Books Magazine

No Rules for Writers

By Theindieexchange @indieexchange

woman editing writing

Apologies in advance if this column is scattered…I’m moving tomorrow, packing up my life once again and relocating to the Oregon Coast as of about 4am, so I’m currently a bit distracted. And surrounded by boxes.

What I wanted to talk about today, though, was rules…and laziness…and fear…all of which I’m beginning to think are a lot more connected than I used to realize.

You can be lazy in a lot of ways as a writer. I thought about this when reading this post by Kameron Hurley, (which deserves an article in and of itself, it’s so fantastic), which talks about lazy short-hands when it comes to writing women. I also thought about it after another day of being bombarded by the usual parade of “writer rules” articles on Facebook, Twitter and everywhere else.

If you are a writer, you know the articles I mean, because everyone, writers and readers alike, seems to love sending them around. Articles like, “10 Things Writers Should Never Ever, Ever Do or Their Careers Will Be OVER!” or “20 Clichés To Avoid if You Are a Writer” or “Common Grammar Mistakes Writers Make”…or “10 Surefire Ways to Kill Your Fiction Writing” (that last one was mine, by the way, ha, but fair is fair).

I read these things, sure.

Not all of them, but I scan a percentage that cross my screen. Occasionally I get nuggets of good advice, especially from the more experienced writers out there, and sometimes there are helpful reminders or even just attitude adjusters of whatever kind. More and more, however, I think the vast majority of these posts are talking smack, or written from sheer inexperience rather than experience…or that they are simply yet another attempt to put rules around things that don’t need rules.

Some of them are even flat-out wrong, or giving advice that only pertains to a certain kind of writer, or a particular genre or a particular approach to publishing, or whatever. Some are wrong because the industry is changing too fast for them to be right anymore. Some are wrong because they were never right, like telling someone they need to write a novel that is compliant with The Chicago Manual of Style (uh, really?), or that someone can’t write a good novel or story about xx, or whatever other myth that people like to put forward about what you can and can’t write about.

I actually had someone tell me once––this extremely arrogant, twenty-something, ‘creative manager’ for screenwriters––that “no one can or will ever write a good movie about 9/11, because no one wants to see it.”

My first thought was…uh, seriously? The most dramatic, heart-wrenching event of the 20th Century in the United States, and there’s “no story” there? What kind of idiot would believe that? Clearly she did, though, and clearly, she thought I was an idiot because I must have looked at her like she was out of her mind when she said it.

Needless to say, we did not work together after that.

I guess what I’m trying to get across here is that you can’t be lazy and just look to others to tell you the rules. There is no “safe” way to write fiction, that’s not going to get someone wound up about something, or criticizing some element of your content and/or delivery at some point. I’m beginning to think you have to stop being lazy and stop looking for rules at all…and maybe ask yourself why you are trying to do that in the first place.

you can’t be lazy and just look to others to tell you the rules. There is no “safe” way to write fiction

— The Indie Exchange (@IndieExchange) May 22, 2013


I mean, I get it…these articles are really good at playing on our writerly fears. A lot of these pieces suggest, sometimes even overtly, that if you “learn the rules” you will be safe from criticism, from bad reviews, from people thinking your stuff is schlock, from the grammar police, from whatever. They are subtly (or overtly) suggesting that they can help you minimize the risk that people won’t like what you are writing. They try to convince you that you can remove all grounds for “legitimate” criticism, by giving you the rules to follow to avoid it.

I guess you need to ask yourself, is that the point of writing?

Fiction or otherwise, is the ultimate goal of writing “not to be criticized?” I mean, sure, everyone likes to be told they are geniuses, but are the geniuses generally the ones who took the safe road, who followed all the rules that other people spouted at them? Or are they the ones who got the most adamant and emotional criticism? The ones readers (and other writers) argued about the most vociferously?

If your goal is to make your writing above reproach, you might want to stop and think about what’s going on there, psychologically, I mean. If the idea of taking the training wheels off and not looking for everyone else to tell you if what you’re doing is “okay” completely paralyzes you, you might be in for an uphill battle, too, at least if you plan to make writing your career.

Of course, in saying this, I’m talking to myself, too…but I am (very, very gradually) getting better at reminding myself that, at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter what other people think, no matter who they are.

Meaning, it doesn’t matter as long as I keep getting better, and as long as people still want to read my work.

To reiterate the above, and like I said in last month’s post, this does not mean that you shouldn’t always strive to be better. Of course you should…that’s kind of the whole point. But, like I always try to tell myself, being better doesn’t mean being above reproach, or getting nothing but glowing reviews. Getting better generally means taking risks, and failing now and then, and trying out different combinations of grammar and structure and whatever else to get your story across in the best way you possibly can…doing whatever it takes to pull your reader in and hold onto them. That’s the only “rule” you should care about…does the story do what I wanted it to do? Did it pull people in? Did it make them feel the things (and maybe get angry about the things) that I wanted them to feel about? Did it force them to read to the end, just to see what happened? Did it evoke something?

being better doesn’t mean being above reproach, or getting nothing but glowing reviews.

— The Indie Exchange (@IndieExchange) May 22, 2013


And, yeah, ultimately…did they buy the next book?

Unfortunately (or fortunately?) sometimes the best way to gauge this is in the intensity of response I get, both positive and negative.

So don’t worry about those people ranting at you about rules, or even about people not liking what you are doing. Worry if no one reads it, maybe, or if your execution and/or lack of skill is getting in the way of them finishing it (the real issue with copyediting, in most cases, I think).

Personally, I figure I have a lot more to worry about if I get nothing but lukewarm praise. What good is it to me as a writer, if everyone thinks my work is “good” or “well-written” or “well edited” but they never buy another thing from me because they forget about what I wrote an hour after they finished reading it?

So, yeah.

Write the story. Take risks. Don’t worry about the rules.

Write the story. Take risks. Don’t worry about the rules.

— The Indie Exchange (@IndieExchange) May 22, 2013


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