All sorts of people, from experienced professionals to the newest of neophytes, offer up rules on how to write, what to write, the order of scenes, types of characters, rules about rules for every flavor of writing from nonfiction to flash fiction. The rules offered by one author are often contradicted by the rules of another. The new writer searches and sorts through all of this looking for the secret rules for writers. She seems to think there is a secret out there that once unveiled will lead her down a petal-strewn path to a shiny finished manuscript and a publication contract.
The secret rule is:
There is no secret. Nor is there one, right path to publication. The only real rules for writing are those of grammar, syntax, and editor guidelines. And even those rules can be broken if you have an understanding of what you are doing and why.
Is there harm in reading the advice of others? Possibly. If your attempt to “follow the rules” drowns your muse in the overload of information, freezes her in the quandary between opposing rules, or blocks her with rules that don’t apply.
I propose that as you immerse yourself in the “how-to” books and articles that you will undoubtedly seek out, make two hard and fast rules.
Rule one: The story trumps all rules.
There are all kinds of good books and articles out there on how to write a story, I won’t rehash any of that in this article. But there is very little out there to help the budding novelist sort the wheat from the shaft. That brings us to:
All how-to advice is one of two things: a guideline or a tool.
A tool is any method by which you can help yourself discover the novel within. A writer needs many tools in order to achieve a strong, well-written final draft. You, the writer, get to pick and choose which tools you need and when you need them.
A guideline is a principle that sets an indication of a course of action as opposed to a rule which is a principle governing conduct, action, procedures, etc. The difference is huge.
Rules confine you to one course of action. Guidelines give you boundaries and limitations in order to achieve a goal, but do not force your muse on down a particular line. And just as with tools, the writer decides which guidelines apply to his story. How do you decide which guidelines to use? That’s a post for another day. In the meantime, find tools and guidelines that allow your muse to play and be creative.
It’s not a secret — develop a selection of tools and guidelines and free your muse to write the best story you can.