Writer Rules. I mean, Writers Rule!

I recently read a post on the Here Be Dragons blog entitled, “Are We Having Fun Yet?” in which the author, Agatha, shares a refreshing, honest rant over the agony that can be refining a manuscript into its final draft.  She references Stephen King’s book On Writing (which many keep recommending and my slack-ass has yet to read) and specifically addresses a few writing rules that are compounding her frustration, such as how to approach that infamous first chapter (i.e., beginning at the beginning of the action to hook the reader rather than leading in with too much description of setting) and the debatable requirement that there be tension on every single page.

This got me thinking about all the RULES we new writers are trying so diligently to follow to not only write that novel, but also craft it into something marketable so it has a shot at getting published.  We scour the blogosphere for the sage wisdom of literary agents and published authors, and we look to our most beloved books for guidance.  It goes without saying that the pressure this places on us is tremendous, especially when we look back to the precious first drafts we wrote from our hearts and realize they are violating rules left and right…

Suddenly the Adverb becomes our arch nemesis, and we’re playing Whack-a-Mole against any dialogue tags other than Said.

A few months back, The Guardian (inspired by Elmore Leonard’s The 10 Rules of Writing) published the article “Ten Rules for Writing Fiction,” in which they surveyed 29 renowned authors for their own list of dos and don’ts.  This was a fascinating read for me.  At first, it overwhelmed me, because of course as I scanned down the screen I was tripping over everything that I apparently do wrong…and yet, the more author lists that I read, the more I noticed how varied their perspectives were.  For being a list of “rules,” it if anything taught me there is no consistent formula set in stone.

While there are no doubt sound universal suggestions out there we should adhere to, I think we also need to find solace in the fact that there couldn’t possibly be a one-size-fits all approach to writing a good book.  We are all unique and have something different to bring to the table, and that’s something that should be celebrated in our writing as well.  I particularly like how Ollin Morales (Courage 2 Create blog) phrased it in his comment on Agatha’s post:

“I’d rather write a book that I love and everybody hates, than one that everybody loves and I hate.”

True dat.  And I also commend the truth Corra McFeydon just shared in her A Lit Major’s Notebook blog, a post appropriately titled, “The Truth.”  It is here that Corra, also in the process of writing a novel, admits that she does not desire to be a professional writer because, right now at least, it’s killing her spirit in what she loved about writing in the first place.  Seeking to break free from the rules and schedules that constrict her, she asserts:

“That’s why my novel will be written when the spirit hits me — as a product of my intensity, my laughter, and my free spirit — even though apparently that’s not how to be successful.”

I began this project for me, and if it remains just for myself after I’ve at least given it a shot at going elsewhere, so be it if I’m happy with the end product.  But even abiding by our own expectations entails discipline as we make time for our writing and edit it until it becomes the best version of itself.  I think most of the rules I’m opting to follow these days are self-imposed based on my own standards (which are quite high—I’m an English teacher after all, and grade myself constantly ;)).

That being said, one external rule I’m trying to stick to is the advised first-time-author word count of 100,000—not in my first draft that I’m wrapping up presently, but when I go back through to polish up.  Yet another blog post I recently read that I really appreciate for its straightforward guidance on how to cut, let’s say, 19,000 words for a final manuscript is, well, “How to Cut 19,000 Words” from the ‘Lethal Inheritance’ blog—Tahlia Newland tells us how she did just that when her agent asked her trim down her YA fantasy novel of same name.  I was at first absolutely psyched out that cutting words meant cutting entire paragraphs and chapters—and sometimes it does and perhaps will, but it’s reassuring to know that it can be achieved on a sentence/word level as well, an edit so subtle you’d hardly miss a thing.

I’m curious:  Which writing rules do YOU swear by?  And which rules do you think are totally bogus?

Argh.  Can you even imagine Jane Austen sweating it out like this?  I can’t imagine she was slapped in the face by rules at every turn, as we are at every page we flip and link we click.  But then again…


About thefallenmonkey

Primate that dapples in writing when not picking others' fleas or flinging its own poop. View all posts by thefallenmonkey

35 responses to “Writer Rules. I mean, Writers Rule!

  • nothingprofound

    “Works of art create their own rules.” That’s what I think

    If you’re not writing for yourself, you’re not writing for anyone else.

    • thefallenmonkey

      Right on, nothingprofound! I know that at the very least I’ve been writing something that has entertained me a great deal and provoked my own thought, and that’s more than I thought I would have achieved even just a couple years ago. Thank you for, as always, capturing it perfectly, succinctly.

  • Agatha82

    Very good post and glad my own frustrated blog provided some inspiration 🙂

    Well, I don’t have to tell you which rules I dislike but whether I like them or not, I do realise that they do have a point. Some, I actually love, like the one that tells you not to use too many adverbs and also, the one that tells you to stick with “said” instead because using them does really improve your writing.

