This guest post is by Bryan Thomas Schmidt.
If you’re a writer or trying to be, you’re probably already aware that one of the most-covered topics on the Internet is rules for writing. Everybody’s got their favorites. Everybody’s got their necessities. The funny thing is no one’s absolutely right and yet no one’s absolutely wrong. Glad I cleared that up, aren’t you?
Some of the rules even contradict each other. And some seem more aimed at stalling creativity than aiding it. So what is one to do about all these rules and conflicting information? How do you know what to take seriously and what to toss aside or ignore for the moment?
|Sometimes so-called writing rules can leave writers feeling trapped and unproductive.|
Wanna know what my number one rule for writing is?
Oh no! Not another rule!
Are you ready?
Be true to yourself.
Yep, that was it.
Good writing rules?
Before I explain that, let’s examine the rules first. Writing rules are based on a number of factors. Some are common sense: Always Read Guidelines Before Submitting Your Story Or Novel. This is one rule that everyone should follow.
Another example: If You Want To Succeed At Writing, You Must Treat It Like A Career. Well, this is common sense, too: You shouldn’t treat like a career by quitting day jobs and putting eight hour days until it actually comes true. Not unless you have the savings to afford to do it, and even then, it’s a big risk because most writers work day jobs, in fact. Even bestselling ones. Instead, what this means is that you should plan your writing time as work time and treat it accordingly. Just like hours at a job, you should have set writing hours, a writing space, and a commitment to fulfilling your writerly duties, whatever your goals may be. That’s a businesslike approach. You should submit stories regularly to both beta readers or critique groups and then, once refined, to markets. Treat it the same way you would the work you do for a paying job. That’s the way to succeed.
Bad writing rules?
Now let’s take a look at at rule that’s based more on preference: Writing Eight Hours A Day Is The Only Way To Succeed. Or what about: The Only Way To Write Well Is To Research First Until You’re An Expert, Then Write.
Anytime you see someone saying “the only way to,” assume it’s really personal preference, because that’s almost always the case. But there are others.
“Write What You Know” is good advice and can be helpful but sometimes people write about things they don’t know much about and are quite successful. In my story “La Migra,” coming out in the summer issue of Tales of the Talisman magazine, I wrote about a Border Patrol agent. I wrote it and guessed at much of the official dialogue and radio codes used, then sent it to my BP agent friend to help revise so it sounded the way it should. He hardly changed anything. Instead, he said, you nailed it. But I had never been around BP agents on the job once in my life. I guessed. I got lucky, but it happens.
“Never Write More Than Two Point Of View Characters In A Short Story or Five in A Novel.” Has anyone read George R.R. Martin’s popular A Song of Ice and Fire novels? GRRM uses a lot more than five and does it well.
These types of rules tend to cause the most confusion.
The fact is there’s not just one way to write. People break the rules all the time. And the way to earn that right is to break the rules so well that the reasons behind the rules become inapplicable. For example, the rule about multiple POV characters is based on the idea that readers need a common connection with characters and that a story with too many POVs will not only lack a strong connection and identification with any particular character, but will also lose focus. Readers may not like all of George R.R. Martin’s POV characters, but identifying them as individuals and relating to them as human is hardly an issue. Neither is lack of a focused storyline. When you do it well, the rules don’t apply.
Which rules should you follow?
This is why my number one rule of writing is: Be True To Yourself. No matter the tools taught, the theories posited, or the rules laid forth, you can’t write well unless you write in the way most productive and effective for you. Any rule or tool that blocks you from succeeding is something you should set aside and reconsider. Is it stopping you from getting the job done?
It’s not that the rules aren’t valuable. It’s not that you should forget them altogether. It’s that it does you no good to get stuck on restrictions or guidelines which you can’t apply to your own work. All it does, instead, is create frustration, discouragement, and a block to creativity. You can’t grow as writers unless you write. Anything that blocks your writing is really a hindrance to your growth and success.
Those rules and concepts may work for others. Some day they may work for you. In truth, a lot of them probably will. But you can’t apply them until you’re ready and you shouldn’t frustrate yourself by trying. It’s far more important to be productive creatively. After all, if you never write anything, there’s nothing to examine and learn from. And if you’re not learning how to improve, the journey is over. What’s the point?
Create your own rulebook
Being True To Yourself means creating your own rulebook. Consider all the advice offered but choose carefully what to include in your toolbox and what to lay by the wayside to be discarded or picked up later when it’s of use. Being True To Yourself means figuring out the best way of writing for you and knowing that, while it may differ from every other writer you know, the goal is to successfully tell stories and get words on the page. Only things that further that task have any value at the moment. Everything else is a potential obstacle and you won’t need help gathering obstacles. Plenty will find you on your own.
Being True To Yourself means embracing the self-discovery of the writer’s life and journey as you discover and rediscover how you can be at your best and do your best work without regard for how anyone else does it. Respect your unique creative self and your individualism.
You want a “the only way statement” that I take seriously? The only way to write is the way that works best for you and allows you to be most productive. You find that by Being True To Yourself and letting everything else go.
So next time you hear someone positing the Absolute Must rules of writing or something similar, remember their must list doesn’t have to be your own. Be True To Yourself as you consider what they have to say. Use what you can, let go of the rest, and get back to writing. That’s the only goal that matters in the end.
About the Author: Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the space opera novels The Worker Prince, a Barnes & NobleBook Clubs Year’s Best SF Releases of 2011 Honorable Mention and several short stories featured in anthologies and magazines. He edited the anthology SpaceBattles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 for Flying Pen Press, headlined by Mike Resnick. He can be found on Twitter or via his website.
In his second novel, The Returning, new challenges arise as Davi Rhii’s rival Bordox and his uncle, Xalivar, seek revenge for his actions in The Worker Prince, putting his life and those of his friends and family in constant danger. Meanwhile, politics as usual has the Borali Alliance split apart over questions of citizenship and freedom for the former slaves. Someone’s even killing them off. Davi’s involvement in the investigation turns his life upside down, including his relationship with his fiancée, Tela. The answers are not easy with his whole world at stake.
Tell me your opinion: Have you ever limited your writing with someone else’s Absolute Must rules?