Writing Advice and Rule-Breaking

aka Still Not The All-Encompassing Wizard World Philadelphia Post (sorry)

One of the things I’ve always believed is that writing is such a deeply individual process that there’s very little I can teach someone else about craft.

I’m not talking about basics like grammar and vocabulary. I tend to assume writers are either already well-versed in those subjects, or recognize that it’s a learning curve that needs to be climbed if they expect readers to engage. Everyone knows That Guy who self-pubbed their novel, and the first page is full of improper Capitalization and stray, commas and too! many! exclamation! points! and nobody wants to be That Guy. Grammar and vocabulary are learnable skills, and trying to write without them is going to get you the same sorts of results you’d get if you tried to fix your dishwasher with a pipe cleaner and some Post-It notes.

(Do you like the mangled metaphor? I think I’ll choose to say it’s intended to be illustrative.)

So when someone asks a question about a work they’ve completed, I tend to respond with the assumption that it’s already well-written. If someone, for example, asks how much trouble they’re going to have getting representation for their 250,000-word debut novel, I tell them, “It’s not impossible, but it’s a longshot.” Which is, statistically speaking, the truth.

Of course, other people tend to provide more useful responses like “You know, odds are at 250,000 words your manuscript is kind of meandery or repetitive or expositiony, so you may want to do some heavy-duty editing before you try querying it.” Which, to be fair, is much more likely the case, especially if you’re talking to a beginning writer. And it’s good advice in any case: don’t write a 250,000-word novel unless you absolutely must write a 250,000-word novel. And don’t write a non-standard query letter, and don’t write any info-dumps, and show don’t tell, and good God, get rid of those adverbs.

All of that advice is good, and solid. And sometimes it’s absolutely, 100% wrong.

One of the panels I did in Philadelphia was called Writing Compelling Science Fiction. The two gentlemen who put it together have been running it for years, and it’s been quite popular. It covers some basics about spec fic and story structure, and is designed to encourage people still feeling their way toward building and completing their stories. How I ended up on the panel is a bit of a tale, but the runners were gracious and inclusive and marvelous hosts.

And I kind of stepped on their advice at one point, even though, strictly speaking, their advice was good.

Someone in the audience had asked about chapter headings. He referenced Cormac McCarthy’s THE ROAD as an example of a book that did really well but had no traditional chapter breaks. The hosts advised him to absolutely not do that, that no publisher or agent would look at the manuscript without chapter breaks.

I disagreed. I told the person chapter breaks were just a pacing tool, and if the story doesn’t call for them, don’t use them. I suggested they query the book without chapter breaks, and if they found themselves getting rejections on pages they could always add chapter breaks and see if they got a better response. They could then fight the chapter-break fight with their editor once they got an agent and sold it to a publisher.

Now, in fairness, it’s possible the audience member was That Guy, and I just enabled bad habits.

But what if they’re Cormac McCarthy? What if they have something poetic and beautiful and passionate that would be flattened by chapter breaks? How many people have it in them to build something amazing, but take a step back because of an arbitrary Most People Do It This Way rule?

What if that novel really does need to be 250,000 words?

One of the most successful science fiction books in recent years is OLD MAN’S WAR, which I didn’t get a chance to read until recently (after, to be fair, years of my spouse telling me I was missing something I’d love). From a craft perspective, it’s of course written extremely well. The author turns a phrase and knows how to get a reaction from the reader. And past the basics, he writes complex, believable characters, and sets up vivid worlds–pretty much what you’d expect from a best-selling science fiction author.

But narratively? The book breaks a whole bunch of rules. The first two-thirds of it is exposition–fascinating, entertaining exposition (which is possible!), but still. And then there’s the point where you realize this military science fiction novel is actually a pretty traditional romance–once again, beautifully done, but kinda breaks the rules of what one’s supposed to do with a story like this.

I read a book like OLD MAN’S WAR, and I think about all the people told “No, stop writing exposition!” or “You can’t play with genre like that!” and I wonder how many of those people were writing something gorgeous and stopped because they thought they wouldn’t be able to sell it. Is it most of them? Probably not–but if it’s even one, isn’t that too many?

When it comes down to it, as a reader, I want to read something that engages and moves me. Yes, most of the books I’ve loved have traditional narrative structures, but not all of them. Another favorite of mine, SHARDS OF HONOR, is basically four separate stories in a single volume, and it’s a book I reread not just for pleasure, but because I’m fascinated by how, despite the non-traditional pacing, it works perfectly beginning to end.

