So Wrong Yet So Right
Arthur C. Clarke died on March 19, 2008. News of his death prompted me to pull out my old, well-worn mass paperback edition of his 1973 Rendezvous with Rama. I hadn’t read the sci-fi novel in decades, maybe longer, still the story and images he painted remain with me. In a recent interview I fielded the question, “What is your favorite book?” It surprised me a little when Clarke’s Rama sprang to mind. I reread the book and loved it as much as I did the first time around.
Here’s the thing. When, as a strapping young man, I first read the book, writing was a nebulous dream, floating far in the future. I knew nothing of the craft or the business. All I knew was that words and story rang my bell. Clarke’s Rama rang it louder than just about any other novel. Since I hadn’t learned the “rules” of writing, I didn’t know better but to enjoy the journey.
Now I read with a critical eye. That’s the problem with being a professional writer—it ruins a man’s reading. Right off the bat, I noticed that Clarke does a lot of telling instead of showing. I mean a lot. Of course, this is a Bozo-no-no. He writes about 4000 words before the first word of dialog is penned. Twenty or so dialog words later, he immerses us in long, telling-narrations again.
He also fails to start with action. Those of us who teach at writers conferences harp on the idea that a story should start quickly often in the middle of a scene. That’s what we say when we’re teaching. Often we ignore our own advice. Editors at these conferences make statements like, “If you haven’t won me in the first five pages, then you won’t win me at all.”
So new writers learn the rules and try to follow them, certain that a good story must conform to the mold. When trying to break into the biz, it’s a wise decision.
Still, there’s the problem of those annoying writers like Clarke (and I’m sure you can name a half dozen more) who don’t follow the rules and still manage to crank out great, memorable, enduring stories. As I read through Rendezvous with Rama I think of the guidelines, rules, suggestions, and advice given by the “How-To” books, the seminars, and workshops. All of them have something valid to offer and good advice heeded is still good advice. But—
Is it possible for the rules to get in the way? Have we as an industry reduced art and craft to a set of quantifiable techniques? “This is the way the professionals do it, every other way is wrong.”
Occasionally, a publisher hires me to rewrite the work of an inexperienced writer. In those cases, I set my feet firmly on the rules and wade in with my machete cutting this out, repositioning that scene elsewhere, amputating adverbs, severing unneeded prepositions, inserting dialog, and revving up the action in the first chapter. So far it’s worked out to the satisfaction of publisher and author. But then there’s that pesky Clarke guy who does it his own way and it works so well. Few things are more annoying than watching someone do it wrong and have it turn out so right.
Clarke has never needed coaching. Maybe an editor worked overtime on his prose. I don’t know, but I do know that his technique is solid, powerful, and useful.
Clarke—he of the long narration—reminds me that a good story well told is a good story, period.
Can #Writing rules get in the way of writing a good book? - via @AltonGansky on @EdieMelson (Click to Tweet)
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