There are no rules, only new things to try

I was reminded by this post in blackholly‘s journal of the fact that we writers seem awfully fond of coming up with “rules” of writing. I think maybe most writers start out thinking there are such rules, and wanting desperately to know what they are. You can see this at any writer’s conference: the speaker says something like, “I can only write if I get up 17 minutes past dawn and use a purple pad and a number two pencil” and people take notes. Not because they think this is funny or interesting or something that maybe they want to try, but because–you can see it in their faces–they think it’s true, and not only for the speaker.

Okay, I’m exaggerating. But only a little.

More experienced writers do this, too, though perhaps we’re a little more subtle. But I’ve lost track of how many fellow writers have walked up to me all excited because they’d just learned the rules of plotting by reading a book on screenwriting. (If one more writer tells me to read up on scriptwriting, I just might scream. I’m not trying to write scripts. And I’ll use three act structure just as often as it serves my purposes–that is, sometimes. Ditto the Hero’s Journey, even though I like the Hero’s Journey, and actually often do write those sorts of stories. But I digress.)

All those how-to-write books are about finding out the rules, and there are beginner and advanced versions of them.

So I want to scream: There are no rules. There’s only trial and error and figuring out what works for you. And even that’s maybe gonna change.

I was once in a writer’s group with writers I respected, who were very successful, who believed very strongly that all professional writers must outline. I was kind of insecure about this for a while: was I unprofessional? Was I stubborn? Why wasn’t I willing to follow the rules?

Because they weren’t what I needed for the stories I was writing at that time.

I’ve seen this happen in the other direction, too: writer’s worriedly saying, “But I can’t fly off into the mist. I have to outline.” Possibly I’ve talked about mist-flying as the one true way myself, in younger, more overconfident days.

I think the fear is: if I don’t follow the rule that writer over there uses, am I not a real writer?

We are all, of course, afraid we’re not real writers. (Especially while we’re, say, composing rants for our weblogs instead of, well, writing. But again I digress.)

There’s no “you can’t do this,” in writing, though there’s always “you did this badly” or “this doesn’t seem to be working for this story” or “you did this and I’m not interested in your tale because of it.” There’s even “This story because it sucks large rocks through a straw.”

But there’s no “this story doesn’t work because you relied on pathetic fallacies” or “this story doesn’t work because you didn’t follow 17 and a half point plot structure” or “this story doesn’t work because you failed to read the latest book on how to properly build a bestselling career.”

There are no rules. And anyone who finds this a terrifying thought–who wants to be told what to do and how to do it, who isn’t comfortable at least some of the time feeling their way through–is possibly going to find writing an uncomfortable thing to pursue.

ETA: Just to make clear I’m not only ragging on outlining, but too-strong dictates in general: I’m no happier if someone tells me with great authority that I ought to write morning pages or the like. I’m an equal-opportunity ranter. 🙂

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