Recently I was reading through one of the many writing blogs I subscribe to and I came across a list of do’s and don’ts for writers. Some of the advice came from editors, some from agents, and some from famous, bestselling authors. One of the “rules” said (and I’m paraphrasing): “Any time two characters are sitting around talking about another character the scene is dead.”
I instantly panicked.
Because in the novel I’m writing right now, I’ve written a few scenes in which two of the characters are sitting around talking about a third. I thought about going back and cutting those scenes. I thought about revising those scenes to make the conversation about something else. I thought about scrapping that part of the storyline altogether and starting over.
Then I picked up a book this weekend that’s one of the best works of fiction I’ve read all year. It’s The Emigrants by W.G. Sebald. It won the Berlin Literature Prize, the Literatur Nord Prize, and the Johannes Bobrowski Medal. It’s a narrative broken into four separate stories woven together by theme.
And it consists almost entirely of the narrator talking about another character, or sitting around with a second character, talking about a third.
I’m really really glad W.G. Sebald didn’t read the same bullshit list of do’s and don’ts for writers that I did before he sat down to create his masterpiece.
I’m also incredibly grateful to him for clearing my vision and bringing me back to center so that I could write this blog post.
The internet is filled with people who are pushing an agenda, and that goes for people who write about writing, publishing, books, and everything else literary under the sun. Maybe they want to sell-sell-sell, or maybe they just want to establish their authority so you’ll keep coming back to their blog and share their content on social media. But adopting the “voice of authority” doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re right, or that they have any idea at all of what is the right way for you.
The truth is that there is no list of do’s and don’ts for writers and artists.
Each one of us has to figure out our voice, our expression, our style, our path, on our own. What works for one person may very well be a disaster for another. And we never know if something is going to work until we try it.
Think about all the writers who have broken the rules in the past.
When Richard Adams was writing Watership Down and explained to people that his main characters were a bunch of rabbits, how do you think that went over? Or how about a few years ago when Young Adult authors knew they were writing for both teenagers and adults but not many people had caught on to it yet? Or what about this guy I just discovered last week, who happens to be amazing, and who writes—of all things—Amish Sci-Fi:
If these writers can do it, you can do it too. You can write what you want, exactly the way you want to write it and you can make it work.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of seeking out the do’s and don’ts lists because it makes us feel like we’ve got a handle on what will and won’t work, at least for a little while. It makes us feel safe. But the act of writing is inherently not safe. In order to write anything that even has a shot at satisfying our artistic desire, we have to move through fear and face the things that consume us.
We have to accept the fact that, a lot of the time, we just don’t know.
If you feel a strong and steady message coming from your heart about what you want to write—even if your rational mind is totally freaking out—you are on the right path. It doesn’t matter what anyone else says and it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks.
Throw out the do’s and don’ts lists. It’s up to you to make up your own rules.