If you are new to writing, or feeling a little fragile about whatever you’re writing, you will probably be surfing the internet for help. You may be relieved – or alarmed – to know that even published authors do this.
Writing ‘rules’ are out there and we, desperately searching for inspiration or confidence, lap them up. In any list of ‘rules’ you might find something that is helpful to your writing at this moment, but, mostly, these ‘rules’ are lists of ‘things that worked for this writer’ and, as such, may not be applicable to you.
The bottom line is that we all write differently, and we write differently at different stages of our life, and under different circumstances. I am typing these words in between home-school lessons. I did not expect this situation a year ago, and what worked well for my writing in 2019 is just not going to happen in 2021. So, remember that even if a ‘rule’ works for you now, it might not apply at all in a few months’ time.
Here are some popular ‘rules’ and why you might want to play fast and loose with them.
1) Write every day.
I’m beginning with my least favourite ‘rule’ because it has, in the past, made me feel inadequate. The principle behind it is a good one: writing well is a habit that we can form. Like all good habits, we should practise it regularly. Find a time every day to sit and write – even if you write only a few words.
This ‘rule’ might work well if you are lucky enough to have a life that is regular, uncluttered, and relatively affluent. Most of us, though, are not paid to write our stories – or paid enough just to write. Most of us do not have wealthy and indulgent partners. Most of us are holding down jobs, running a house, home-schooling (see above), engaging in other hobbies, reading, and ALSO trying to write. Don’t feel guilty if you can’t put pen to paper every day. The chances are that you are thinking about your story, even if you are not writing it. Sometimes, all we can do is daydream.
2) Have, or create a place where you can write.
Whatever your opinion of former UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, did you feel a twinge of envy when he revealed his writing shed? Wouldn’t we all write better in a special shed like that? Well, maybe.
Words are scribbled and typed in all sorts of places. Some people like to sit at the same table or the same comfy chair for a sense of continuity. Some like to create special corners, filled with inspiring objects. I prefer to mix it up – I find this gives me new perspective. I recently tried writing in bed (à la Proust) which was fantastic until my cats decided to join me. Much depends on what you’re doing: I write in a chair, I prefer to edit at a table, and, as a writer of historical fiction, I like being in a library – just in case I want to look up a reference. Or procrastinate. Oh, to procrastinate in a library right now …
Write wherever works for you today.
3) Don’t edit until you have a first draft.
I was really taken with this one. It seemed so liberating. I powered through the first draft and threw down the words! Then, as the word count grew, I began to hate what I had written. But I wasn’t allowed to stop! I had to let it all flow! And then I found that the flow had dried up.
Some people cannot work in an untidy room. I cannot continue until I’ve tinkered with the plot points that I know are wrong.
If it suits you, go back and edit.
Just remember where you tinkered and save everything you cut. You may need it again.
4) Don’t use prologues.
This ‘rule’ usually comes into the category of ‘Don’t start with the weather/dream sequence/waking up/ etc.’ Well, do use a prologue, if it works. They can work really well in historical fiction. See our recent History Quill post about what a good prologue can do.
Of course, prologues really do need to work, and they need to connect with the rest of the novel. Otherwise, they are an unnecessary affectation. Once the reader embarks on the main chunk of novel, they will forget the prologue … until, cunningly, something near the end of the story sends them scurrying back for their personal ‘aha’ moment. For a good example, try Antonia Hodgson’s novel, The Devil in the Marshalsea.
5) Believe in your work
Okay, this is the toughest ‘rule’ to knock. Most writers are awesome people who are also very vulnerable when it comes to their work. If you are happy with what you have written, then that is a joyous and wonderful thing. But sometimes, that story you have written is not good. Or it’s okay, but it could be better. It is only when you share it with people in the publishing world that you discover the harsh truth.
If you are content to write in your own way, for your own pleasure, then just do it. If you want to sell your words, then you need to ask for advice or critical editorial comment – and that does not come from your family/partner/best mate. You can believe in your work and, at the same time, be ready to hear constructive criticism that will make it even better, and, possibly, something you can sell.
We are all looking for ways to do it right. We seek out ‘rules’ to find answers and fixes. Sadly, the only way to write well is to, well, write. And that means settling down to the prospect of several thousands of words and many long hours with your characters. There are no rules, truly. There is only commitment.