The Two Basic Rules

I’ve been saying for a long time that there are only two rules for writing: 1) You must write, and 2) What you write has to work. And I keep running into writers at opposite ends of the spectrum who really, really, reeeeeeaaaally don’t like that.

The first group argues for more rules. Surely there are things that everyone agrees are Bad Writing, they say. Aren’t those Rules For What Not To Do? So I ask them to name a couple, and then point out a couple of places where famous, popular, highly respected fiction writers break those rules and get away with it. Then I get the argument that they only get away with it because they are famous, and we end up in a long, boring discussion of how a rule can’t be the sort of Absolute Truth they want it to be if it doesn’t apply to all fiction, regardless of the name on the cover, and how those highly respected writers “get away” with breaking the rule because a) it isn’t that kind of rule in the first place, and b) what they are doing works (see #2, above). And these people go away muttering unhappily.

The second group doesn’t like having any rules. It’s all about being creative and expressing your inner soul, and rules are so limiting. So I point out that it’s kind of minimal to say that to be a writer, you have to actually write something, and they get all flustered (frequently because they consider themselves writers, but haven’t actually written anything). Then we go through the same kind of conversation about Rule #2 (“So it is find to write stuff that doesn’t work? Wouldn’t you call that “bad writing”?”) and they flounce off in a huff.

What I really want to do to both groups is give them some tea. Because the thing about tea is, it is fairly simple to make (you pour hot water over tea leaves), but in order to make it (let alone drink it) you must make it in something: a teapot, a mug, a teacup, an insulated thermos, a pan.  And the necessity of this is so obvious to anyone who has ever made tea that nobody thinks much about it when they say “I’m going to make tea; want some?”

Writing fiction is like making tea that way. There is need for a structure to contain the story; this is so internalized in so many people that they look at me blankly when I say “To be a writer, you have to write. That is, you must put words on paper or into pixels.” The first group, especially, wants more detail than that. But just as there are hundreds of sizes, shapes, and styles of teacups and mugs, there are hundreds of ways of telling stories. As long as the cups hold the tea and the stories get told, it’s fine.

People who want more structure and more rules seem to think that if a little is good, more will be better. But it is very difficult to drink tea out of a mug that has sides that are three inches thick. People who don’t want rules seem to think that their creativity will vanish if it is constrained in any way at all; they forget that if you just set out some leaves and pour hot water over them, the water all runs away and all you have is a muddy spot in the ground or a puddle on the kitchen floor.

The most effective structures and systems and constraints are the ones we don’t notice, because they are so fundamentally necessary that we can’t even consider doing without them. They don’t come from the outside. They arise from the nature of writing and storytelling. They also tend to be positive rules – rules that tell you things you should do. Positive rules are hard to formulate as a by-the-numbers recipe. Saying “don’t use adverbs” gives the writer a nice, easy thing to check (always presuming that the writer knows what an adverb is and can identify it). Saying “Dialog needs to sound like actual people talking” is a lot more general. It has to be, because actual people have many, many different speaking styles, any of which could be used in a story.

“You must write” is a positive rule; it is something you have to do if you hope to be a writer. Actually, it’s definitional; if you don’t write, then you aren’t a writer. You may be a storyteller or a performance artist or an actor or any number of other things that use some of the same story-making skills, but you aren’t a writer if you don’t write.

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15 Responses to The Two Basic Rules

  1. Victoria says:

    Yes!

    Although I do, every now and again, get the “you write, tell my story!” requests. At that point, I get told a story. When I tell them, “It’s a great story, why don’t you write it down yourself? Tell it to the paper the same way you told it to me?” I get to watch them recoil. Apparently writing, or rather Writing, is this mystical thing for some. The method of getting those words out of one’s head and onto paper/ into pixels varies. However, all those methods have one thing in common. Putting your body in the chair and your hands on the media and spend lots of time alone.

    Perhaps people conflate Story Telling with Writing. The former is fun, requires an audience and gets immediate feedback. The latter is work and provides little reward for the attention seekers.

    • nct2 says:

      What would happen if you whipped out your tape recorder when they said, “I have a story,” and then gave them the recording?

  2. Tiana Smith says:

    The more I write, the more I find this to be true!

  3. Emily says:

    The tea metaphor is great!

    • I second that.

      I only write a bit so this is more from my perspective in general than for writing. I like rules and will happily follow them. However, I also look at what results, and if it is not what I want, I disregard the rules. I may take up with them again, but trial separations are fine with me.

      On a related note, I got kicked out of a Star Wars gaming group last Sunday. Outside of the game (we were waiting for another player to show up), the discussion turned to Jedi. I opined that there might be some hiding more or less in plain sight. My scenario was security for a bank. The Gamemaster could not handle this, maintained that it was impossible, a lengthy argument ensured, and I got the boot. Someone has a bad case of Canon Rules.

