For a variety of reasons, I thought today I’d do a rant on writing rules. OK, mostly it was because I haven’t done one for a while and I was in the mood for ranting. I started off by googling “fiction writing rules,” just to see what a few other people had to say on the subject.
I got over six hundred million hits.
That’s one heck of a lot of articles about the rules for writing fiction, and I’ll probably get to posting about that next time. This time, though, I’m going to talk about something else. Specifically, when I started looking at some of the “rules,” I found useful stuff like this:
Take a pencil to write with on aeroplanes. Pens leak. But if the pencil breaks, you can’t sharpen it on the plane, because you can’t take knives with you. Therefore: take two pencils.
Do back exercises. Pain is distracting.
This is the kind of writing advice I’ve loved ever since I read Ursula le Guin’s advice to would-be writers (“Learn to type”) back when I was a wannabe. (Fortunately for me, my mother made me take the secretarial typing class for one of my electives in high school; I doubt that I’d ever have taught myself to touch-type on my own. But Mom was a writer herself, and she made sure I had the tools I was going to need, even if I wasn’t really interested in learning to type when I was sixteen.)
It’s also the kind of writing advice that is a) unexpected and/or unwanted by a lot of folks (judging from the tone of some of the web sites I buzzed through) and b) undervalued by even more folks.
The undervalued part comes, I think, because of the unexpected/unwanted part. Looking at the interviews and FAQs and questions in general, it’s pretty obvious that when most people ask a published writer for advice, they want advice either about creativity or about craft. Not just any old advice, either: the Secrets of the Craft. Preferably in a list of five to ten pithy statements that can be applied cookbook fashion, like “never use adverbs” or “never use a dialog tag other than ‘said’” or “don’t use more than three exclamation points per book.”
Some writers, faced with the obvious expectations of the interviewer, give in and provide their personal list of pet peeves or bad habits, usually without appearing to realize that the peeves are a matter of opinion or that other folks have different “bad habits.”
Other writers try to fulfill the interviewer’s expectations while still telling the truth about what writing is like. So you get a few true-but-not-specific recommendations, like “Read a lot and write a lot” (Stephen King for that specific phrasing; the sentiment is common), and various contradictory and not-very-useful comments about the particular writer’s process, like the one writer who recommends going to cafés with a notebook and the other one who claims writing should only ever be done in total privacy.
(My non-favorite example of that last was the gentleman who stated very firmly that every writer should always have at least two stories in the first-draft stage at all times, so as to be able to switch from one to the other whenever the writer became stuck. It obviously works for him, but I’ve tried it, and for me it is beyond counter-productive except during the very, very early thrashing-around-in-search-of-a-plot stage. Past that point, having a second story in the works is, for me, like trying to make forward progress while towing a black hole. It generally ends in disaster for all concerned.)
And then there are the folks who, like le Guin and Atwood, confound the interviewer and the would-be writer’s expectations by telling them what they need to know, rather than what they think they want to know. Things like “Get an accountant” (Hilary Mantel), “Don’t wait for inspiration” (Esther Freud), “Create your own (rules), suitable for what you want to say” (Michael Moorcock), “Don’t let Google tempt you away (from your writing)” (A.M. Harte), “Don’t drink and write at the same time” (Richard Ford). And the things that nearly everyone says: Read. Write. Revise. Carry a writing implement and something to write on. Practice. Write. Make time, don’t wait for it. Work hard. Edit. Discipline. Write. Read. Learn to type. Write.