    Loved that Jane Austen Fight Club, I’d seen it somewhere before but it really amused me.

    • thefallenmonkey

      Thought we could all do with a little release of pent-up frustration; I don’t really want to hit or be hit, but the laughter alone was a good release 🙂 Thanks for providing the food for thought for this post—hope you’ve had a good week of revising! I’m going to go frolic in Greenwich tomorrow (probably in rain) and happily put it all out of mind for the weekend.

      • Agatha82

        Ah! I LOVE Greenwich, it’s so lovely around there. Love the maritime museum and going to the Royal Observatory and stepping over the GMT meridian line hee hee. Have a lovely time, it was drizzly over here but it’s now cleared so I hope you get nice weather 🙂

        P.S Oh I’d not want to be hit either…but I used to kick arse on the punching bag at the gym…someone once saw me hit it and said “oh my god, I’d not want to get you angry…” yessss…indeed heh heh

        • thefallenmonkey

          That’s excellent about the punching bag! Would love, love, love to rage against one of those now and then. I’m impressed that you pack a punch 🙂

          And speaking of love, love, lovin’, I…LOVE…Greenwich…too!! The weather was so cooperative, and I just adored the village atmosphere of it; they were prepping for a wedding reception in the Painted Hall…so envious. And the museum and observatory were absolutely fascinating. Have you read Longitude? One of my rare forays into nonfiction reading, but the whole drama surrounding the longitude problem and Harrison’s sea clocks was an engaging read—gave me goosebumps to see the actual clocks!

          Hope your weekend is going splendidly so far!

  • Corra McFeydon

    I think the best move is to get the first draft down – and then worry about whether or not certain ‘rules’ should be applied after it’s out of your head and written to your own satisfaction. Rules are so varied, and in many cases so one-size-fits-all, that they can potentially help OR hurt a manuscript.

    Better than clicking here and there to find rules (I think) is to read literature in your genre and see how authors you admire create scenes and build tension. Then practice it for yourself, and when you’ve done it to the your own satisfaction, share the work with a handful of trusted critique partners. Listen to them, but never forget your own voice. Because in the end, the greatest asset any book has is its author.

    Rules can become a crutch upon which we lean for life, never fully testing the weight of our own ideas. What a travesty – to write and never experience it.

    – Corra

    • thefallenmonkey

      Wise words indeed. Where did I just hear someone say, “Write with your heart, revise with your head,” or something of the sort…

      I’ve churned out something that I’m happy with so far, and I think my primary frustration these days is more so working out my ending because I haven’t written one that I’m satisfied with yet. I wouldn’t put forth anything I couldn’t be proud of anyway; I’d play the game to a degree, but not at the expense of it no longer being my tale to tell.

      I hope that your inspired approach to writing does maintain your great love of it—the joy you put into it will emanate and infuse your readers, surely 🙂 And, hey, hope you don’t mind that I quoted you—I just found your straightforwardness on the topic most welcome!

  • tahliaN

    Great post and I’m thrilled that you found my blog post on cutting those words so helpful. I found that the more rules I read, the more of those rules I found being broken by my favorite writers – BUT and this is it – not all the time.

    Even Stephen King says he uses some adverbs when they’re really needed and if I find that I’m using a phrase of 5 words to say something that is said in one with an adverb, then to hell with the rule – as they say in Pirates of the Caribean, they’re only guidelines anyway.

    • thefallenmonkey

      “as they say in Pirates of the Caribean, they’re only guidelines anyway.” -Ha, that’s perfect! I suppose it’s something left to finalizing the draft…easier to take away than add in the end, like when I had to teach dialogue and, per the curriculum, students were required to vary their tags (yes, using adverbs, too) in order to learn stylistic variation…the school of thought being to almost have them overdo something so they know they have language options to start with, then as they progress, they can pull back as necessary. Interesting that the more sophisticated writing becomes, the more simplistic it needs to be in certain ways like that.

      And you’re right about the good authors breaking the rules as well…seems once a writer is established, there’s more leeway. Do you get a lot of guidance from your agent that’s very first-time-author-specific? The rules are certainly more stringent on us unpublished folk who have to prove ourselves. But you’re almost there! So close! Very exciting.

