Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Rules of Writing

By Amy

If you want to be a writer, a real writer, then you must write every day. You must meet a daily minimum word count. A true writer has read the classics. Before you may call yourself a writer, you must -- must! -- know proper grammar; this is non-negotiable. Writers never read within the genre they're writing while they're writing; we might fall prey to osmosis plagiarism. If you are to be published, then you will never be at a loss for ideas for the next scene, the next chapter, the next book. True writers don't write in first-person, present tense; everyone knows how much agents and editors detest this. Don't edit your work until you've written that $hi!!y first draft. If you're a short story writer, then you've heard a thousand times over the dictum of a certain editor that a short story must take place within the time-frame of a single day. You must write what you know. You must, you must, you must...

These are a few of the rules of writing I've heard over the years. I reject them all.

Writing is a personal journey. It's something that happens within each of us and is then poured out, massaged, and refined before being shared with the world. It's an explosion of passion, an obsessively controlled expression.

There are no rules for writing, though there are guidelines. I believe in certain truths: reading enriches my writing; grammar is fun; write not what I know, but what I want to know; become one with the protagonist. But these are my truths. I know if I were to write every day, the words would soon become stale, perfunctory. They would appear on the page only because they had to, not because I felt them. Perhaps you must write each day. Good on you! You know your strengths and weaknesses best. Feel confident with your choices.

My advice (not that you asked)? Know the rules, become intimate with them, and then throw them all away. When you're ready, pick and choose that which resonates with your own literary life. Trust your gut more than those books on writing you picked up at the library or bookstore. Read them, definitely do, but again, choose what is right for you.

This is your journey, navigate your own path. You may find yourself crossing trails with others along the way; enjoy the commiseration. But know that ultimately you'll find your way, on your terms. You must.


kristen spina said...

Ah, yes, thank you for this.

Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...

Thank you, Kristen. For years, I felt as though I was doing everything wrong because I didn't adhere to these rules. Then I realized I never really played by other people's rules anyway, so why start now?


Judy Merrill Larsen said...

Amy, thanks for this. I've never been a big one for rules anyway (well, except for those apostrophe rules. Those I do go nuts about!) but "the rules" made me feel so inadequate at one time. How dare I conisder myself a writer? I mean, I wrote only in the summer (I had that pesky teaching job). And I didn't even know what a query letter was (not sure I do now, as a matter of fact).

But here's what I did know: Writing was what I did, sort of like breathing. Books made my pulse race and my soul slow down. And then I realized who else broke the rules. Faulkner. Hemingway. Morrison. Springsteen.

kristen spina said...

It's interesting, some of those rules I've never heard of, so as I read them, I found myself wondering why they became rules and who would follow them. On the other hand, the rules that were drummed into me long ago, the ones about writing every day or writing what you know--those are hard to shake.

In the end, we make our own way and our own rules, but coming to that realization can be a long and exhausting process.

Thanks again, Amy.

Therese said...

Down with rules! Up with free expression!

When I began writing fiction, I didn't know there were "rules," grammar excepted.

Like you just said, Amy, I've never been much of a by-the-rules player either. Must be there is something to that...

Gail said...

Love this Amy!! I'm a rule-breaker from waaay back and a risk-taker (on the page)in my life not so much. But in writing I say go with your gut! Thanks for enlightening us once again!

Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...

This would be a great thing to mention at, say, an author event when someone asks a question about routine and such. Your rule on handling the rules is clearly dead-on, given the universal response! Reminds me of that John Mayer lyric about the "so-called right track," too.


Lisa Marnell said...

MY favorite, of many favorite parts of this post, Amy, is this:

"I know if I were to write every day, the words would soon become stale, perfunctory. They would appear on the page only because they had to, not because I felt them."

This resonates with me; it doesn't take long for my writing tea to steep, but I must leave it alone for some time, and when I check on it later, it's ready. Thanks for the reminder, as you know I'm pushing right now.

Larramie said...

Simply put, you must trust yourself.

Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...

Judy, your journey to publication with All the Numbers certainly proved your truths correct, didn't they? Feeling a bit more confident now, you should!

Kristen, a long and exhaustive process indeed. As I'm sure you've already discovered, own your own rules and your work will be better for it.

Therese, your rebel may care attitude worked for you! Souvenir has been sold to 11 countries? We all await its publication next in just a couple of months, with the accolades to follow.

Gail, what do you mean you don't break the rules on the page? Pouring molten lava onto paper defies the law of physics.

