writing fiction

Writers: Seeking Certainty


Seeking Certainty

Fiction writing is an awkward compendium of art and craft, and one with very few absolutes. A physicist can drop something off a roof and know with certainty what gravity will cause it to do under all conditions. A writer has dozens of rules, conventions, alternatives, options, and style choices.

Having written, we then hear from critiquers, readers, editors, and publishers that the work is, or isn’t, cohesive, engaging, properly punctuated, correctly formatted, in the currently preferred style and point of view . . . on and on.

We don’t have one Delphic Oracle to pronounce definitively that this way of phrasing the sentence or describing the scene is absolutely correct and that way is definitely incorrect. We lack certainty.

Humans tend to prefer certainty. Consequently, when a respected person says something, we are likely to clutch it like a shipwreck survivor grabbing a passing flotation device. Someone says not to use adverbs as a substitute for strong verbs. Lacking certainty as to what exactly “strong verbs” would be in any specific situation, we remember and repeat, “Don’t use adverbs.”

Someone says never to repeat words within a few lines of each other. So we make pretzels of ourselves trying to find another word for something that doesn’t really have on-point synonyms. If a kitchen sink is key to a scene, once we’ve called it the sink, and perhaps the basin, do we then reach for awkward alternatives like tub, leaving the reader wondering how we suddenly moved from the kitchen to the bathroom? Or, do we use common sense and just call it a sink again.

As a reader, I never noticed repeated words until writers groups made an issue of them. I’m not saying to ignore repeated words. I’m saying let’s not go nuts about it. What matters is conveying the meaning and telling the story.

Someone says semi-colons are pretentious in fiction and suddenly we’re writing comma splices or cutting apart clauses that make more sense together. The purpose of a semi-colon is to join two clauses that could be separate sentences, but are so closely related they work better in the same sentence together. There’s nothing wrong with using punctuation marks in the manner they are intended.

Some publishers don’t accept manuscripts written in the omniscient point of view. That’s useful information for a writer who hopes to submit to those publishers. It’s not a reason to tell all writers that their omniscient writing is wrong. Sure, let them know it’s out of fashion, but if they are self-published or submitting to a more open-minded publisher, and want to take a chance, that’s their choice.

Many current, traditionally published, widely read novels are written in the omniscient point of view. Some of the works of Alexander McCall Smith, Nevada Barr, Phillip Pullman, and Terry Pratchett are examples.

Any certainty we may achieve is tenuous at best, full of exceptions, loaded with nuance, and constantly changing. The challenge is to avoid locking our writing into artificially produced straight jackets in the struggle to cope with a chronic lack of certainty.




Originally published in the blog of the Florida Writers Association




My book, My Writer’s Sampler: Exercises in Learning to Write Fiction, is a semi-finalist in the Florida Writers Association’s Royal Palm Literary Award contest! Now it’s in the second round of judging. I don’t know how long it’ll be before I hear whether it will be a finalist.