  • Lua

    This was a great post! I think this is an issue we all deal with… There are so many rules to follow and every writer has a new rule to add to the list. Which shows that there are no rules, everyone just has to find their own way, what works for them…
    Rules were what got me so frustrated when I was in law school so I’m not intending on following them when I write- I like the sense of liberty fiction provides us 🙂

    • thefallenmonkey

      Sending you a cyber high-five on that sentiment. I likewise didn’t flee the corporate world to be caged in a figurative cubicle of restrictions either…and goodness knows there enough rules slapped down inside high schools, so hurrah for fiction. Rule #1: There are no rules 🙂

      • milkfever

        Hip hip hoorah. What a great post. I’m all for throwing the rules away. I think they are a temporary measure only. And should certainly never become a “should”
        My rule is simple: if it works, do it, if it doesn’t, don’t.
        Doesn’t get much easier than that.
        Big pat on the back for you, fallenmonkey.
        Oh, and there’s an award for you on my blog (without rules} under the post, “50 posts later”
        X Lisa

        • thefallenmonkey

          Oh, hurray! Thank you, thank you, m’dear, for the award—my very first! I think those are worthy rules I can follow 😉

          I like your writing rule. A lot. I can tell instinctively when I’m writing something that is jiving as if given the thumbs-up from the cosmos versus something that feels bland/forced and will certainly warrant an extensive rewrite. And I can likewise tell when I reread something that might have originally been jiving, but now gets the thumbs-down and a “pplll!” (that’s the cosmos sticking it’s tongue out at me and blowing :)). I reciprocate the pat on the back for evidently following your rule successfully—I need to order your book!

  • Cities of the Mind

    The only thing worse than rules are contradictory rules…if you like following rules. For my part, after reading many lists, often containing great advice–equally as often in competition–I decided that maybe what you do is write the book you want to write, in a way people want to read it. That’s it. Also, I don’t really like rules.

    A simple analysis of the greats is enough to make one suspect that blending in isn’t the right way to stand out:

    King: Great writer. His books are so loosely written that you can often skip a page and not miss a thing.
    Herbert: Great writer. Miss a paragraph and sooner or later something will crop up that now makes no sense.
    H.M. Forrester: Great writer. Never spliced a comma in his life.
    Steinbeck: Great writer. Never missed a chance to.
    Heinlein: Great writer. Adopted the sentence structure of whatever fanciful culture his novel was set in. Which made his writing hard to jump into, but made his characters’ comments recognizable without context(!).

    All had, in addition to great stories, great characters, and great talent, their own unique voice. . . which is, I suspect, why we know their names. TANSTAAFL, people, can you grok it?

    • thefallenmonkey

      Brilliant. Absolutely drives the point home. I love the side-to-side comparison of great writers that exemplifies how they do differ in their approaches and break the rules in still delivering quality work (and the English teacher in me loves that you reference the comma splice :)). I’d heard an apt quotation by an author (name escapes me) about writing the book that she wanted to read, and I think that sums it all up for me. Thank you for such thoughtful insight, and I look forward to hearing more from you!

  • Casey Lybrand

    I really enjoyed your perspective on this. I read that 10 rules for writers bit and several responses to it when it came out. My reaction was something along the lines of, “Fine. When I have a finished first draft, I’ll worry about it.” And now I have a finished first draft, and… Yes. Still not worried, exactly, but it’s a lot to think about.

    Writers do, indeed, rule.

    • thefallenmonkey

      Thank you, Casey! I think it’s great that you’re still not sweating over those rules. I’ve likewise been holding off for the finished draft to seriously consider any of it…because, yes, it is definitely a lot to digest, so I’m thinking our best strategy is to filter out the noise and focus on those pearls of wisdom that are in keeping with our style, listening to those authors in our genres and such. Congrats on completing your first draft—YOU rule!

  • RD Carter

    The fear that rides me in relation to sharing my view of the world is, what if I put it all on the table, do everything only to please me, and they don’t like it?

    What is it about this journey that makes us work to hear someone else echo back? To hear someone say, yeah, I hear you and I feel the same way.

    That’s why we follow the rules. Same reason why we follow the rules of society, so we don’t alienate those we live among. No man is an island. We conform to belong. Being an outcast is only fun after you find those who’ve been cast aside as well.

    Then you try to get them to be more like you or you change to be more like them. Co-dependency at its finest. 😀

    • thefallenmonkey

      What a cool, cool perspective to bring to the table, RD. I really like this. It’s true that there is a level of conformity that is not selling out or insecurely seeking other’s approval—it can be about establishing community and tapping into an empathy that characterizes the human condition. Thank you for pointing this out, as that helps us to consider not ruling out the rules in their entirety, but, rather, complying with those that really do further our stories’ appeal to the universality of human thought and emotion.

  • Ollin Morales

    Great post fallenmonkey!

    Hehe, thanks for quoting me! You know I’ve noticed that so many of my writer’s friends blogs seemed to be focused on publishing, and other end products. I don’t mean to be mean, and it’s with all due respect to them, but I think that’s sort of… silly. Especially if you haven’t even written your novel yet. You have to enjoy the process, enjoy the story, or else, I’m sorry but what is the difference between being a unpaid writer and being an unpaid servant? If I want to be an unpaid servant then I might has well have gotten a job at some big corporation. There I would have to follow other people’s rules and spend every waking minute trying to please other people.

