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The Right Way to Write

Writersdontcry Writer Emoticow is CrushedQ: How should I write my book?

A:  Any way you want to.

The number one rule about writing is there are no rules—so long as you can make it work. That’s right. You can misspell every single word in your book—or write large swathes of it in a made-up language—so long as you can make it work. You can even write wish-fulfillment, cliché-filled fantasy where every character is a cardboard confection with a sparkling, talking dragon on top—just be prepared to work the hell out of it.

And that’s the point where you stop reading. Right? Because if there are no rules, then why read writing this advice? Why write writing advice at all? I mean seriously, where does it all come from? The amount of it online is staggering—and that doesn’t even count the advice arrayed in actual books!

But I find that--in the gooey, wooey mess of freedom that is writing at its most creative—analyzing, breaking things down, and categorizing can help you improve where you didn’t even know there was room to grow. Besides, there are a great many rules that are right 80% of the time (give or take 80%), so it does help to pay attention to what others have learned before you. Just try to remember that with enough skill and ingenuity, you can break almost any rule you need to so long as it enhances your story. All you have to do is figure out how.

So, here is my writing advice about . . . uhm . . . writing advice!

Take What You Need
What’s this? No rules? Then why read writing advice at all!

Writing is such a solitary pursuit. I mean, sure, technically we write in school. Some. But if you were like me, most of your writing was done between classes in notebooks, and after school at home—on your own. Which means it’s easy to get stuck in one perspective on writing, making it hard to overcome obstacles and improve.

And just because I say I’m down with everyone doing their own thing, so long as they can make it work, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t read widely and with an open mind, looking to improve your craft. Writing advice comes from a place of experience—notably, an experience different than yours. So take the invaluable opportunity to look through the lens of someone else’s perspective. Work your writing through the advice, and see if it suggests anything you’re not doing, and figure out how you would incorporate that advice. Take a serious look each time advice warns you about the pitfalls of something you are doing, and make sure that the way you do it is both an exception and worth the risk of an exception. You may just discover something new about your writing, or unsnarl that knot in your work that’s been bugging you.

Leave the Rest
If you don’t write your outlines in High Draconic and burp blue butterflies every time you get a review, you’re not a real writer . . .

Perhaps the most traumatizing bit of writing advice I ever heard was when someone told my young writer self that real writers hear their characters’ voices—and that if you didn’t hear voices, then you weren’t a “real” writer. And you know? I don’t hear voices. And I never have. I do get a feeling in my gut as to whether things are right or wrong, but I’m a very logical person who has not previously heard voices. If I started hearing voices all of a sudden, I’d be concerned. And they may have been describing a metaphor just a little too literally—and vehemently? But it shook me and made me feel like a fraud. Which is ridiculous, because who exactly is stamping the “real writer” card here?

Which brings me to my point: take what you need and leave the rest. “Thanks for your opinion, check your demons at the door.” If you write, you’re a writer, and the correct process is whatever helps you write, so long as it doesn’t entail doing anything illegal. Anyone who tries just a little too energetically to codify the process—and criminalize the deviants—is saying more about themselves than the Way of the Pen.

Experiment—But Be Honest
Break all the things—all the time! M’quo efnara e! Efnara e!

Wait, what?

I used to love breaking the writing rules. It was like a challenge. I would embark on these crazy writing quests to break every rule I could in everything from my high school essays to my notebook novels. Just to see if I could make it work. And I stand by this as a great writing exercise. Especially for flash fiction practice journals. Fun, and just irreverent enough to really loosen the bit and let your writing run free.

But at the end of the day, they were experiments—and risky ones at that (especially that one where I tried to portray emotion without using a single emotion-oriented word—may it never see the light of day). Turns out, not everyone appreciates experiments. Also? Sometimes, experiments fail. And crazy experiments—while great for teaching you how and when to break a rule for effect—are more often than not just useful for practice, not publication.

Most of the time, when you break a rule in something you’re writing (for anything other than practice), it’s because it enhances your story. Still, it’s important to realize that some people will hate the fact that you broke a rule even if you do it well. And also to realize that if enough people tell you that the way you broke the rule isn’t really working for them, that you should probably reconsider how you broke it—or whether to break it at all. At the end of the day, breaking rules should be done for the same reasons you’d adhere to the rules—to help tell your story as best it can be told.

Make It Work: Challenges

Try to figure out how you would make each of the following “rule-breaking” writing situations work. If you have already made one work—or, were the exception that proved the rule—congratulations! You’re a real writing rebel! Want more? Check out TV Tropes for more (s)inspiration.

1. Your main character is a god. Or a talking dragon. Or both.

2. Write from ten distinct points of view. Or more.

3. Start with how the story ends. Make us care about reading the story anyway.

4. Write a story that is 20% flashbacks or dream sequences.

5. Kill your main character halfway through the book.

6. Your main character is “the chosen one.”

7. Tell us, don’t show us, the story.

8. Your main character can hear his or her weapon talk. And his or her pet. And mount.

9. It was all just a dream.

10. Even the villain falls for your main character.


Happy Writing!

Read more Writers Don't Cry
Follow me on Twitter @susanjmorris


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Brom: They're actually all taken from unlikely situations in books I've seen authors make work! And yes, Martin has definitely pulled a number of crazy writing stunts that people said could not be done. Good catch :).

When I first looked at your list of challenges, I thought, "Yeah, some of those could be tough to pull off." Then I realized how many of them George R.R. Martin has pulled off in "A Song of Ice and Fire": #2 - check, #4 - check (lots of flashbacks), #5 - check, #6 - check, I think (here I'm thinking of Daenerys, although he has also said "the dragon has three heads").

The first thing that #3 reminded me of was the movie "Memento."

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