter. The experts tell us we have to introduce the POV character by name right away.
- It starts with description. The literary fashion police insist we begin with narrative. Like the opening scene of a James Bond movie, we are told to drop the audience into the middle of an action scene, or we will lose them before the end of page one.
- It moves from description to backstory; what things were like before they reached the state we read about in the opening sentences. The rule makers tell us backstory is bad.
- The writing is beautiful. The arbiters of taste declare that if readers notice the writing at all, then the writing is getting in the way of the story. By “story,” they mean only the narrative plot.
I loved the beautiful prose. I appreciated the poetic juxtaposition of gouted and spouted; of “the screams of horses” and “the hoarse bellowing of men.” In a few words, he sums up the aftermath of battle: “the words unspoken and the deeds undone, and the sodden bundles that cried aloud the emptiness and the waste of death.”
This is how I want to write when I grow up. Not necessarily in the same style, but with as much power and artistry. After all the currently fashionable writing rules have been forgotten, artistry will remain. People don’t read the works of Charles Dickens, Edgar Allen Poe, or Jane Austen because they are fashionable or stylistically correct. They read them because they are great literature.
I’m not saying that the “rules” of fiction writing are irrelevant. I am saying that the rules exist to serve authors. Authors don’t exist to serve the rules. [That’s not a new concept. Jesus notably told the Pharisees in Mark 2:27, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.”] Writers are prone to forget that, sometimes judging a book’s quality only by how closely it adheres to the rules of current writing fashion. Let me suggest a better measuring stick: how clearly does it speak to the soul? Now go
churn out some marketable product create something great!