Hannah, yes, I'd say the parallel track works better for me. I can't wait to hear you discuss your writing routine at your first reading. I'll be the one in the front row with her hand (annoyingly) up, the first to burst into applause.

Lisa, you make a good pot of tea, that's for sure. I'm thirsting for it, you know that. Can't wait.

Larramie, spot on, as always.

Thanks for commenting everyone! For those of you who haven't yet, we'd love to hear what your routine is -- and isn't. It's powerful to break so many rules.


Unknown said...

I like this very much. I think it's good to learn all the rules and then break them as you will. Above all, it's your own voice.

Lisa said...

This is may well be the very best writing advice I've ever gotten. As always, you've put it out there at exactly the moment I needed to hear it most. Thank you.

Gail said...

Did I say that? because if I did I certainly did NOT mean that. What I meant was I don't break the rules (much) in my life. On the page? You kidding? That's where I risk everything...

Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...

Nora, I also believe voice is THE most important part of any piece of writing. Absolutely with you.

Lisa,you don't need to hear it from anyone else but you. Trust in you. I've no doubt you're on the right path.

Gail you prove it again and again. You're a rock star!


Melissa Amateis said...

EXCELLENT post, Amy. Writing is a subjective business all around - rules are made to be broken! I like referring to them as you did - guidelines and not necessarily "rules."

Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...

Thank you, Melissa. There's a certain book every woman I know has read and loved. Me? Not so much. In fact, I'm the only one I know who doesn't adore it. It is all subjective and we must each make our way.


Anonymous said...

Just wanted to say a quick hello.
In Bangkok right now on way back from Vietnam. And have missed all my friends.

Just quickly " There are no rules....only guidelines."

And I agree with everything above.

Ello - Ellen Oh said...

Oi! I got real nervous as I read the first part of your paragraph and then relieved! Great post as usual! I'm a big believer in doing what works for yourself. Life is different for everyone, why shouldn't writing be too?

Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...

REality, I read with envy about your trip to Vietnam. Now my husband's homeland. Life is not baout rules, is it?

Ello, you're too much of a free spirit to get nervous about others' rules. You're doing quite well, thank you very much, making your own way. Keep it up.


Anonymous said...

Guess you struck a chord with this one. Sure did with me.

I just read John Gardner's Art of Fiction and felt like a utter dolt by the end. I've been to "university" but not for writing, as he insists is the only possible way. (BS in biology) I haven't read the few authors he repeatedly cites (dead white guys for the most part), so much of his lessons were lost on me (though I just found Homer et al. online for free). Not to knock him, though. It was a good and useful book.

So I'll never be a "serious" writer. Or a writer of "literature." I'm not even published yet. But I love doing it and something keeps me going. I'm in a dreaded revision phase of a story but find every useless word I cut, every passive verb I activate gives me great joy. So I guess I'll keep at it for now at least.

Thank you, all, for your words of wisdom and inspiration!

Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...

Kira, gosh, your post really resonates with me. I, too, felt like a dolt each time I wrote anything, never imagining I'd ever write anything "literary" or "serious." One day, I gave myself permission to write a story using the most beautiful language I was capable of, the caveat being that I would never show anyone. It wasn't half bad. It gave me just enough confidence to try to write to something more "serious."

The lesson I learned was to never let anyone define who I was or what I should be.


PS- My major was Political Science. Ha!

Anonymous said...

Maybe it's not about "rules" versus "freedom"; Maybe there are different "rules" for writers at different levels. The "write everyday" rule, for example, is
really saying, "Be serious"; when one is unsure of one's work practices and is just starting out, it's probably very good advice. Saying to a young writer, "You need a habit of art", or "Only a life devoted to the craft will produce something worthwhile" may be even more meaningless than saying "You've got to write 500 words every morning". The "short stories should take place in a day" rule is, of course, about unity, and if a beginning short story writer has no idea how to create/maintain unity in a tale, perhaps the 24 hour thing is a good way to get it.

Perhaps the problem is that these rules are presented to writers as maxims, perhaps because the presenting is often done by people outside the craft, who also lack an understanding of mysteries of "unity" and "being serious" - and so the "rules" are presented as rules, rather than something to master and then move beyond.

Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...

Daniel, you're right in that these rules are necessary guidelines to to introduce one to the rigors of a writer's life. Very insightful of you. But no one ever says once a writer hits her/his stride, s/he should develop patterns that work best for the individual. Yes, master and then move beyond.

I would argue, however, that the presenting is made by those inside the craft. I know of none that are written by non-writers. All I know of are put out by people whose work I repsect very much, but whose methods I don't share.