Every so often, I like to go off on a bit of a rant about writing rules. We’re all aware of them, these seemingly gold-plated cornerstones of writing good fiction – thou shalt do this, thou shall not do that. Often, they come from highly respectable sources. Stephen King tells us, “The road to Hell is paved with adverbs”. George Orwell tells us, “If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.” But the further I get in my writing career, and the longer I work as an editor / teacher, the more I start to bristle at these writing commandments.
Are they really the be-all and end-all that they are often made out to be? Should they be taken as guidelines rather than rules? Should they be ripped up altogether? Are they too much of a one-size-fits-all approach to writing that needs to be re-evaluated?
To be a writer, you [should] DON’T NEED TO write every day
A short story [should] COULD be drafted in a single sitting OR YOU COULD CREATE IT OVER SEVERAL DAYS, WEEKS OR MONTHS
A lot of the so-called writing rules feel like they were coined by a certain type of middle-aged white man who has the time, the money, the education, the cultural background and the energy to follow them to the letter. Since I’m on the brink of joining that particular group (at what point do we become middled-aged???), I’m writing this statement as someone who is almost in-group rather than out, but I’m also someone who has an asterisk that comes along with it. I have a chronic illness. What is perfectly possible for other people of my gender / age / background is not possible for me and, because of this, I find it frustrating to see any rules that prescribe the ‘how’ of being a writer. Everyone’s life has different demands. Work, financial situation, life events, culture, health, general priorities are going to be different for every single person. All we can do is find what works for us. Is there merit in adopting some sort of routine – for some people, absolutely; but for others, creativity comes in unexpected bursts or crammed into opportune moments when the kids are in bed and the other half is curled up in front of the TV. Is there merit in drafting a short story in a single setting – again, this will be the best approach for some people; but not all of us can conjure the requisite time / energy / focus to do that; some of us may find that the patchwork approach, chipping away at the story rather than sculpting it all in one go, works best.
When we start to say there is only one way of doing things, one route towards success, we are setting up barriers for those who can’t (for whatever reason) do things that way. I remember when I was quite new to writing (and quite new to illness), reading the rule about writing a story in a single setting and almost wanting to give up because of it. I’m not entirely sure that would have been the greatest loss to the literary world but it would have been a big loss to me personally. And often, the writers who are limited by these sorts of “rules” are the ones who have the most intriguing / inspiring stories to tell.
[Write what you know] KNOW WHAT YOU WRITE
Ah yes, the classic “write what you know”. This is so pervasive as a rule that when I first told my friends I’d been dabbling in some creative writing, they (all non-writers) kept passing on this nugget of advice. Most of us who have been around the writers’ block a few times understand that it shouldn’t necessarily be taken literally and it feels to me as though flipping it on its head – KNOW WHAT YOU WRITE – gives a much clearer message. Where you are writing about the unfamiliar, do a bit (or a lot) of research so that you become familiar with it. There is a whole question in here about which stories are ours to tell (and that, I feel, is a whole other blog post) but, setting that aside for the moment, I don’t feel that as writers we should be completely constricted by our own experiences, our own knowledge base. Again, I come back to my current situation. Because of my health, I am rarely able to leave the small village I live in and my storytelling possibilities would be very limited if I didn’t research and find out about new things beyond the scope of what I can see and experience right here.
A story [should] MIGHT contain a sense of change / a shift
A story [should] MIGHT contain a sense of tension
This will be controversial for many writers, I’m sure; and some of you might be scratching your heads thinking that my last blog post was literally about the merit of weaving tension into stories and delving into various examples of how we might go about doing that. However, I ended that article suggesting that tension isn’t actually needed for a story to be a story. It is just something that is usually expected by the storytelling traditions of the western world. And I think we can look at the need for change in this same fashion. While I agree that most stories need something to shift, I also think that in constricting ourselves to this requirement for change / a shift, we are putting up more of those barriers alluded to above. One of my frustrations as someone who suffers from a chronic illness is precisely this lack of change in my circumstances. I have written various versions of “my illness story” over the past four years and always the reaction of readers has been that there isn’t enough character journey. The suggestion is that without a change / a shift, the piece is a vignette rather than a story – perhaps I could get it published under that guise, but does the need to label it differently (to other it), make it lesser than? Is it not still a piece of fiction that holds a mirror up to the world? And that’s perhaps another point that I find frustrating – our need to label. Is it a story, a vignette, a prose poem? For me, the reality is that there are plenty of shades of grey in between those terms and the more important question should be whether there is something of resonance, whether this piece (be it story, vignette, prose poem, or cupcake recipe) contains some universal nugget of human truth. Sometimes, it is the reader who is changed by the act of reading rather than any change that happens in the story.
