Jonathan Franzen is an author who is, shall we say, outside my normal reading circles. I primarily know him as a guy who loves to give boilingly hot takes that rile up every corner of writing social media. But in addition to several novels, Franzen also has a list of writing rules, putting him in the company of names like Kurt Vonnegut and Neil Gaiman, whom we’ve looked at before. I haven’t been especially impressed with similar lists of rules in the past, but maybe Franzen will be the one to break that streak. Anything’s possible!
The First Rule
The reader is a friend, not an adversary, not a spectator.
Darn. I was all set to snark, but this is actually something a lot of writers need to hear, at least the first two clauses. I have encountered a surprising number of writers, both published and not, who seem to view their audience as an enemy to be outwitted. This typically manifests as an obsession with subverting the audience’s expectations, regardless of what effect this has on the story. I’ve also encountered authors who wanted to kill a character off, not because it was the best choice, but because they knew the character was popular.
This type of behavior has always baffled me because I think the vast majority of writers want people to enjoy their stories, whether those stories are super light and fluffy or the darkest of horror. If you don’t want people to enjoy your stories, then Mythcreants probably isn’t for you – but neither is any other writing advice. For everyone else, it pays to occasionally remind ourselves that we are writing for the reader’s benefit. Twists and subversions can be great, so long as they provide a more satisfying experience rather than a less satisfying one.
Granted, I’m not sure what’s going on with that third clause. “Friend” and “adversary” are fairly exclusive, but a reader could easily be both a friend and a spectator. And from a literal perspective, all audiences are spectators unless you’re writing interactive fiction or running a roleplaying game.* More figuratively, it could be about making your story as immersive as possible, which is usually good advice. If that is what Franzen meant, then he probably should have saved it for a separate rule, as a story’s immersion level isn’t strongly connected to whether the author is at war with their own readers. Even so, we’re off to a great start!
Conclusion: Useful, with an unrelated bit at the end.
The Second Rule
Fiction that isn’t an author’s personal adventure into the frightening or the unknown isn’t worth writing for anything but money.
Well, it was nice while it lasted. Now it’s time to dive headfirst into the deep end of “what the heck does this mean?” Since writing a book isn’t typically dangerous to one’s health, I can only assume that Franzen is referring to fictional topics that the author doesn’t have much experience with and is nervous about. That’s certainly… a take I should have expected from someone who lambasted the Audubon Society for caring too much about climate change.
I hope it goes without saying, but in case it doesn’t, fiction doesn’t have to meet some threshold of fear to be artistically valid. Telling a good story is always a worthy endeavor, and one of the many ways to do that is by leveraging your existing expertise. A big draw for the Lord of the Rings is the way Tolkien used his skills as a linguist and classicist to breathe life into Middle-earth. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that speculative fiction is richer for his choice to do that instead of going for something totally unknown.
The last bit of this rule is especially telling. If your story is artistically bankrupt thanks to using your existing experience, then clearly its only value is money. That’s rich coming from someone like Franzen, who has made a whole lot of money from his books, but the problem is bigger than him. Despite the basic fact of writers needing to eat, a lot of people still think that asking for payment makes the writing less pure somehow. The sooner we drop that idea, the better. Writers deserve to be paid, as do artists in every other medium!*
Conclusion: Utterly worthless.
The Third Rule
Never use the word then as a conjunction—we have and for this purpose. Substituting then is the lazy or tone-deaf writer’s non-solution to the problem of too many ands on the page.
We’ve moved on from abstract pontification about the value of art and into an extremely specific rule about which words you can and can’t use for a conjunction.* Now, I’m a content editor, which means my eyes start to glaze over at anything zoomed in beyond the chapter level. But I pay attention to the more wordcraft-minded folks on this site, so I’ll do my best.
If it’s been a while since your last Schoolhouse Rock rewatch, a conjunction is a word like “and,” “or,” or “but” that connects two parts of a sentence. For example:
- Maybe I shouldn’t take this rule so seriously, but I am.
- I’m going to finish this list, and I probably won’t enjoy it.
Franzen really doesn’t want you to use “then” in place of the more common conjunctions, going so far as to call it lazy. It’s very hard to judge this rule because there are lots of different kinds of conjunctions, and for some of them, “then” works just fine. However, I’m guessing he’s specifically referring to coordinating conjunctions, the so called FANBOYS: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so.
In that specific situation, it’s true that “then” will usually feel awkward. But for that very reason, I’m hardly convinced that there’s a plague of stories using “then” in place of a FANBOY, so it feels like a solution in search of a problem. Either way, Franzen is making a mountain out of the smallest of molehills, then we’re all getting worked up about it.
Conclusion: Useless pedantry.
The Fourth Rule
Write in the third person unless a really distinctive first-person voice offers itself irresistibly.