    Part of the reason I became a writer is so that I didn’t have to please anyone but myself. If you please yourself then at least you know have a guarantee that one reader loves it–why doubt that the rest of the world would love it too?

    Leave the worries of publishing and selling until after you’ve wrote the novel you always wanted to write, the one you love. They’ll be plenty of time then.

    • thefallenmonkey

      Right on, Ollin. Well said. I absolutely agree. I understand those who are sitting on a completed manuscript and doing the final polishing, as they share my logic of, well, if it’s written, why not give it a go and try submitting? But as for those in the midst of even writing that first draft, you are so right—it’s certainly okay to be thinking about, but should not at all be what’s driving them to write nor what’s guiding their words; writing for writing’s sake is what it’s all about. When I first started my current project, it became a much-needed outlet for me as I transitioned after a few simultaneous life-changes, and life finally gave me some more time to write! I didn’t humor myself at the time that it would go anywhere past my eyes (or my sister’s, my dear reader) and therefore needed it to be for myself. It is now that I’m close to the finish-line that I’m finally allowing myself to consider more seriously those next steps as I stare down an impending revision, but I’m blessed to have the satisfaction that I’ve actually written something I enjoy and will be happy to share with family and friends at the very least. I’ve been told the best writers are the ones who write because they have a story in them that has to be told, so keep writing, man, as you’ve clearly got that innate calling!

  • Susan Kaye Quinn

    I’m a rule breaker for-sure, but knowing the rules is freeing in many ways – you get to decide what to break and how to break them, rather than discovering the rule like a hidden pothole.

    I think once you’ve written a lot – that famous 1,000,000 bad words comes to mind, but you’ll get the feel long before that – you will start to have the confidence you need to write well. To find your voice. To let it roam free.

    And to mercilessly hack words out of it, when it gets out of hand.

    Happy Writing! 🙂

    • thefallenmonkey

      Ooh, I like that perspective on it, Susan! Knowing the rules so you can decide which to break…it appeals to both the conformist and renegade in me 🙂 Thank you for the encouraging words that will help loosen up my fingertips when they take to the keyboard for my project again!

  • Lindea

    I think the rule of right grammar should be rule enough… not really.
    Some rules are nice to follow, like the rule to not use “was/were etc.” too much, because it makes what you write look like a listing (not always, but many times). I do also understand some of the rules, but not I like to vary my “said”-tag to describe how the line is said.

    However I agreed with: “I’d rather write a book that I love and everybody hates, than one that everybody loves and I hate.”

    • thefallenmonkey

      Right on! It’s true, Lindea, how even the standard grammar rules can be messed with in the name of creativity…perhaps not sentence after sentence, but using a sentence fragment for effect every now and then, etc. I haven’t gone back for my in-depth revision yet, but I just know the first three-quarters of my text is riddled with non-said dialogue tags…we’ll see what I do with them…in the meantime, I think to an extent we’re allowed to make our own rules, too, to give us our own voice 🙂

  • D'Anne Hotchkiss

    Your post is very timely. I just made the excruciating decision to move chapter 7 to chapter 1 and ditch most of the stuff in between.

    • thefallenmonkey

      Oh wow! That was a brave and bold move. Do you feel it was a massive improvement, for the best? Hats off to you…I think I’ll be a big brat about it if I end up axing entire chapters 🙂

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  • junebugger

    I agree with you that there couldn’t possibly be a one-size-fits all approach to writing a good book.

    From what I’ve read in articles: Writing to get published, sadly enough, is a business now. A big, booming industry. So no matter how much we love our writing, if a publishing house doesn’t like it, they won’t publish it.

    I think the rules exist because publishers maybe believe that it’s the best way to make a book conform to the structure of books that they know has always sold well? Writing, for the writer who wants to get published, might end up becoming a business rather than an art. That’s why people are always saying: “Don’t’ live off writing; keep it a hobby”

    Buuut I have no intentions of taking this motto to heart haha

    • thefallenmonkey

      Ha, nor should you, junebugger! I think you’re right that the basis of the rules is what has been determined to be an underlying formula across most published books that sell big. A writing conference I attended emphasized that point by requiring us to read three very different books—different styles, different genres—that are also all very successful so that we could break them down and identify the common denominators. And, sure enough, there are elements of appeal to a mass audience that they do share (most of what I took away is chronicled in a few of my earlier March posts). What was a relief is the fact that these “do”s genuinely strengthen a story, so they’d be in our best interest to observe whether we write for a living or as a hobby 🙂

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