Rules govern our lives. We follow the laws of our country, and our city. We follow the rules of the road. We follow rules of social behavior. We follow the rules because they work. Until they don’t. Naturally there is even a rule for that; rules are made to be broken.
While writing I try to follow the rules. Mostly these are rules of grammar, spelling, and structure. Occasionally these are the laws that govern a made up world I must follow in order to maintain the integrity of the tale. I do however gather as many of the rules of writing as possible. These laws are written by the experts, or those published authors who have achieved everything to which we struggling beginners aspire to one day have. In spite of my desire to follow the rules, there are two which I cannot help but break, and two which I always follow.
FEEL FREE TO BREAK THESE RULES!
1) Write first, edit later.
The only time when I follow this rule is when it is combined with Hemingway’s rule; write drunk, edit sober. I cannot continue when I know there is something intrinsically wrong with the work I am doing. Sometimes it is as simple as the little wiggly line telling me there is a spelling, grammar, or syntax error. That little wiggling line taunts me, demanding my attention, insisting I fix the error before I move on. I can’t help it, I am bound to obey the wiggly line. I’ve tried turning it off, but it doesn’t work. I still know the mistake is there, waiting for me.
Other times the problem is bigger, such as a difficulty within the story itself. These problems manifest as a small unhappiness, a tiny doubt that things are correct. You try to move on, but you know something is not right. This should not be ignored. If there is a problem with the story, it will only get bigger by ignoring it. Each word you write is another shovelful in the hole you are digging yourself into. At some point you will need to get out. That task us much easier in a shallow hole. Editing early can keep the problem within a manageable level, allowing you to fix it before you have to completely rewrite a 300+ page novel.
2) Write what you know
I write for the same reason I read. I write for the same reason I watch movies. I write for the same reason that I close my eyes and daydream on a bad day. I write to visit a world that is different than the one where I live. I write to change things that I hate in the world. I write to answer the question, what if. I write about things I do not know because I want to know. Were I to write strictly about what I know, no one, including me, would want to read that. I live an ordinary life, with very little excitement. The things that make my life exciting are hardly worth mentioning to others. But when I write, I am able to create a world that IS exciting. I can change one tiny thing about reality and watch as everything becomes more amazing for it. I would not wish to write about what I know, because I would rather know more.
NEVER BREAK THESE TWO RULES!
Most of what I have learned about writing, I learned from reading. I know there are different schools of thought on this one; read only the genre or age you want to write, read nothing that is even similar to your creation. Both of these are valid points. Reading your genre will allow you to keep in touch with your target audience, both the readers and the agents, editors and publishers. Of course avoiding these areas will make sure you do not accidentally borrow thoughts from another writer. I would hate to realize that I had taken large elements of my story from someone else. Inspiration is one thing, outright theft of a story is another.
The advice to read for writing goes on and on. Read classics to learn what makes a novel timeless. Read new books to learn what is currently relevant. Read only from established authors to learn what makes a career last. Read new authors to see what made them break through.
As for me? I do it all. I read the books I love, over and over, studying what makes me come back. I read the books I hate, often more than once, trying to figure out what made me hate them. When writing my novel, I often thought, what popular book would I like to be compared to? Which would I hate to be compared to? From there I worked to shape my storytelling, eliminating the things that would bring me closer to the novel I hated. It may not stop the comparison, but at least it can help to eliminate the worst parts.
This should be a no brainer, but for many this is the biggest mistake they make in completing their novel. It is wonderful to have an idea, but if you never write it will never be anything more than an idea. I have a small plastic tray I keep on my desk. It is a cheap thing I found in a strange store in Okinawa, but I fell in love with it for the saying printed on it; you cannot plow a field by turning it over in your mind. No matter how much you think about writing, nothing is more productive than actually writing.
Every now and again, writing doesn’t seem to be working for me. I stare at the page and I cannot seem to make anything work. On those days, it is a great time to work on revisions. If my story isn’t flowing on it’s own, I go back to the beginning. Read everything I have written already, make little changes, and bring myself back to the end. Usually by the time I get back to the end I know what I need to do to keep the words moving.
In the end, what works for me may not work for everyone else. Of course, it doesn’t matter much to me what works for everyone else. No one but me will be writing my novel. Everyone else can keep their writing rules; I’ll be happy to keep mine.