I’ve met a lot of people with very strong opinions on third versus first person, but I’m here to let you in on a secret: there isn’t usually much difference between them. If you’re writing a limited narrator with an unfolding premise, then you’re using the narration to show the protagonist’s inner thoughts either way, and the only distinction is whether you use the “I” pronoun or not. That can make a difference but not a huge one. Mostly, having “I” at your disposal means less pronoun confusion but with the tradeoff that you can’t as easily deploy the protagonist’s name to break up repetitive pronoun clusters.
Of course, first and third person can diverge significantly in more specialized cases. First-person retelling is a type of narration where an older version of the protagonist is telling the story with the benefit of hindsight, and that would be very difficult to replicate in third person. Likewise, it’s extremely difficult to make omniscient narration work in first person, as it raises too many questions about who the “I” is and how they know so much. But even with these divergences, the two points of view can be extremely similar.
All this is to say that you shouldn’t pay too much attention when someone makes grand statements about which viewpoint is better, and that includes this rule. You can choose whichever one works for you, and you don’t need to hold out for the most distinctive voice imaginable to try first person. Experiment and see which one you like!
Conclusion: Totally useless.
The Fifth Rule
When information becomes free and universally accessible, voluminous research for a novel is devalued along with it.
I’m still scratching my head at how someone could think that research is less important because information is more freely available. If we accept that the internet has changed research’s importance at all, surely it would be in the other direction. It used to be that if you were writing about Australia for an American audience, almost none of your readers would actually know anything about the land down under. These days, any random hooligan can hit up Google and point out that the Emu War didn’t actually feature emus riding tanks.
It’s an open question whether the internet has actually made people more knowledgeable in aggregate, but regardless of the answer, research is just as important as it ever was. Most obviously, research helps you to avoid mistakes. If your book is set in Chicago, a Seattleite like me probably won’t notice if you get your Great Lakes mixed up, but residents of the Windy City will be on you in a hot second. Research can also help you avoid more serious mistakes, like using figures from Native American mythology and belief systems as urban-fantasy monsters.
Just as importantly, research helps you to make a story more immersive and grounded. A big draw of books like The Martian and The Calculating Stars is the complex detail they portray about the American space program. The Broken Earth’s magic system really comes to life when Jemisin unleashes her stores of geological knowledge. The Temeraire books wouldn’t be the same without Naomi Novik’s many tidbits of Napoleonic lore. And it’s not just for worldbuilding either! Can you imagine how much worse The Good Place would have been if the writers hadn’t done their philosophy research?
Naturally, there is a point where you have to stop researching and start writing, but that doesn’t seem to be what this rule is about. Instead, it reads like a lazy excuse. “Everyone has an internet connection, so I don’t have to do my due diligence anymore.”
Conclusion: Useless at best; technophobic at worst.
The Sixth Rule
The most purely autobiographical fiction requires pure invention. Nobody ever wrote a more autobiographical story than The Metamorphosis.
This rule tells us how Franzen feels about autobiographies: extremely whimsical. So whimsical, in fact, that I’m having trouble decoding what this rule even means, which is becoming a pattern. On its face, it feels like one of those gotcha linguistic paradoxes like “this statement is false.” You must make a lot of stuff up to write an autobiographical story, but if you do that, then it’s no longer autobiographical. WHERE IS YOUR LITERARY GOD NOW?
Applying a more charitable lens, I think the idea is that if you want to tell a story based on your own life, you need to use really creative analogies rather than using literal events from your life. In this reading, Gregor Samsa turning into a huge insect is a metaphor for how Kafka felt in his own life, possibly channeling experiences of alienation from his family or from Bohemian society in general. I don’t know nearly enough about Kafka’s life to say whether that’s a fair reading or not; I’m just trying to give Franzen’s rule the best spin possible.
Assuming I’m right, that’s certainly a valid way to weave your personal experiences into a fictional story, but it’s hardly the only way, or even the most “pure” way. You could also incorporate details in a more literal manner, like the town you grew up in or the time a badger got loose at your school dance. A word of caution: unless you’re writing an actual autobiography, I strongly recommend obscuring personal details so it isn’t easy to recognize real people in your story, as that can lead to a lot of blowback.
With so many ways to incorporate autobiographical details into fiction, declaring one true way is reductive at best and nonsensical at worst. The purpose of this rule seems more to trip people up than to help them be better novelists.
Conclusion: Too whimsical to be a useful rule.
The Seventh Rule
You see more sitting still than chasing after.
This rule is less writing advice and more something you would find after googling your horoscope. Let’s see, I’m a Pisces, so that means my confidence will return to help me make correct decisions quickly, and I’m a novelist, so that means I see more sitting still than chasing after. It’s perfect! I can’t imagine why more people don’t phrase their advice this way.
Okay, fine, I’ll try to extract some meaning from this rule. After staring at it for a while, which might qualify as sitting still or chasing after depending on your definition, the best I can manage is that it might be advice to contemplate a problem until a solution comes to you rather than actively pursuing different ideas. I guess that could count as a rule if you’re willing to do some serious definition stretching.
