Wednesday, February 8, 2012

You MUST follow these rules! (Or not ;))

I was thinking about writers who say you must write/edit a certain way. “Of course the magic number of edits is five, more or less and you fall of the cliff of oblivion and are consumed by monsters.” “Heaven save you if you do not make at least ten perfect graphs of each of your character’s emotional arcs.” “There is no way you can possibly create a decent book without an outline.”

Pretty much if you’ve gone to any writer’s conference or workshop- you’ve run into these folks. The “MY way is the ONLY way” writers.

Now they aren’t evil, most of them sincerely want to help their fellow writer. Whatever way, trick, or formula they are proposing worked…for them. Therefore, they believe they have hit on the magic secret that should work for everyone.

Danger, Will Robinson! Danger!

The problem is that writing is subjective. It’s subjective when someone reads it, not everyone will love the same book (thank goodness!). But, what many writers forget is that is also subjective how we create it.

Some folks have to plan, that’s how they work. A dear friend of mine has that down to a science- she color codes everything on cards (and someday I want her to come post about it here- some of you may love it!). This works extremely well for her. She’s fast and good and just landed two multi-book contracts.

And if I were to try it my head would explode. Seriously. She tried explaining it to me and I could feel my eyes glazing over. I’m a seat of the pants writer, I often jump in with very little beyond my characters and just write it as I find out what happened.

So who is right?

Both of us. And anyone in-between.

My friend and I both have different writing styles- and both work great- for each of us. But if I were to walk into a class of new writers and tell them they could NOT outline or plan their books, that they had to do it just like me, I’d be ruining a bunch of future writers. Even worse, what happens to the newer writer who goes to my workshop, soaks in the “way of the wild” (aka pantser) then goes to their next workshop- taught by my dear friend the card outliner? That poor newbie writer would end up babbling in the corner and probably never write again.

As we make our way through the writing jungle on our journey towards publication, we learn these things. That if someone- ANYONE- says, “this is the ONLY way to write/edit/revise” to take what they say with a grain of salt (or an entire shaker full). But newer writers, still wobbling about on their newly found literary feet, are at risk for failing to weed out what doesn’t work for them. To take the tips that sound true to their heart, and walk away from the rest. Humans are absolute creatures- we like concrete things. To get my graduate degree I had precise steps to take and when I followed them all, they gave me my diploma.

Writing doesn’t work that way.

There is no magic “one size fits all” formula. And anyone who says there is is lying or delusional.

The only rule to writing is that you must WRITE.

If you’re a more experienced writer, watch how you present your wisdom to others. If you’re a newer author, remember it’s YOUR path, take only what works.


  1. Hear, hear and so say all of us. Writing 'rules' can (might) be useful if they're seen as guidelines or things to consider. But not as hard and fast rules. I wrote a blog post on this subject not long ago, about turning writing into 'paint by numbers'. Indeed, this subject is my favourite rant. So that's two of us singing from the song sheet.

  2. Here, here!! The last line is the only true rule. You must write. That's all. Just write.

    Thanks for an entertaining and enlightening blog

  3. Well said! Any time I give a talk, I always caution the listeners to only take that which will work for them and that fits their own writing style. I think it's important for writers to know that whatever method words for them is all right.

  4. Back when I was a complete beginner, I wasted a lot of time trying to write by other writers' rules - because I thought that they must know so much more than I did. Boy was I wrong. While I learned some useful tips that helped me, I also learned that every writer must find his/her own individual process - no one can teach that to you. I shudder at these so-called teachers who stand up in front of a bunch of newbie writers and say that there is only one way to write - their way. *RUN FAST*

    The only "rule" of writing I've ever liked is one of Neil Gaiman's - "The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you're allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it's definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it ­honestly, and tell it as best you can. I'm not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter."

  5. Writing rules are like writing myths. But there are guidllines, how to make your writing read active, when I first started I han no idea and I've learned. Fast. Telling vs. showing, head hoping, formatting, words to avoid, gerunds, and all those nice things critique partners are only too quick to point out. And I must addmit my writing took off. Have I been too offended by everyone's comments however harsh or well intended, I don't think I'd learn a thing.

  6. I absolutely agree with you, Marie, that everyone needs to find their own way to "the end". I'm a plotter (yup, a dedicated color coating, outlining, word list making junkie) and it's hard to know what to say when people say to me, "I'm a pantser, but I wish I was a plotter. Tell me what you do so I can do it." What I always want to ask is, why? Why aren't you happy with what you're doing now? Sometimes, I think people feel outside pressure to be what they're not. That's why blogs like this are so important, because they remind us to ignore the pressure and be true selves. Or maybe, they don't feel like what they're doing is working. If that's the case, my advice is: don't keep doing it! Try new things. Explore different methods and tricks until you're happy with what you're doing. That's my advice.

  7. Here! Here! Marie. The only rules worth heeding are you own, in regards to your personal creative process... what makes you tick on the typewriter keys (well, you know what I mean).

    I've never read a "how to write" book. Ever. Not even one. I don't make pretty cards or storyboards. I listen to my character's chatter, and fly by the seat of my britches as much as I can. That's my process. I have friends who have to detail every page before they start writing... and we're all published.

    So - I agree that you have to do the right thing to access your creativity and make a story happen. And that's very different for all of us. If folks want to make $$ by writing "HOW TO" books.... there are plenty of folks who will need that for their own processes. I suppose that makes those books win-win?

    And yes - I'm speaking on writing at the upcoming Southern California Writer's Conference... about ways to jump-start the process, but I swear you'll never hear me mention a "system" that is the be-all, end-all for getting a book done.
    LOL. You have that in writing!

    Good post. Enjoyed it.


  8. So I don't have to write down and analyze every little nuance of the conflict between my main characters for the story to be good??? *gasp* I know there are basic concepts for fiction writing to be in some way considered, but I've been having a bit of overkill lately on the "you must have this and this and this and this" rules. I feel like I'm on a road trip, but I've had to plan each and every stop down to the gas pumps, and it's taking my enjoyment out of the trip. I'm so glad you posted this, Marie, because I needed it.

    And, Melissa, I often wish I could be a plotter because I feel like it would be easier, but I'm sure it's never an easy thing to write a story--otherwise everyone would be published!

  9. Thanks for coming by Greta, Cynthia, Alexis, Janet (me too- when I was new I thought I was going to lose my mind! And I love the Gaiman rule :)), Firetulip, Melissa (ya crazy card loving lady ;)), Linda, and Angela!

    If enough of us keep shouting this from the rafters we might save a few writing souls! Thanks all!

  10. Oh and I meant to add that anyone who has heard you speak, Linda, knows you're not one of "them" :)- have a great time at the conf! And yes Angela, you're safe, take a deep breath, listen to the nice ladies who responded here- and relax :). It's all good!

  11. Great post Marie!!!

    And you're SO right... The only rule is that you have to actually WRITE! LOL

    Lisa :)