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.
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.”