Monday, October 29, 2007

Irresponsible Writing

by Guest Blogger J.T. Ellison

J.T. Ellison's debut thriller novel, ALL THE PRETTY GIRLS, is now available. She is the Friday columnist at and is a founding member of KillerYear, an organization promoting the best debut novelists of 2007. You can learn more about J.T. on her website at

“Irresponsibility is part of the pleasure of all art; it is the part the schools cannot recognize.” --James Joyce

Playing by the rules. We’re conditioned to follow the righteous path, to stick with the proverbial straight and narrow. Yet how many times have you heard of the person who broke all the rules, got the agent through a flamboyant attempt, landed an unheard of deal for a book that no one had ever thought to write? Writing workshops, conferences, blogs and listserves counsel new writers to always, always follow the rules. So why is it, when we hear the success stories, the rule breakers are the ones with the clout?

Let me back up for a moment. Stephen King makes the excellent point that if you’re going to be a writer, you need to know the rules. The Writer’s Toolbox, he calls it, the fallback position for every writer. Vocabulary, grammar, sentence structure – all of these individual tools are essential to writing a good book. The trick is to know the rules well enough that when you break them, you’re doing it on purpose, for a specific effect.

So when you have your toolbox chock full of every imaginable instrument, and you’re the Yo-Yo Ma of the dangling participle, what then? How do you know when to break the rules? How do you know that it’s okay to take a chance?

This is a subject I’ve been dealing with for years. In college, I fancied myself a poet. I studied the masters, soaked up all the guidance my professors gave me. I wrote and wrote and wrote, trying for this idealized version of prose that I was being taught was the “right way” to write. I was surrounded by award-winning literati, ate, drank and slept Donne and Tennyson, could recite couplets from Shakespeare with ease. But something was missing. I kept writing these poems and stories, kept getting feedback that I wasn’t hitting the mark. I worked hard on my craft, searching for that elusive something that would gain glory and praise. After I submitted one particular story that I just knew was going to knock their socks off, the feedback was terse. “Reads too much like B-grade detective fiction.”

That week ended on a real high when my other professor, the young literati poet, the one with the flowing black hair and groovy pink and tortoise glasses, the bohemian whom I admired and attempted to emulate, pulled me aside. “You’re not going to get published,” she said. “The chance of this kind of work making it in the real world is limited. You should focus on your other studies.”

SLAP! The glory, the creativity, the late nights watching snowflakes drift to the ground and trying to describe them individually, gone. Like a stupid, impressionable kid. I listened. I stopped writing.

I still read. Depressed as only a thwarted writer can be, I secretly imbibed to excess on my favorite poets, wondered at their ability, knew that I’d never be at their level. Somewhere, deep down, I believed my favorite little bohemian was right. I wasn’t good enough. Damn it, I followed all the rules, and I just wasn’t good enough.

Later in the semester, desperate for work to submit so I wouldn’t fail the course, I branched away from what the teachers were selling. I happened across a book by a man I’d never heard of. College is the time of discovery, right? The book was “HOWL and Other Poems,” by Allen Ginsberg. It knocked my socks off. I didn’t understand it, deconstructed and looked for the hidden metaphor, the meaning behind the words. I still didn’t get it. Then I just read the poems. I let the words be what they were, not a symbolic journey through allegory, but naked, hysterical truth.

With Ginsberg’s irreverence flowing through my work, I finished my thesis. It garnered lukewarm praise. The tiny little bud of creativity I’d been nurturing went dormant.

I’m ashamed now to admit that after my dismal last semester in school, I did focus on my other studies. I went into politics, had a nice career, moved into marketing, had a nice career, lost my job, moved to a new state, was bored to tears. Started to read again, really read, the way I’d done in college. Reading to learn is much different that reading to entertain. And these new writers I discovered weren’t following the rules I knew.

