Beautiful Words,  Craft

Never Say Never: Writing “Rules” That Beg to Be Broken

By Jennifer Worrell

How many of you have heard the old saw, “Write it your way!” or “Write the story you want to read!”

And so you do. And then you’re told…you can’t do that. Only {insert bestselling author names here} can do that. But no one explains why. How did successful writers get that privilege, and who gave it to them? Creative writing is nothing without artistic expression, but that’s impossible to achieve if you’re imprisoned by arbitrary rules.

In search of a like-minded community, I joined far too many online writers’ forums. A lot are great (especially this one!) and can help you through many a muddy spot long into your career. But the winding path to success is unfortunately lined with cracks and road apples. Some advice is so fantastic you’ll want to sing the giver’s praises, while other suggestions will make you wonder if they’d ever read a book. Any book.

For instance, a member of a group I used to frequent asked for guidance on using multiple POV. That’s a tough thing to get right, but plenty of writers have done it successfully, and it’s often the best approach to achieve the greatest impact. (It’s especially popular in Romance and Fantasy.) Though it’s not a technique you’d learn in English 101, it’s not rocket science. It just takes time to finesse and a maybe a few passes out loud to make sure the characters aren’t head-hopping. Yet the first response this poster received was, “That’s not for beginners to try.”

No explanation. No alternative. Just don’t do it.

Never Say Never: Writing Rules That Beg To Be Broken

You know when a cartoon character gets angry and its neck surges red like mercury rising and steam blows out its ears? I was convinced that was about to happen to me. Comments like these are debilitating and should be thrown out the window, impaled with a harpoon, and lit on fire. But first invite me over so I can watch. (I’ll bring marshmallows!)

The fundamentals of fiction writing are invaluable, but too many people use them like walls to box you in.

Our most revered writers kept pushing themselves, playing with fresh ideas until they had something unique, twisting words until they drummed new rhythms into readers’ heads.

If someone has ever tried to crush your spirit by telling you “no,” there’s good news:

  • You don’t need anybody’s permission to write.
  • You don’t need random strangers deciding when you’re ready to take your writing to the next level. That’s your job.
  • You do need decent critique partners/beta readers to tell you if your baby needs its diaper changed. (But hopefully in a much kinder way than that.)

I still struggle with that last one. The wait is nerve-wracking. Receiving harsh criticism, especially when it’s unexpected, will make you question your talent, instincts, and sanity. If “writing is show business for shy people” as crime novelist Lee Child says, then presenting stuff for feedback represents stage fright.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give it a shot, despite what detractors say. So what do you do?

  • Don’t shoot for gold.
    Looking at a complex maneuver as a whole can be daunting. Dismantle it into smaller and smaller pieces until the path becomes clear in your mind. Then put it back together at a pace you’re comfortable with. Pretend it’s a relay race. Even though the athletes aren’t running at once, they’ll eventually reach the finish line. The outcome matters more than the time it takes to get there, since that’s the only thing your readers will see. There’s no need to overwhelm yourself. No one creates a novel in one go; they write it a little at a time, tweaking along the way. (Read Anne LaMott’s Bird by Bird, considered a sacred tome by many novelists, for more such advice.)
  • Stretch your writing muscles.
    I took dance classes for a number of years. Once, the instructress threw in an advanced step at the end of our set. “You can throw this little thing in here,” she said with a wink and a shrug. No biggie. Just this beautiful flourish you make with your body…meh. Naturally, everyone wanted to give it a whirl. Any idiot could have pegged me as a beginner, but considering I couldn’t pull off a three-point turn without tipping over and hitting the wall, I did a surprisingly decent job at this one move I never knew existed. Maybe the sophisticated technique nagging at you is something you’re just naturally good at. How else will you know?
  • Cut loose.
    If you stick with the basics, eventually a regular reader will tell you, “This sounds like something you’ve done before.” Why not try something different, crazy, weird? If nothing else, it will be a fun exercise. Attempting new things will contribute to your growth as a writer…even if you fail. You’ll soon discover you excel at and what you need more experience in. Writing in a new style never hurt anybody. Upside: if it does, you can write about it!
  • Enlist a posse of betas who can deliver the truth in one breath and cheer you on in the next.
    Having a strong support system is important. If a reader can explain why you didn’t pull something off, consider it a victory. Though it’s no fun admitting you fell short, once you know what the problem is, you can work on fixing it. It may take a while to find your tribe, but trust me…they’re out there. And they’re priceless.

Don’t take no for an answer.

Keep searching until you find a source that can teach you what you want to know. Writing isn’t an exact science. If it were, we’d all have an easier time. But we’d sacrifice poetry, passion, style.

Remember, no one has to see your work until you feel it’s ready.

By then, you’ll have had a lot of practice polishing it up and a lot of chances to study how established writers have nailed it. And isn’t that how anyone masters anything?

Jennifer Worrell is the Assistant to the Dean of Libraries at a private university. She’s convinced being surrounded by books revived her love of writing. In decent weather, you can find her banging away (sometimes muttering profanity) in her “office”: a lawn chair pulled up to a cement wall with a truncated view of Sears (yes, Sears) Tower. Her fiction appears in Literary Orphans Journal, 72 Hours of Insanity: An Anthology of the Games vol. 2, and Foliate Oak Literary Magazine. She’s working on her first novel. You can follow her unchecked blatherings on Facebook (@JenniferWorrellWriter) and Twitter (@PieLadyChicago).

Katharine Grubb is an author, poet, homeschooling mother, camping enthusiast, bread-baker, and believer in working in small increments of time. She leads 10 Minute Novelists, an international Facebook group of time-crunched writers. She lives with her family in Massachusetts.