Essential Skills for Writers: Having the Courage to Make Up Your Own Rules

Star Shaped SunglassesRecently 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:

Pennsylvania by Michael Bunker

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.

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  • Reply Laura Ryding-Becker 24 November, 2014 at 10:18 am

    Thank you for this post. I just started working on my second ms (which actually started out – very briefly – as a personal essay for a contest) yesterday. My first one, written, oh, 14 years ago, never amounted to anything. Right now, I needed to hear that “the act of writing is inherently not safe” and that I can do whatever I want when I’m writing. I’m one of those people who doesn’t like to break rules, so – unfortunately – I give way too much weight to those that claim to be “authority figures” out there.

    Thanks again. You made my day, and you just made my writing a little easier. 🙂

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 24 November, 2014 at 11:09 am

      Yay! This makes me so happy to hear this 🙂 Write on strong!

  • Reply Brian C. E. Buhl 24 November, 2014 at 11:27 am

    In regards to this:
    “Throw out the do’s and don’ts lists. It’s up to you to make up your own rules.”

    I agree with this, and everything else in the post, with a caveat.

    That is, look at the do’s and don’ts list before you throw it out, and when you throw it out, do so deliberately, and not accidentally.

    The reason I make this distinction is because sometimes, the do’s and don’ts have something behind them.

    For example, a common “don’t” is “don’t use adverbs.” This was not something I was told in my writing classes. This came up later, in critiques, and discussions with other writers. And my initial reaction was, “What?!? But adverbs can give you brevity!”

    It wasn’t until later that I found out that the rule is just a branch of “show, don’t tell.” Many times, when a writer reaches for an adverb, they’re telling, rather than showing. Once I found that out, I looked back over my old writing and saw the truth of it. And I saw that I was skipping opportunities to expand the world, or bring greater clarity to an action, or simply make more beautiful prose.

    But the spirit of this post is true. Don’t let rules hold you back from creating your masterpiece, whether those rules are arbitrary or not.

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 24 November, 2014 at 1:14 pm

      Thanks Brian! This reminded me of one of my favorite parts of IT by Stephen King. One of the main characters is doing research on the weird little town that contains the monster and he talks to this old-timer about which historians he should read. The old-timer advises him to buy two books. One he says to throw in the trash immediately, and about the other he says, “Read it first, then throw it in the trash.”

      Love it. 🙂

  • Reply David Ferland 25 November, 2014 at 3:11 am

    Thanks, Lauren. Your sensible encouragement always cuts through the noise. We have to find our own way. Mentors are fine. Rule-makers? Not so much.

  • Reply Catherine North 25 November, 2014 at 4:01 am

    *stands up and cheers* thank so much for saying this, Lauren! It’s exactly what I needed to hear.

    I was in a bookshop yesterday and picked up Murakami’s latest novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. And I thought, what creative writing article would ever advise you to describe your protagonist as ‘colorless.’ In the title! And yet I’m already intrigued to read about this character and his journey.

    I know we all have to start somewhere and learn our craft, and some of the writing advice out there IS useful. But isn’t truth and originality what we should aspire to, instead of limiting ourselves forever to following someone else’s rules because we don’t think we’re good enough to create our own?

  • Reply Glynis Jolly 25 November, 2014 at 9:32 am

    Rules are good to have, but there will always be incidences where the rule(s) just screw everything up. I, too, have read some books that I’ve absolutely loved that is mostly the narrator talking about others. One in particular is God Game by Andrew Greeley.

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 25 November, 2014 at 9:35 am

      Andrew M. Greeley’s books are one of my guilty pleasures. Love that man!

  • Reply JulieS 25 November, 2014 at 11:03 am

    To throw out the rules successfully, you have the understand why they exist, and make sure your new path addresses that big picture. Sometimes rules are your friends to help you accomplish what you want to convey to the reader. In the examples you give, the author did just that.

  • Reply hilarycustancegreen 26 November, 2014 at 2:46 pm

    Thank you, this is good and reassuring post. I have been in some discussions with aspiring writers, and it is quite difficult to disentangle some undoubtedly good advice, from the dogmatic rules that are often suggested.

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