My Take on Writing Rules

I spent the week editing a YA Science Fiction novel I wrote during HTTS and finished the revision Friday afternoon. Yeah!

I took some time to read a few blogs I follow, and after I read Levi Montgomery’s blog, The Writ Rants, I got to thinking about writing rules. I think he has a wonderful sense of humour, and I agree with him about questioning everything instead of blindly following someone else’s rules.

Another writer’s blog commented on having difficulty fixing what she terms “a wrecked novel” so is learning another writer’s plot instructions or rules. This is OK if it is the only story she wants to tell and wants it to be a bestseller, but there is no guarantee of that. For her the journey is more important than arriving at the destination.

Yet another beginning writer’s blog writes she is scared of messing up her story, so stopped writing to learn more about plotting. Nothing wrong with that, but I found I learnt the most about plotting by writing scenes, once I understood what a scene was. Yes, I didn’t have a clue as to what a scene involved when I started writing. As a result my first two novels will remain in the cupboard, only to be viewed by me to see how far I have improved since I started writing novels.

Why do some writers stall? Why not put the problem stories aside and start a short story or another novel where they already have the beginning, middle and end planned or partly planned and just write the story?

I think it is because they believe the rules? If they don’t follow the rules they believe they will not be successful as writers.

The only people who judge the success of a story are readers. Not agents. Not publishers. Readers who are prepared to spend money to read the story. Yes, you have to get your story accepted by the gatekeepers if you want to get a publisher, but rules won’t help you create a good story based on characters and plot.

So what are rules? Rules are limiting and time-wasting procedures to follow for setting a standard (high or low) to achieve (or not achieve) some outcome. Whether you call them rules, processes or suggestions, they are all limiting.

One rule was “never use first person point of view”. It does not sell. Readers hate first person. The only stories that sell are all third person or close third person. Thank goodness Janet Evanovich did not believe that rule or I would not have had the pleasure of reading every one of her stories.

Do I stop to think “I can not use an adjective or adverb to further describe something” while I am writing each scene? Of course not. If that is the word I need to describe (or paint) the stage or character or action or mood, I use it and keep writing. There is nothing wrong with adjectives or adverbs. They are part of the English language.

During revision, I decide if I want to change or cut each and every word from the sentence if that word is not adequate to portray the mood or pace or description. I check if I have overused any words and change them during revision. I look for better descriptive words, whether nouns, verbs, adjectives, or adverbs, to help the reader “see” the scene. If I want faster pace I remove most description and shorten the sentences. If I want slower pace, I add more description and use longer sentences.

If you ever hear someone tell you that rule about adverbs, ask them for a copy of their latest work. Use a bright marker pen and highlight every adverb or adjective until you get tired of it, then hand back the book with a smile. Be prepared to pay for a new book to replace the one you damaged, but no need for words. The highlighted words will say it all.

If I want the reader to believe what one character said, I repeat the necessary words three times. Three times is the magic number to make a reader believe what the writer wants them to believe. It is very useful for “red herrings”. Agatha Christie used it all the time.

Note, that is not a rule in writing, but a theory in thinking processes. It is opposite to a rule in writing. Remember the one about repeating words close together?

Another rule I heard and did not listen to, so may have it wrong, was something about every character must bring something to the story or cut them out.

If one of the characters is not helping to tell the story, I cut the character and rewrite any scenes where the character was useful by giving another useful character the same action or speech to convey an important point in the plot.

If I want a character to remain who does not bring much to the story other than a sense the main character is not alone, or is only helpful in one scene, I keep them in. Why not? It is my story.

The poorly thought out, made-up, limiting rules one writer teaches helps that writer only, and any other writers who have a tendency to use similar thought patterns as the one who made up the rule. It limits anyone else who creates with different thought processes.

Rules are not set in stone. Rules are suggestions only so beginners can find areas that may need improving. Note the use of the word may. However, I am of the firm belief that rules are made to be broken or, at least, ignored.

If everyone conformed to only one way of writing, or doing something, then there would be no room for improvement. Stories would be repetitive plots giving characters different names but same outcomes.

Just like me, you have to find the best way to suit your thinking processes, or your creative processes. You won’t know someone else’s process is the best way until you experiment by yourself.

