Sunday, April 24, 2011

notes from the first chapter of Water for Elephants

Most of us have seen the previews for the movie version of Water for Elephants.
This is one of those books that I finally decided to pluck from my endless list.

I'm not sure how many of you have read it, so there will be no spoilers, but I found that the first chapter broke some "rules" that I thought were important in fiction. Now, I'm confused and unable to settle on the balance between "following the rules" and sticking to your own. My first attempt at a novel was awful simply because I erratically wrote whatever the heck I wanted.
(I just went back and read it for the first time in 2 years and laughed.)

Now, as far as Water for Elephants is concerned,

At the beginning of the novel, there was a prologue.
The first chapter had a strong voice and beautiful writing but did not end with an onset of adventure.
The next chapter was a flashback!

Now, we know that in order to write, we have to not only read but also analyze.
I enjoyed this book even though it strayed from the rules (maybe even because of that)!

How do you know when to go by guidelines for writing?


  1. I'm still trying to figure out the guidelines! The ones I know, I try to follow.

  2. I agree! It's hard to know when breaking the rules will best serve the story. I broke a few rules in my first novel including (gasp!) creating a prologue. I keep wondering if I should take it out.

    I heard somewhere WFE was also a NaNo project.

  3. This book has been on my list forever, too! Donald Maas uses an excerpt from it in his great writing book "The Fire of Fiction" that really intrigued me. Literary books can get away with breaking the rules a lot more than commercial genre books, I think. Anyway I'm sure you've heard the saying "you have to know the rules to break them" - I'm guessing Gruen is a writer who learned all the rules and got good enough that she could break them :) (Me: definintely not there yet! I'm stickin' to the rules)

  4. Margo: I second the thought on genre writing. There is more of an emphasis on literary fiction being "art" and less on "write the book like your fanny was on fire".

  5. I third Margo and second Jennifer, literary fiction can break more of the rules than commercial/genre. There are only so many rules you can break in a genre before you're out of the genre: a slow thriller wouldn't really be a thriller.

    Jennifer's comment is accidentally made more hilarious when you consider that in the UK, where I happen to be, fanny is slang for a lady's lady parts. I would not advise anyone to write a book while incapacitated in that way.
    - Sophia.

  6. Oops Sophia! lol

    When I come across a horror novel with constant shifts in character POV, it completely derails it for me. You're right.

    Does that mean genre readers are more picky than those who read primarily literary fiction make us out to be?

  7. Water for Elephants isn't Sara Gruen's first novel (I think it's her third). She already wrote other novels, knew the rules, and felt comfortable writing outside the box and was experienced enough to make it work.

    But I think if the story is compelling and the characters dynamic, writing outside normal guidelines will work. It always comes back to a great story, though!