One of the most iconic writers of all time passed away quietly last week. The reclusive author of The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger died at 91, leaving behind a surprisingly small literary legacy of just one novel and three books of short stories/novellas. So how is it that he’s so well read, and well remembered more than 40 years after his last original publication ( of the novellas Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters and Seymour, an Introduction in1964)? It’s not because of his reclusive nature, since most people probably thought he died years ago anyway. It’s the writing that stands up to new generations of hungry minds that still find him interesting and relevant.
Nearly every course or book on writing of any kind―from screenwriting to journalism―passes down the mantra, “know the rules before you break them.” I too had accepted this nonrule rule until recently, when the death of J.D. Salinger caused the ping of epiphany. There are some rules that should never be broken!
If you’re driving a car, you would never aim it off a cliff, or head on the highway in the wrong direction, as these moves are sure to end in tragedy. Well, breaking certain rules in writing can lead to catastrophe too, by losing readers.
So here are what I think are the unbreakable rules:
1) Make Your Point. Writers often think it’s okay to start with a vague idea and just see where it goes, because it’s so creatively freeing. It is not either. Some writers will actually end up with a credible story, due to a strong natural instinct for plot. But stories do not tell themselves. And if you want to make it interesting, you have to first understand why it interests you. If story threads start to unravel, if you hit a wall or two, or if there are elements that just don’t connect in your mind, don’t presume they will for the reader. Readers can only make leaps if you have provided the right holds for them to catch on to. And if they don’t get it, you’ve lost them.
Even if they hang in there until the end, the audience will inevitably ask, what was the point? Make sure you know yourself, if not when you start writing, at least by the time you finish. You can choose to your piece unfold before your eyes as well as your readers’, but if doesn’t, don’t be fooled into thinking you’re done. Put that piece away until it makes enough sense that you do see the point of it, and then sit down for one or more long nights of rewrites.
2) Find Your ‘Voice’ – Some clichés, like this one, actually work because they are so generally accepted and understood. But if you are frequently using clichés, then you are writing something anyone else could have written. As Robin Williams (as Truman Capote) whined, “that’s not writing, that’s just typing.” Stretch yourself to find your unique personal quirk or tic or rhythm. When you listen to the radio or even a TV voice-over, you can often recognize whose voice it is—and that’s out of thousands you have heard in your lifetime. It’s the combination of the pace, the intonation, the accent, the force, and the vocal timbre itself. The same principle holds for the most memorable of writers. Let’s play a little game. Read the opening passages by several well-read novelists out loud to hear them, and then see if you can match the writers to the writing. (To check your answers, click on the links after each author’s name.)
“Robert Cohn was once middleweight boxing champion of Princeton. Do not think that I am very much impressed by that as a boxing title, but it meant a lot to Cohn.”
“The cottonhouse is of rough logs, from between which, the chinking has long fallen. Square, with a broken roof set in a single pitch, it leans in empty and shimmering dilapidation in the sunlight, a single broad window in two opposite walls giving onto the approaches of the path.”
“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”
“I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice—not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God…”
“It was my father who called the city the Mansion on the River. He was talking about Charleston, South Carolina, and he was a native son, peacock proud of a town so pretty it makes your eyes ache with pleasure just to walk down its spellbinding, narrow streets.”
“When I was little, the great mystery to me wasn’t how babies were made, but why. The mechanics I understood—my older brother Jesse had filled me in—although at the time I was sure he’d heard half of it wrong.”
Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises
William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying
Jodi Picoult, My Sister’s Keeper
John Irving, A Prayer for Owen Meany
J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye
Pat Conroy, South of Broad
3) Don’t Insult or Annoy Your Audience. This is a tricky one. By its nature, writing suggests that you know more about a subject than those reading, something that is especially true in fiction, since you are making it up. Be careful not to drop hints and then make the readers follow you, as this will draw them out of the reality you are creating and they will see the writing. For instance, if you would reasonably know who the killer is by chapter three, but you don’t share the information that would be available to someone from that vantage point, then the readers will feel cheated. It’s like watching a horror film and screaming at the screen, “don’t go down in the cellar!” The story you are telling should be tight and flow naturally and the reader should be right next to you. If you have to force a character to do something stupid or irrational, you’ll lose your audience. You’ll know if you’re doing this, because every time you read it yourself, you’ll skip over it quickly. That’s a sign to go fix something.
4) Be Painfully Honest. Don’t hesitate to put yourself into a character or whole cast of characters. Let them say and do the things you would stop yourself from doing. Your life history and emotional makeup are an integral part of every word you write. If you let yourself worry about how people will react to a character in novel, play, or screenplay, then you will pull back to a safe place and your character will be doomed to sink into the oblivion of the ordinary. There are many characters we forget, but the ones we remember stand out because they share their vulnerability.
5) There’s No Such Thing As Coincidence – At least not in fiction. One of the conventions of writing is that it is not random, and the details selected for the story were chosen deliberately to contribute to the overall purpose of the piece. Readers and audiences know this. You can’t fool them, so don’t even try. If the husband of a woman who is having an affair ends up sitting next to the wife of his wife’s lover and she just happens to blurt out, “my husband’s having an affair,” you might as well write “the end.” Readers are smart. They’ve been reading for much longer than you’ve been writing. Come up with a clever, plausible way those two people got into the same room, and give them a point of interest that is not related to their spouses…and the reader will enjoy watching them dance around the truth without seeing it.
In the end, all writers are setting down their thoughts to be witnessed. Otherwise, they’d just keep their ideas in their heads and never write them down. So make it count…And keep your eyes open for a new book by J.D. Salinger. (His family and friends report he continued writing for most of his life, so he, too, must have harbored some secret desire to be read.)
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