The other side of this–and that person’s question at the panel really brought it into focus for me–is how much of the writing advice given is geared toward getting the writer published. “Don’t write X genre because it’s over-saturated.” “Don’t write a prologue because too many rookies screw them up.” “Make sure you use traditional chapter breaks.” “Don’t write a chapter longer than Y words.” “Always write first person past/third person limited/etc. for Z genre, because otherwise no one will read it.”

It’s a hard line to draw, because most people who write believe the next logical step is being read, and therefore published. Self-publishing has added another dimension to this, and it’s a double-edged sword: you don’t have to worry about X genre being oversaturated or how many words your chapters have, but you also don’t have to pound your craft into submission before you throw something up for the world to see.

And I’m not convinced, having been on both sides of it, that publishing (of any variety) is the right goal for every story.

I can hear the working writers screaming at me for that, or laughing at me, or thinking I’m horribly naive or privileged. Fair points all. I know some writers who are absolutely writing to market, and loving it, and doing well, and they are no less creative or Artistic™ than the people who scratch at parchment with a feather dipped in ink. Writing is a craft on top of everything else, and if you want to sell to the world, you owe it to your work to make your craft as good as it can possibly be.

But at the same time, writing is an art. It’s self-expression. Everything from fanfic to tie-ins to pulp to and-I-thought-ULYSSES-was-weird stuff is self-expression. Here are my guts, wrapped up in words and plot and characters and (sometimes) chapter breaks.

I’m not sure we nurture good writers by telling them the main goal of writing is to write something they can sell. Maybe the goal of writing shouldn’t be make this publishable but rather hone your ability to make your story read on the page the way it does in your head. Screw sales. Screw publishing. Learn how to use your tools, not just the grammar and vocabulary, but the experiences and perspectives that are unique to you. Take satisfaction in translating that piece of yourself that you want to share in a way that’s as true to yourself as you can make it.

And maybe it never sells. Maybe you show it to your friends and they look at you like you’ve grown a second head. Maybe you never show it to anyone. But if it’s what you wanted it to be…is that enough? Shouldn’t it be enough? Because no writer produces Thing 2 if they never sit down and write Thing 1.

I ran across an essay yesterday (that I won’t link to) talking about how important it is not to tell kids that they shouldn’t be professional writers, that somehow telling them they should keep a day job is discouraging or inhibiting their creativity. Apart from the irresponsible naïveté of that–it’s the same thing. We’re telling developing writers that the only goal should be publishing, when the truth is that even if their eventual goal is publishing, it’s far more important to learn how to build their own stories, whether or not they ever get shared with the world.

Writing, for me, has always been equal parts escapism, therapy, and entertainment. That some of my stories have made it out to the world is marvelous…but it’s a different thing than the writing itself. I’ll always write. If I hadn’t sold a book, I’d still always write. I love the craft of it, the satisfaction of re-reading something and recognizing that it really does work the way I want it to. I love writing and writing and realizing only after I’m finished what it was I needed to say.

That’s the sort of thing I’d like to see nurtured in writers still working on their craft (and we’re all, no matter how experienced, still working on our craft). Yes, there are rules–not just of grammar–that should be broken rarely, or not at all. Yes, there are types of stories that are more likely to be published for money than others. Yes, you should pay attention to that, if publishing is your goal.

But don’t ever forget that writing is an art, and at some point you’re going to have to ignore everybody’s well-intentioned advice, and write your own heart. And remember that the act of creation has a value all its own.

3 thoughts on “Writing Advice and Rule-Breaking

  1. Oh I love this LIz. It reminds me of a teacher my son had. She said she didn’t want to give him the “standard structure” for writing school essays because she could tell he was the type of kid who would then always write mechanically. Of course, the next year, he had a different teacher who drilled the standard structure into them but to this day, he has a unique style. Not everyone appreciates “unique” – as parents of middle school girls, we reminded of this often – but encouraging and reminding people to be true to themselves is good advice for life in general. And now you see my style – I’ve always been a hyphen-er :-).

    1. 🙂 I think it’s particularly important when they’re young and still creative to encourage them to write what feeds them. Essay structure in particular becomes so plug-and-play.

      My big vice is semicolons. 🙂

  2. Love this blog, this post, the humor (like in an ironic aside), all of it. Brilliant advice. My favourite part about living with rules is seeing how far I can bend them safely.

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