      • pcwrede says:

        That is a gamesmaster with no imagination. Were I in that situation, I would give the gamer a Yoda-like smile and say, “You go ahead and look for them, then,” and go home and plan a whole series of pointless encounters that look as if they’re going to turn up somebody who is a Jedi hiding in plain sight, but that turn out to be Imperial traps for people looking for Jedi, or Jedi-wannabes, or various other things that will annoy the gamer who thinks he has a better idea of what my game should look like than I do. Gaming well is the best revenge…

        • Yes, I think he lacks imagination, but you are missing just a bit, too. I can easily see both situations — hiding in plain sight for real and apparently so but a trap — being the case. Ah, the problems of figuring out which one it is. Those poor gamers! Mwahahaha!

  4. Wolf Lahti says:

    Remarkably similar to Neil Gaiman’s two writing rules:
    - Write.
    - Then finish what you write.
    And the second rule is really the same as yours, since a piece of writing cannot work unless it is complete. (Just don’t start arguing about what “complete” means.)

    Regarding completion, I borrow another of Gaiman’s bon mots when I am approached, as are most professional writers, by fans or other people who gushingly declare “I’m a writer too!”
    I respond simply, “Really? What have you finished?”
    If they have a good answer, then we have something to talk about.

  5. Susan Macdonald says:

    Years ago, at the San Diego Comic-Con, there was a panel on writing science fiction and fantasy. The author leading the panel asked the audience “Who here has sold a story?” One or two hands in the audience went up. “Who has gotten a rejection slip?” A few more hands went up, my own included. “Who has finished a story?” Again, a few more hands. Then he asked, “Who has a really great idea for a story?” Every hand in the room went up. As the late Mr. Heinlein said, you must write, you must finish what you write, and you must submit it.

  6. A sort of rule for writing is that every once in a while you must show your writing to other people – and listen to what they say.

    It is very easy to be blind to your own writing sins. A fellow writer once stated he allowed no more than three exclamation points per novel, and I promptly went to check my WIP, thinking that I might have a few more than that, but not that many, really, since I don’t believe in putting too many exclamation points in, either.

    I found 256.

    You can bet that I will be examining every one of those – I’ve added ! to my list of things to check on one of the final editing passes – and more will stay than the three he advocated for, but I honestly thought I didn’t have many.

    I’m delighted when someone points out one of my flaws – and I get a chance to eliminate it forever. Once I’m conscious of a particular little bad habit, it tends to happen a lot less.

    Every writer develops a unique set of rules. There is some overlap between writers who use similar processes, no overlap with those who write differently. I maintain that a good writer can get away with almost anything – if done deliberately and consistently and for a purpose.

    But you do have to write to be a writer. And most people don’t particularly want to spend their time writing. It’s a lot of work. It is also full of pleasures.

    • pcwrede says:

      Personally, I find showing my stuff around very, very useful, but that’s me. For some of my friends, it’s the kiss of death to do it to a work-in-process and totally useless to do it to anything finished. So I would call “show your writing to others and listen to what they say” one of the many things that works for some, not others, and hence is never going to be an absolute writing rule of the “You must write” sort.

      • You get to define what “showing your work around means,” but I doubt any of us can be 100% typo free.

        Eventually, readers will see your work (unless you write only for yourself). If you haven’t made an effort to repair your own problems – whatever they are – the readers will either catch them and comment on them (in public – ah, Amazon reviews), or stop buying your work – or both.

        I’m not sure I’d let people do content editing – but never say never: if I need it, I’ll arrange for it.

        I have been very, very grateful that my beta reader is picky – and I thought I was sending her finished work.

      • I like Dean Wesley Smith’s recommendation that you fix any mistakes a first reader finds (typos, plot holes, character motivation errors, etc.), but apply the learning from more depthful or comprehensive critique to your next story.

        Or, to quote it another way: don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

    • Wolf Lahti says:

      “I’m delighted when someone points out one of my flaws”

      Yes! the mark of a true professional! :)

      • If nothing else, it lets me think about that problem in the future before, instead of after, I have it.

        We do get better – if we try. Some get better by writing a lot – the writing should get easier and more fluid if self-critcism while writing is the problem. Others, by learning to self-edit what they produce.

        There’s a technique or two out there for solving every specific problem; you just have to find them, try them, and decide if they work for you.

        Other people help when they point out a problem we didn’t even realize we had – I can be blind to my own faults.

        I don’t particularly want someone else to fix my problems; that is the kind of editing I’m past. But I’m always open to having them pointed out.

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