“John, I know you were a Marine, therefore you love rules. The rule you need to remember here is that there are no rules.”
My husband is a psychologist and told me about this simple piece of advice from the head nurse of an inpatient psychiatric unit where he was working as an intern. That statement informed the more than twenty-five years that he worked as a psychologist with combat veterans. With many of his clients, particularly the suicidal ones, breaking the established rules was axiomatic in helping these men get their lives back.
Writing is exactly like that. The most important rule for a writer is to know-and believe- that there are no rules.
I write this despite the fact that my two prior posts are basically rules. In tips for the novice novelist there are several paragraphs about what to do and what not to do. In a few places, I strongly suggest that following the rules of manuscript length, title and selection of genre will save time and energy. Right.
But now we’re talking about the process of your writing- you as writer, author of your story. Should you follow the experts who write about the art and craft of writing?
It is a long list. There are literary agents and publishers, teachers of creative writing, successful novelists and novelists now long gone who are frequently quoted and quite naturally are perceived to be expert. Perhaps rightly so, or not. Expert at statements that read a lot like rules. But here’s the thing. Always, we speak about what works for us, not you.
There are a number of so-called rules that I call myths. Here are the first five.
- Excellent novelists are miserable, unhappy neurotics, on a good day. Great writing can emerge only through deep suffering. If you are enjoying writing your novel, it’s most likely badly written.
One of the numerous reasons that I stuck with writing non-fiction for so much of my life is that I bought into this myth completely. The writers I loved as a young English major were either alcoholics, suicidal or psychotic. Think F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Ezra Pound. The cost of writing my novel would be too great. And then the dream slid to the back burner as the responsibilities of life accelerated.
My first book was arduous. Mainly because I believed that it would be really good if writing it was tough, super difficult. Therefore, I made it super difficult. Like any work worth doing, writing a first novel is worth doing poorly. My first novel was replete with problems which have been corrected in the second edition.
But the second and third books have been a totally different experience. Certainly, hard work but not arduous. At times fun. Because of the joy of getting—really describing a new character. One that was extremely challenging because he is totally out of your frame of reference. Like an assassin who has become my favorite character in my third book.
- To complete a book, you must schedule times and a place for writing it. And consistently adhere to that schedule.
I don’t have a writing schedule. Nor do I have a specific place to write. But I do write only on my laptop never desktop. Certainly when I am approaching a deadline, like now, my writing schedule might be most of my waking hours or as much of them as I can devote to it. But other things interrupt-husbands, kids, holidays, life. As they should.
Perhaps because I’ve worked for myself for over fifteen years, the challenge of working from home is a norm for me. And grabbing a few hours here and there to write doesn’t drive me crazy. Anymore.
- Beware of writers block.
I believe there is no such thing as writers block. Rather I think it’s fear. The assassin I mentioned earlier is a great example. Because I found this brand new character intimidating, I took my time, a lot more time than I normally do. And wrote him differently. I kept going back to read and re-read sentences and paragraphs sometimes taking days or a couple of weeks off before returning. Until finally, he had flesh and muscle. I could see him, even understand, how he got there.
- The best writers have been educated in writing so take classes in creative writing. Attend writing workshops and writing groups.
This point is added with more than a little hesitance because education has its place in life. I spent more than half my life in school. But the classes and the conferences can be ends in themselves making us think we’re writing when all we are doing is talking about writing or listening to others talk about writing. The best way to learn how to write is to do it.
When I nervously decided I wanted to branch out and write poetry, a good friend recommended Natalie Goldberg’s, Writing Down the Bones. If you’ve never read this book, do yourself a favor and read it now. You’ll laugh and get close to crying. She nails all of them, all of our fears. And stomps on them.
- Talk to many people about what you want to write about to get their opinions on your story.
Please don’t make this mistake. Don’t permit others to steal your dream. If there is a story burning in your gut, characters that float around in your psyche, a story that you believe is begging to be told, then by God, write it. Don’t ask anyone’s opinion- not yet anyway.
In summary, be careful when adopting the advice, tips and rules of other writers and readers. If you think a piece of advice makes sense, try it out but if it doesn’t fit, discard and move on.