You can plan it all in your head as you write or spend time plotting every scene.

Read the latest short story Dean Wesley Smith wrote. No planning. Just finding a title, then writing. I love the story and now dream of getting as good as him at producing stories quickly in a few years.

Another suggestion or rule by “those who know”. Attend workshops, attend writing conferences, etc. I ask why? To learn something new? Or to rehash what I have already learnt when I first learnt the theory of producing a novel? Or just to socialise and meet famous or wealthy authors? Or to contribute to a starving author who is not a good business manager, by paying to listen to their writing processes?

Most workshops I attended I found I already knew more than the teacher, or I could have learnt what was taught in five minutes. Maybe I am a fast learner, but I don’t think so.

Maybe attending workshops helps anyone starting on their journey to become a writer, and believe me, I have attended my fair share of workshops, but now I am happy to use my time to write and produce a good story, then repeat and produce a better story by learning from my mistakes in the previous story?

The best information I found to help me write has all been free. Books from the library, blogs, online courses, reading fiction, etc.

The two best paying courses I have undertaken to improve my writing were How to Think Sideways, and How to Revise Your Novel, both email/online courses by Holly Lisle. Nothing to do with writing rules. Nothing to do with how to write sentences. All about getting an idea for a story, thinking out the scenes, writing the story, then revising the story and repeating.

Just write. Revise only to improve the flow of the words or move the plot forward. Don’t keep revising or you will suck the life out of the story. Make it easy to read and follow. Make it a page turning story. Send it out, either to a web site as an ebook, or do the rounds of agents or publishers, or to beta readers for their comments.

Then forget about it and write your next story until you received comments back. Look at the requests for changes. Do not change if the suggestions change the plot. Change only to make the questionable or confusion section understandable for the reader. After all, it is your story, if the readers don’t get it, don’t worry. Write another story.

No, I believe rules are limiting.

Rules stop you from writing and learning and experimenting and improving.

Rules take time away from writing.

Keep writing.

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5 comments so far

  1. LisaM on

    Hi Diane, another thought-provoking post. (And I recognise myself here!!! LOL I’m the “stalled novel” writer.)

    I think you’re right and rules can definitely get in the way of the joy of writing. With my stalled novel, though, it’s not rules that are keeping me from getting the story down on paper, but the fact that I can’t reach the middle of the story. I keep getting lost and losing sight of the story I’m trying to tell. Part of the problem, I suspected, was that I had a fuzzy idea of story structure. My aim is to write a novel that meets the standards of novels I have loved reading and would re-read over and over again because they touched me so deeply. 🙂

    The fact that this story has stalked me since 2003 tells me it’s important to me. And my goal is to do it justice.

    • djmills on

      That is how I want my stories to be, read each year. 🙂
      Remember Worksheet 4A and Conflict Tracker from HTRYN and, off the top my head, I think it was Lesson 10 or 11, rewriting the plot cards based on the broken and missing notes from Worksheet 4A? You could try pretending the novel is written by someone else, and write how you, as a reader, would fix those parts to make the story work. Or, send your conflict tracker worksheet or scene sentences over to me and I can look at it and give suggestions. Not that my suggestions are going to be correct, but, just seeing other ideas, might help your muse kick in again. I also remember your revision was going well until you smooshed characters. 🙂
      Or, like I suggested, write a short story or two, to get comfortable with plot, then work on the novel again. I would really love to read the fniished novel. 🙂

  2. LisaM on

    Thanks, Diane. I’d very much appreciate it if you were a beta reader for this novel once I get it finished!

    I’m putting together a post on an experiment I’m going to try shortly to get me out of this rut. I’ll keep you updated!

  3. Shayne on

    I agree wholeheartedly that rules are made to be broken (or at least bent), but I think a lot of new writers use that kind of thinking to avoid learning the rules in the first place, and that’s not a good thing. A writer has to learn and understand the rules, in order to know how and when to break them effectively.

    Far too many times in my slush pile I’ve seen examples of inexperienced writers breaking the rules in such a way that it’s abundantly clear they don’t understand the rules they’re breaking, and it’s a huge turn-off; it says to me that they were too lazy to learn the rules in the first place, and no editor in their right mind wants to work with a lazy writer.

    • djmills on

      My thinking exactly. 🙂


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