The Secret Fiction Rule Book

Some years ago, I sent editorial notes to an author who was working on a historical fiction set in pre-Colonial America. “You’ve got to let the little sister die,” I said. “She’s clearly sickly.” The author responded that she had, in fact, killed off the child in an earlier draft, but the in-house editor insisted she change it. “Children can’t die!” this editor proclaimed.

I sat there scratching my head for a moment, then queried the other editor; surely my author was mistaken. But … no. A child had been killed off by some other author in this editor’s stable “and five years later we are still getting mail about it.” But this is a child in the wilderness of what will someday become Pennsylvania, I told her. Life was hard in the mid-1600s. Children died. It would be, you know, historically accurate.

Nope. It was in the Fiction Rule Book, and that was that. To which I can only say, where the Sam Hill is that rule book, and how can I get my hands on a copy? Because I want to verify some of the things I’ve been hearing.

This same editor told my author like is preferred to as if in fiction (her sentence was He touched her cheek, brushing his finger over it as if wiping away a tear, but the editor changed it to He touched her cheek, brushing his finger over it like he was wiping away a tear), which is just wrong.

Here’s the thing, kids. There are some industry folks who act as if this rule book actually exists, but it does not. Sure, there are certain rules of thumb that don’t have to be true all the time but which, as a new author seeking publication, I would encourage you to take into account. Here’s one such list:

• Remove unnecessary exposition (RUE: resist urge to explain)
• Show, don’t tell
• Know each character’s motivation
• Tighten dialogue; no direct answers
• End chapter earlier; cut last paragraph
• Kill adverbs
• Tighten words
• Describe through movement
• Shorten as tension increases
• Move story forward

Again, it could be a useful list, but is this Contributing Editor to the Secret Fiction Rule Book really advocating we cut the last paragraph of every chapter? That no character ever answer a question directly?

Lately I’ve heard the Secret Fiction Rule Book says “No prologues,” and generally speaking it’s advice you should think about very seriously. But consider the prologues to The Book Thief and The Lovely Bones; they’re everything a prologue should be. And would you want to be the one to tell ol’ Will to cut Two households, both alike in dignity
/ In fair Verona, where we lay our scene
…? Me either.

Honestly, if there were a way to tell you absolutely how to write a best seller, I think J. K. Rowling would have already written the book and sold millions of copies. But there is no formula, my friends—it’s all just opinion and gut reaction. (Even mine.)

So before you invest in the latest edition of the Secret Fiction Rule Book, have a look at this advice from writer/blogger Chuck Wendig (strong language warning):

• Beware answers over options.
• Beware absolutes and guarantees.
• Beware anybody without a single meaningful credential.
• Beware anybody with something to sell.
• Beware the quick-and-easy fix.

In the meantime, you can keep your old rule book. Just go write me something good. :)

UPDATE: There’s more on this subject here.

Tweet: Where can I get a copy of the Secret Fiction Rule Book?
Tweet: There is no formula, my friends—it’s all just opinion and gut reaction. (Even mine.)

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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10 Comments

  1. Laura says:

    Love this!! And laughed when you linked to Chuck’s awesome post on writer conferences. I agreed with him in so many ways. I always feel a little like we’ve been gathered into one hotel so our brains can be replaced with the approved writerly standard issue. Scary, scary stuff, folks. You don’t see fine artists gathering together and deciding that from now on there will be no loose brush strokes or colors that call for too much attention. Or musicians who gather to standardize what jazz riffs must sound like.

    The beauty of what we do is that WE do it . . . all by our lonesome. My words issue from the neurons firing in my highly personalized way. Let’s leave that *mostly* alone, shall we? But I’m one of the crazy people who still see it as art. I dunno. Ignore above rant if it sounds ludicrous.

    • jamiechavez says:

      It’s a true story that I’d been resisting writing about until I found Chuck’s rant. Then I couldn’t resist. (Sometimes posts come together like that.) And yes, I’ve been in that room at a writers’ conference listening to someone I’ve never heard of pontificate about how to do “it.” It’s a fine line, here, of course: I tell people all the time if you give the same manuscript to five editors you’ll get five sets of notes. But … I’m an editor, and it helps if the author, you know, listens. :)

  2. Love me some Jamie tough love on a Friday morning! Thanks.

  3. This SO much needed to be said. Thanks for the wisdom and the laughs.

  4. Fiona Ingram says:

    I write MG adventure and I was interested in the note about kids must never die. However in The Lovely Bones the POV is from the main character, a girl, who dies, actually a horrible death. I speak under correction because I have not yet read the book but have read about it. JK Rowling killed off the head boy (? Diggory) in The Goblet of Fire. I was upset about that only because he did not have to die, in my opinion. I felt it had been done for effect (like Dumbledore suddenly being gay about 5 books into the series – huh?), and so that did not work for me (But who am I to argue with a world-famous best-selling author) So, can kids die? Or else, can they escape a near-death experience? And in kids’ books, can the baddies die? I would appreciate your answer (and I loved your post BTW) because in my MG series, my young heroes have some really narrow squeaks. I also agree with your opinion on like/as if. One last thing: Stephenie Meyer and JK Rowling both do lots of telling not showing, and as for prologues, Christopher Paolini’s prologues for the Eragon series end up being like short books!

    • Jamie says:

      Oh, Fiona, of course kids can die. There are no rules. :) The incident I’m referring to was actually adult fiction, though. If you are going to kill off a character (child or adult, good or bad) in middle grade fiction, I think I’d handle it very delicately, simply because you are writing for a different age group. And it would depend on the themes of the story, and so on. But children do die, sadly, so if the story calls for it, I think it’s appropriate. The Harry Potter books started out for a seemingly older audience, but they got older and darker as the series went on. People definitely died. Anyway, narrow squeaks are great. Did you read my post on the differences between YA and MG? http://www.jamiechavez.com/blog/permalink/2012/06/harry-potter-and-the-elusive-age-ranges/
      Thanks so much for your thoughtful comments. :)

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  9. […] phenomenon appears to be all tied up with the Secret Fiction Rule Book. That is, someone has decreed that all the “thought verbs” (thought, knew, pondered, wondered, […]

  10. […] Be transparent. If you’re hanging out a shingle, tell me what makes you an expert. I am a skeptic by nature, and I am well aware that there are a lot of people out there claiming, say, to be an editor. […]

  11. […] example, when I tell you prologues are, for the most part, frowned upon these days, that’s not just my opinion. I’m telling you […]

7 Trackbacks

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    […] phenomenon appears to be all tied up with the Secret Fiction Rule Book. That is, someone has decreed that all the “thought verbs” (thought, knew, pondered, wondered, […]

  6. […] Be transparent. If you’re hanging out a shingle, tell me what makes you an expert. I am a skeptic by nature, and I am well aware that there are a lot of people out there claiming, say, to be an editor. […]

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