I'm Rebecca Mahoney, a freelance journalist, fiction writer & manuscript editor who likes to chat about books & writing, share editing tips, and muse about the freelance life. Visit my full website at rebeccamahoney.com.
Every year or so, I re-read a particular book I love: “The Condition,” by Jennifer Haigh. If you’re not familiar with the book, it’s an adult contemporary novel about a New England family that falls apart after its youngest member, Gwen, is diagnosed with a rare condition called Turner Syndrome. It’s sophisticated, thought-provoking, exceptional writing—the kind of storytelling that inspires my own writing.
But my admiration of the book is not why I re-read it every winter. I re-read it to remind myself to break the rules.
The writing world, especially in our MFA-crowded circles, is full of rules. Prologues are verboten, we hear; readers don’t read them, editors don’t like them, and most of the time they’re just filled with backstory that would be better sprinkled into the “real story.”
Another rule: There must be a clear triggering event by the end of the first chapter. One agent at a workshop I attended a few years ago said the triggering event had to be apparent within the first two pages, or she’d stop reading.
Other rules: The point of view has to be consistent; if you’re writing in third-person close, you can’t randomly jump to the omniscient point of view or second person POV. When using multiple narrators they should sound so distinct that you could recognize them by voice alone.
And so on.
Don’t get me wrong—this advice isn’t bad. I follow many of these conventions in my own writing, and dispense similar advice to my editing clients.
But I don’t think we should be slavish to writing rules, either.
So many writers fret about these rules, to the point of strangling their stories. They worry about how long a chapter should be, if all chapters have to be about the same length, if they should cut their prologue, how long exactly their manuscript should be, what happens if Part I and Part I are different lengths … it goes on and on. All of them have the same fear: break the rules, and the possibility of publication will vanish.
The truth, though, is that sometimes you have to let your story emerge the way it needs to be told. Maybe that means including a prologue. Maybe that means the triggering event isn’t so cut-and-dried in the first five pages. Maybe that means it’s okay to have a complete novel at 45,000 words, or eight narrators, or chapters and sections that fluctuate in length and style.
As writers, we should be breaking the rules. We should be experimenting with structure and point of view, with prologues and backstory and characterization. It’s when we take that leap that our writing has the chance to become something new—to become art. I’m not saying we should just abandon structure and revision altogether; but thoughtful breaks from convention can be healthy and even beneficial to our stories.
Look at “The Condition.” The main triggering event—the parents’ realization that something is wrong with their daughter, and their marriage—doesn’t occur until the end of the fourth chapter. Which isn’t really Chapter Four at all, because the first four chapters function as a sort of collective prologue, a 34-page Part I that is a basically a flashback, because the rest of the 390-page novel takes place about 20 years later, long after Gwen’s diagnosis.
Haigh breaks other rules, too: The multiple narrators—there are five—sound pretty similar, and all five characters are deeply introspective, with similar patterns of musing and reflection. In fact, the actual plot is almost secondary to the internal narrative of the characters. And the first part volleys between omniscient and third-person close, while the second half is exclusively third-person close with no omniscient point of view at all.
And yet, the story works, in a quiet, devastating, deeply moving way that is both reminiscent of every family and particular to this fictional family. It’s art.
It’s not a wildly experimental novel; it doesn’t break new writing ground or even turn those conventions on their heads, like Jennifer Egan’s “A Visit from the Goon Squad.” But Haigh clearly isn’t a slave to those writing rules, either, and the book went on to win both literary acclaim and a spot on the New York Times Bestsellers List.
“The Condition” inspires me to experiment, and to encourage the writers I work with to go ahead and break those rules. Haigh’s willingness to break the writing rules is part of what makes this book so strong—and why I’m sure I’ll be reading it again next winter.