At best, this is more whimsical process advice. Sure, plenty of people have good results from just sitting with their thoughts until they have a cool idea or see a new way to solve a vexing issue. Neil Gaiman is apparently a big fan of that strategy. But for other people, and I count myself among them, such stimulus-free contemplation just makes the brain buzz grow louder until it drowns out everything else. We need a little something just to keep us focused, whether that’s scrolling social media or actively considering how to interpret weird writing advice. One day, writers will learn that not everyone can use the same process, but it is apparently not this day.
Conclusion: Useless, even if you can decode what it means.
The Eighth Rule
It’s doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.
Hey folks, I think I’ve figured out why Franzen doesn’t like doing research! If you’re not allowed to turn the wifi on while working, then research probably means a trip to the local library, which could involve meeting strangers or even making small talk with them. Gross. On the bright side, Franzen’s failure to use gender-neutral language means this rule only applies to us dudes, so anyone with a different set of pronouns is free to have as much internet as they like!
For the he/hims among us, this appears to be a hyperbolic admonition against spending too much time scrolling social media or binging the Mythcreants archives. And with Franzen’s general crankiness about the internet, I’m guessing “too much” equals any amount of time greater than zero, so we can safely file this one along with all the other instances of people shaking their fists at digital communication. Plenty of people spend more time scrolling than they probably should, but a blanket scolding isn’t going to help them stop any more than it helps to tell people they should “write better.” It’s also incredibly easy to get distracted and procrastinate even without an internet connection, though at least then you can sometimes parlay putting off your novel into a clean living room.
Taken literally, this rule is even more amusingly wrong. A number of successful writers are very online these days, either because they have to be for marketing purposes or because they enjoy it, and it doesn’t seem to have made their fiction any worse. I suppose those are all philistine genre writers and not high-culture literary authors like Franzen, which only makes them better company in my eyes.
Conclusion: Useless and reductive at the same time.
The Ninth Rule
Interesting verbs are seldom very interesting.
Did an interesting verb take your lunch money in middle school, Franzen? Is that what’s going on? The further we get into this list, the less effort appears to have been put into each one, though this rule does break the mold a bit by being extra self-contradictory, so that’s fun.
If we want to do a lot of extra work on Franzen’s behalf, this could be a warning against using more unusual-sounding verbs when they have a connotation you don’t want. For example, “saunter” is often listed as a synonym for “walk,” but you shouldn’t write “Erica sauntered across the room” unless you want to give the impression that Erica is making a big show of crossing the room. Sometimes new authors do reach for unusual-sounding words when they really shouldn’t, so this can be valuable advice.
On the other hand, sometimes an unusual verb gives exactly the connotation you want, and in that case you should have at it. Maybe Erica is feeling particularly dramatic or confident as she crosses the room in this scene, in which case “sauntered” is the perfect verb to use. Similarly, “sleep” is a serviceable verb, but sometimes you want to communicate that a character is sleeping deeply. In those cases, “slumber” is your friend. Picking the right verb can save you a lot of words that you’d otherwise have to spend describing a character’s action, making your prose much more efficient.
Giving writers a blanket warning against “interesting” verbs is very silly, and that’s assuming I’m even close to the mark on what Franzen meant by “interesting.” Maybe he has his own rubric for which verbs are interesting but also not interesting.
Conclusion: Too broad to be useful.
The Tenth Rule
You have to love before you can be relentless.
In this final entry, Franzen is determined to stick with his pattern of not giving us rules we can confidently define, which makes a cynical kind of sense. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from Mythcreants, it’s that being specific only makes it easier for people to disagree with you. If you stay as vague as possible, your critics have nothing to grab for their arguments, and the only downside is that you never say anything important.
Anyway, back to this rule. My best interpretation is that it’s referring to the different states of mind required for writing a story versus revising one. For a lot of writers, it works best to love their writing unconditionally during the drafting phase, as that’s how they push past the blank page and get words on paper. Once the draft is finished, they can transition into relentlessly culling all the beautiful darlings that don’t serve the story.
That interpretation is all well and good, but once again, it’s the dreaded process advice. It might seem universally applicable for someone to write without any kind of inner censor, then turn on their editing brain later, but it’s not universal at all. For a lot of people, the revision process is so difficult that they have to do everything they can to minimize it; otherwise, all their stories will end up in the trunk. For people like that, it can pay to be selective earlier in the process, weeding out ideas until they’re left with the stories that will require the least revision. Giving these people a pretentious version of “write drunk, edit sober” doesn’t help.
And that’s assuming you even read the rule the same way I did. For all I know, this could be life advice to find a loving partner before relentlessly pursuing your career goals. Who’s to say?
Conclusion: Really testing how many ways I can find to say “vague and useless.”
Out of ten rules, only one is at all useful, giving Franzen a whopping 10% usefulness rating. That’s actually the worst so far, which is something of an achievement. Half the list is extremely vague process advice, while the other half is bizarrely strong opinions over minor issues like what kind of conjunction or viewpoint to use. Once again, Kurt Vonnegut remains the champion with his ability to give useful advice about half the time.
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