I wrote the requisite manuscript that lives in a drawer back in 2004. I heard the voice of my professors on every page. The “not good enough” and “B-grade detective fiction” became a mantra. But I used them to drive me forward rather than allowing them to hold me back. I broke some of the rules they’d told me not to. In the end, the book wasn’t great, but I decided to send it out. It got a wad of rejection letters, one of which changed me yet again. “The writing is excellent, but there’s nothing here to differentiate it from other manuscripts we’re receiving.”

Well. We’re making progress, I think.

I chucked it all then. Threw out every single damn rule I’d been taught. Wrote the book I wanted to read. Wrote like the wind. That one got me an agent, but didn’t sell. Timing this time, not any fault of mine. Instead of pulling back, I did it again. That one sold.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think I’m changing the course of humanity with my work. But I’m writing for me. I’m writing that tone, that voice that so disturbed my professors in college. They called it B-grade detective fiction. I call it a thriller.

Stuart Woods told me once, “The only rules are those you create, page by page.” That one sentence was better writing advice than anything the professional teachers ever gave me.

So know the difference. When an agent asks for a submission on green paper with 2 inch margins and courier font, you sure as hell better listen to them. But when your heart and your soul are telling you to try something different, to break the mold, to throw caution to the wind, listen. Listen, and succeed.

(Thanks so much for letting me guest blog today. This was terrific!)


Annette said...

Welcome to Working Stiffs, JT. And what a thought provoking post! I'm a great proponent of learning the rules and then breaking them as you see fit. Thanks for showing me that I might be right!

Anonymous said...

Thanks, J.T. for your blog! I do think art is all about knowing the rules and knowing when to break them. And also about taking criticism with a grain of salt!

I wrote for 5 years without letting anyone see my work, just so I could explore what I wanted to write without getting it mixed up with what others wanted to read. The theory was, after that, I'd be more immune to criticism. I'm not sure it worked, but it did help me understand the difference between writing for myself and others.

I think what helps me most in dealing with criticism is my rule of thumb that when people don't like something, they accurately sense there's a problem, but their advice on how to fix it can be way off. That helps me keep things in perspective.

Joyce Tremel said...

Great post, JT. I can't wait to read your book.

I agree that you have to know the rules before you can break them.

One thing that struck me is that you wrote the book you wanted to read. I think that's important. The old rule to write what you know doesn't always work, and you can always learn what you need. If you don't love what you're writing, the reader won't either.

Thanks for visiting today!

Anonymous said...

My favorite college professor told me I'd never get an acting job until I was 50. Well, now I'm 50 (ish!) and I've written nearly 50 novels---a much more entertaining, lucrative and sane life than I'd have had if I'd stuck with the theater. I'd love to go back to school to remind him of what he said to me . . . but he's dead. Which, typing this now, makes me smile. Egad!!

Nice to see you here, JT! I hope you sell gazillions of this book!!

Anonymous said...

Welcome, J.T., and congratulations on the publication of your debut novel!

When I was in college, I had a writing professor tell me I didn't have a future as a published writer. Ever since that day, I've been working toward proving her wrong. It's funny how those negative experiences sometimes stick with us more than the positive ones.

I have a lot of respect for writers who can skillfully break the rules and still write a great book. In my current manuscript, I'm breaking some of my own rules, and the process is very liberating.

JT Ellison said...

Hi WS --
Thanks so much for having me today! I enjoyed writing this essay. I told Kristine last night -- I've grown a lot as a writer in the past couple of years, and the rule breaking is soooo satisfying.

Annette, Tory, Joyce -- Keep writing what you love. The market is what it is, you might as well be able to sleep at night.

Hi Nancy! Hope you've sufficiently recovered from the phalanx of conferences this summer.

Tell Pittsburgh hello for me! My Dad's from Coraopolis, and I have lots of family in the area, so I'm a big fan.

Joyce Tremel said...

Wow, JT. You even know how to spell Coraopolis!

Martha Reed said...

JT, thanks for the inspiration! I agree with you - writing is too hard to do if you try to make it fit. Where's the fun in that? Thanks for the excellent post!

JT Ellison said...

LOL, Joyce. It's a tricky one, for sure.

Martha, you've hit the nail on the head. Regardless of what you're writing, it's supposed to be fun.