I generally hate rules. But I’m not a law breaker. Usually.
Today I’m talking about the often conflicting rules of writing advice. I remember learning lots of writing do’s and don’ts before I made the switch from hobby writer to published author. And if you’re a writer, I bet you have to.
When I first began my writing career, I was like a sponge—reading, studying, and listening intently to all the writing do’s and don’ts from respected agents, editors, teachers, bestselling authors, and fellow struggling writers, while still trying to find my “voice” and wrestling with what, exactly, I wanted to pound into my laptop each day. My head spun for a couple of years as I tried to make sense of everything.
The struggle was trying to decipher from all the good and well-intentioned advice and what worked best for me. From queries to genres to book promotion, I heard everything from:
1) Never write a query longer than five sentences.
2) Always write a query that’s at least three paragraphs.
3) Don’t worry about synopses.
4) Worry about synopses.
5) Never combine genres.
6) It’s okay to combine genres.
7) Literary fiction is plot based.
8) Literary fiction is character-based.
9) Editors aren’t really interested in male protagonists.
10) Editors are screaming for books that appeal to men and boys. To young adults. To baby boomers.
11) Write what you know.
12) Don’t be afraid to write what you don’t know, as long as you do the research.
Many times, I remember thinking, Calgon take me away!
The helpful advice was (and is, still) never-ending. But of all the rules and writing advice that I heard, there were two that always stuck out in my mind, probably because I struggled with accepting them the most. Part of me wanted to blow these two rules out of the water:
13) Never write a novel in first person.
14) Never write a novel in present tense.
“Well, that’s a bummer,” I remember saying to myself when I learned these two gems.
For starters, I like to write in first person—not always, not for every story—but first person is usually my preferred style. I always feel that my writing “voice” resonates more in first person, although I recognize the drawbacks of only relating one character’s perspective. So when writing in first person, I have to work doubly hard to tell a story. But for some of my novels, first person simply worked.
Verb tense was the other sticky wicket rule that I remember hearing several years ago from an agent. “Novels should always be in past tense. I usually don’t represent novels written in present tense,” she told me. Humph, I thought. But I like writing in present tense, particularly with young adult novels and even some literary fiction. For me, present tense can make a story more exciting, more immediate. It’s what’s happening in the here and now. While it certainly doesn’t work for every short story and novel that I write, sometimes, dang it all, present tense just feels right.
Rules are important, there’s no doubt about it. They provide a starting point and some structure. But I think the trick is applying what works best for you and your writing style. Above all else, regardless of the rules, there has to be a compelling story. If a story hooks and keeps me turning the pages, I don’t care whether it’s written in first person, second person, present tense, future tense, crayon, pink magic marker, English or Pig Latin. I’ll read it anyway.
What’s the best/worst writing advice you’ve been given? Are there any rules that you’ve bended or flatly refused to accept?
Liz is an author from the American Southwest by way of Chicago. She likes to write stories about ordinary people who do extraordinary things, oftentimes against the backdrop of Native American legends. Don’t hesitate to connect with her on her blog at http://lizficherablog.blogspot.com/ or her web site at http://www.lizfichera.com/ because it can get real lonely in the desert.
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