Characters [should] MIGHT NOT be ABLE TO BE active
Characters [should] DON’T ALWAYS have agency OVER THEIR SITUATION
I’m currently reading a brilliant craft book by Matthew Salesses called “Craft in the Real World” in which he unpicks a lot of these writing rules in a much more insightful way than I am doing here, looking at how they perhaps constitute literary imperialism when there are multiple storytelling traditions that take very different approaches. Considering conflict, he writes, “One of the major issues I have with the way conflict is currently taught is the idea that it should come out of the protagonist and be solved by the protagonist […] Straight cis able white male fiction has a tendency to present the world as a matter of free will. The problems are caused by the self and can be solved by the development of the self.” Characters in different societies, different cultures, different situations will not always have the ability to be active or to take control of their lives. If I come back to my chronic illness story, what is my main character doing to improve their situation / to achieve their goal in this particular scene? They are doing nothing because their circumstances don’t allow them the energy to work towards a goal, to feel motivated by anything at all. This is why nothing changes. But again, if the piece is written well, is there not something for a reader to learn here? If this doesn’t fit the standard model of how we expect a story to unfold, is there not an onus on the reader (as well as the writer) to be more open to different types of story that reflect different experiences?
Other [rules] THOUGHTS TO BEAR IN MIND WHEN WRITING
I could go on. I could write a whole defence of adverbs and synonyms of the word “say”, I could trundle on about the beauty of the passive voice, I could rail against concision at any cost, I could advocate the merits of telling rather than showing. It isn’t to say there isn’t a lot of wisdom in any of these “rules”. As a writing teacher and editor, I still reference many of them on a daily basis and I think it’s important, if a writer wants to improve, to have some grounding in writing craft. But, for me, it’s a question as to whether these rules should be an absolute or whether we could all be more open-minded as writers as well as readers. Could those of us whose knowledge base is entirely western in orientation broaden our mindset by considering the storytelling traditions from elsewhere? Variety is the spice of life (RULE: Clichés [are bad] OFTEN CONTAIN A NUGGET OF TRUTH) and writing for me is at its best when it is an expression of self - not just the writer telling a story but telling it in a way that is unique to them. So, shouldn’t it be up to the individual writer to assimilate as many ideas as possible and to form those ideas into a way forwards – what sort of writer do I want to be? For me, the most important quality in writing is intent. What do I want to achieve in this piece of writing? Are the choices I am making pushing towards that goal? My one writing rule then:
WHEN WE WRITE, WE SHOULD WRITE WITH INTENT
If we have saturated our prose with adverbs in a purposeful manner and we are aware of the effect that is creating then, for me, that should be okay. If we have expressly set out to write a story with a passive character where they have no agency / nothing changes, then that should be okay too. It might not be to the taste of all readers but that doesn't mean it won't be to the taste / won't resonate with ANY readers. We can only write the stories that we want to write; we can, in my opinion, only write in the way that feels right to us. So, be aware of the rules but also be aware that there are far more rules than the ones we are aware of; be aware that the rules aren't constant; be aware whose rules they are; be aware that every writer (Nobel Prize winners to fan-fiction writers and everyone in between) is constantly breaking the rules whether they're aware of it or not; be aware that the rules are fallible, inconsistent, often constraining - and make your own rules that work for you; and even then, feel free to break them.
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