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…