Fiction as Art: Going Back to the Beginning

Back to square one.I reported last week that I’m taking a writing class, billed as “intermediate level” but after two meetings I’ve concluded that most of the participants are newbies. It’s forced me to reflect on how I wound up as a writer: a former science teacher/administrator who became possessed by the sudden and uncontrollable urge to write a fantasy novel.

I’m mostly listening in class, as students struggle with point of view, dialogue tags, too much description, too little description, grammar, tense and the other nuts and bolts of craft. At first, I found myself parroting all the “rules” I’d learned over the last few years: from editors, agents, workshop leaders, but I promptly shut up as I saw the looks of terror on people’s faces.

We read a lot of articles and short stories, and I understand the value of “reading about writing” and “reading good writing” but truthfully, I’d rather be writing. Perhaps it’s because that’s how I view learning: learn-by-doing has always been my mantra as a teacher and it served me well in the sciences. My classroom was a big, messy laboratory where we blew things up (before all that became illegal) tested our own blood (before that became unsafe) and a host of other activities where students had to problem-solve and critique their work and the work of others.

What I’ve gleaned so far is that this group has become obsessed with the “rules of writing.” They want to know what to do and what not to do. From my experience, books on writing tend to hammer home these points and I’ve fallen into that painful place many times. They also steal your confidence by reminding us how difficult it is to become a successful writer. But, the term successful can be viewed in a variety of ways.

I know some believe creative writing can’t be taught and I see the value of that statement. There are some writers in the class whose words are so truly beautiful it makes you want to read them twice, savoring the rhythm of the language and the pictures they paint in your mind. I do believe to some extent that writing is a gift, or more aptly that storytelling is a gift and the skill of writing can be learned. Not like the ability to draw, which I’ve been told by an art professor of mine is possible, although I’m not convinced, but more like a basketball player or stock market analyst, you take the talent and school it, hone it, making it the best it can be. Practice makes perfect?

Although I agree that some rules are necessary, like those for grammar, spelling, and formatting, one must be careful in the search for absolutes. Accepting that certain things must never be done in writing fiction or that others must always be done can stunt the creative process. This is a major complaint I have of the rules most agents tout. Never: start with a prologue, with dialogue, or the weather, or on the phone, with an alarm clock, in a car… the list is endless. Agents say they won’t read past the first sentence if you break the rules! Seriously. Come on! That’s ridiculous. And yet so many of us are fearful of that rejection. We’ll never get an agent if we break the rules! I’ve even written posts about making sure you follow these same rules.

With the ability to self-publish or find an indie press (sans agent) becoming so widespread (even agents are signing you and then publishing it themselves, so be careful!), for the first time we can write what we want without fear of being a rule-breaker. I understand that this may result in a lot of poor quality work out there and it may be difficult to rise to the top of the literary piles, but it does give one a sense of freedom to let the artistic juices flow and see what happens. I’m sure getting a great agent and a deal from a major publisher is still everyone’s pie in the sky dream, but it may never happen. And I’ve heard plenty of horror stories from friends who thought they had this type of deal and it turned out the book was never really marketed effectively and died a quick death.

So, what can we agree on? I’m going to explore this in upcoming posts. The first being my thoughts on the general aesthetic principles of writing fiction. Art has no universal laws, no limits, no restrictions, in fact what makes art stand out is the ability to break away from the mundane, to set your own artistic standards. I know it’s risky but isn’t that what readers are looking for? Something different? Unique? I find art mysterious, seductive, as it lures me into a strange new world. I’m going to explore this is in my upcoming ‘Fiction as Art’ series.

And I’m all about artistic mystery.


Author: Caryn McGill

Caryn is a former high school science teacher, school district administrator and adjunct college professor.

4 thoughts on “Fiction as Art: Going Back to the Beginning”

  1. The rules of creative writing are important to know, in and out, so that when you’re prepared to break them, you can do so with meaning and intent. I know how you feel about being disappointed by writing classes. I still read as many books as I can about writing, but I don’t participate in group discussions as much as I used to. As you say, most people are new, and still learning the basics. At this point, I think it’s better for me if I just get my feet wet and have my work torn up by people with a good eye for that sort of thing, instead of parroting all the information that is already readily available and in fast circulation in writing communities.

  2. “I’m sure getting a great agent and a deal from a major publisher is still everyone’s pie in the sky dream” – it’s not my dream. I hope to make it as a successful indie. I like the creative control and freedom. As for rules, I believe you should know how to handle point of view, have a firm grasp of grammar, understand verbs and tenses in particular, and know how to punctuate correctly. Otherwise, I take no notice of rules like avoiding prologues. If the prologue is intriguing and ends on a cliffhanger, then what’s the problem?

    1. I’m with you on all that. Indie publishing is sounding pretty good these days and I think that’s where I’m headed too. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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