Rules for Writing
My top three rules for writing…
1. There are no rules.
2. There are no rules.
3. There are no rules.
Seriously. No rules. None. But… that doesn’t mean we can just do whatever the hell we want and it’ll all work out perfectly. No guarantees, right?
However, there are a lot of useful concepts and guidelines which, if followed, might make our writing more appealing to more people and/or make it more likely that we’ll achieve our goals, whether artistic or business.
Then there are so-called “rules” about how to write (and how to be a writer) that are just someone’s description of how they work. Or worse, maybe just someone’s opinion about how they think writers should work. (If there’s one thing I’ve learned about the internet, it’s that people are ready and willing to jump in with their opinion about things with which they have no actual experience. Yeah, I know. Stunning. Yet true.)
The trick is to know the difference.
One clue is if it seems like (and is presented as) a common-sense recommendation that passes the sanity check once you examine it--and the proponent can explain why they believe it’s useful—then it may be a Category 1 piece of advice.
But if it’s dogmatic, and/or presented as a “you must” or “you must never” command… or if it’s presented as the word of god with no rational, artistic explanation, then it may be a Category 2 dictum. (A big red flag here is when a person who hasn’t done x tries to pontificate about how to do x.)
TL;DR: The more it’s presented as a “rule,” the less likely it’s actually useful advice.
Some examples of each, starting with the more egregious Cat 2 “rules”…
You must write every day. I’m calling bullshit on this. I’m sure they exist, but I honestly don’t know a single author who actually writes every day. Partly because there is a LOT of work around being an author that doesn’t involve writing, and partly because it’s not always in the cards to write, even if the time is available. Yes, some writers try to live by this—and good for them if it works for them—but in no way does that mean that you should feel bad if it doesn’t work for you.
Write what you know. Yup. Just like J.R.R. Tolkien knew hobbits and orcs and elves. Or J.K. Rowling knew magic. Or George R.R. Martin knew dragons. But… they knew people. And their stories are ultimately about people. So this might be a Cat 1.5 rule. The derivation of which might be a little more nuanced, but is something along the lines of: (a) have some sort of knowledge about how people may actually respond, even if in a wildly fictional setting, and (b) do your research—have no errors of fact which could be remedied by a little hard work. But go ahead and write about whatever you want… as long as you do the work to make it feel real. (And I think the secondary lesson here is: if you want to write successful fantasy, use your initials in your byline…)
Genre X must have wordcount Y. You see this a lot, too. There’s obviously some truth to the principle that certain categories of fiction generally fall within certain broad guidelines. But why do people insist on pontificating about it like it’s the rule of law or something? If someone says, “MG must be between 30,000 and 37,500 words!” or whatever, they’re full of poop. (I’ve seen someone say this while on a panel. My response was, “It’s a very wide range. This should be the least of your concerns when writing.”) Just a quick look at the Hannah Holt Middle Grade Survey shows what we already knew: Big Five middle grade novels ranged from 20,000 to 105,000 and anywhere roughly in the 30,000 to 80,000 range was “in the ballpark.” So if you have concerns, instead of stressing over some arbitrary number you found on the internet, maybe go to the library and look at a dozen or so books similar to yours and check their basic wordcount. You’ll see exactly what the above survey shows… the quality of your manuscript is far more important than exact word count as long as you’re somewhere within the very broad “acceptable” area.
You must write XXXX number of words a day. Similar to most of these, this is just some writer talking to himself. No need for you to listen. We’ve discussed this before (here) but in short, trying to hit a daily output is fine if you want to do it, but by no means required to be a successful writer. (Not that I’m holding myself up as ‘successful,’ but I’ve never counted—or even thought about—my daily word output once in my life. And more to the point, I know authors with dozens of books to their name (award-winning, best-selling books) who are the same.) So go ahead if it works for you, but it’s absolutely not required.
Now some examples of Cat 1 guidance. Worth consideration, but apply or reject depending upon your workflow.
Use standard formatting. Again, if you’re a NYT Bestselling author, you might get away with submitting your work in crayon. But why would you want to purposely send your work out in non-standard formatting, telling the publishing world that either you didn’t even bother to look up standard formatting, or you don’t care enough to follow directions? Either way, it looks like you’re not really serious about it. Again, you can do what you want, but why start with two strikes against you?
Follow standard querying guidelines. I just read a tweet by a literary agency assistant who basically said, “Just knowing how to write a normal query puts you in the top 10% of submitting authors.” Same as with formatting, simply learning how to break the code costs nothing and will give you a leg up on the people too lazy to do it, so it seems goofy not to. This is not the place to try to be clever or witty or wildly unique. You’re basically trying to convey the following: “I have a manuscript about X, Y, and Z. I think you might be interested in it – and a good fit for it - for reasons A, B, and C. And oh by the way, I’m a reasonable, generally-sane person who understands professional boundaries, and one you wouldn’t mind working with.” That’s it.
The most common mistake is submitting too early. This is sort of a craft thing also, but we’ve separated out the reason why below. Just keep in mind the old cliché, there’s no second chance to make a first impression. Make sure it’s really ready… and then make sure some more.
Try to write regularly (for whatever value of “regular” works for you). We can’t always do this, but one benefit (besides productivity) is that it keeps the story in your mind, with your subconscious grinding away on it behind the scenes. Another benefit is that it trains your brain that thinking about your story is a default state of mind rather than an exception… that writing isn’t some rare, special activity, but something it should be doing on a regular basis. Which is the same reason we’ll sometimes say: If you can, try to touch base with your story every day. Which—if you can’t write—might mean line edit your last chapter, or read you last few chapters, or simply think about your story as you do the laundry or wash the dishes. If this works for you.
90% of getting published is having a strong manuscript, and maybe half of that is revision. There’s pressure in the indie world to produce work quickly. But OTOH, it’s also generally true that the faster a manuscript is created, the more it could benefit from revising. The bottom line is, virtually every manuscript can benefit from rewriting/revising/polishing… before an agent or editor or paying reader sees it. (‘No second chance,’ etc…) Skipping this is the craft version of submitting too early.
Try not to head-hop without a good reason. The reason this oddly-specific advice makes the list is because (a) we see it fairly often, and (b) it almost always comes off looking as if the writer hasn’t yet mastered point-of-view. (IOW, virtually the only time we see this is when it’s done by someone who either isn’t aware they’re doing it, or isn’t aware of the reasons we typically don’t do it. So it looks like a rookie mistake either way.) Again, not a rule. If Stephen King decides to head-hop, he’s got a very good reason. And so should you. Otherwise, it has the potential to do way more harm than good to your story.
Again, as with all ideas about art, take what works for you and discard the rest without a backward glance.
Because the real message here is: Don’t get caught up in the minutia people (some knowledgeable, some not so much) spout online. There really are no rules. And if there somehow are rules, no one really knows them anyway… because every author I know followed a different path toward whatever their version of ‘success’ looked like.
You do you.
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