Thursday, December 11, 2008

Why my writing rule is "No rules"

Literary agent Chip MacGregor on submissions:

I'd like to see more writing with a strong voice. I probably see too many things that aren't bad -- they're just not outstanding. They don't have a particular personality that stands out and demands to be read. There's a lot of flatness in writing (conferences have a tendency to foster that, by telling prospective authors there is a "right" way to do things), and I'm always interested in the clear, quirky, outstanding voice coming out on the page.

I couldn't agree more that workshops at writers' conferences foster "flatness" in writing by teaching that there is one correct way to write.

I have published only four books, but many people would say I'm qualified to call myself "multi-published" and write articles or teach conference workshops on how to plot, how to write interesting dialogue, how to create believable characters, and so on. But I say I am not qualified to teach those things. I might be able to offer a useful tip here and there, but I'm no authority on what it takes to write a great inspirational romance novel and get it published. Perhaps because I write in a very "organic" way, I couldn't begin to teach anyone how to do what I do. Even if I could, wouldn't you rather write like yourself than like me?

Conferences like RWA and ACFW allow far too many inexperienced, mediocre authors to dispense advice to gullible unpublished writers. Online writers' forums and e-mail loops exacerbate the problem when newbies who have latched onto certain "writing rules" share them with their even-newbier pals and everyone gets caught up in unimportant details. Here are just four of the silly things some writers have come to believe are keys to getting published:

Don't use any dialogue tag but "said", which is invisible to the reader. Other dialogue tags intrude.

Never use adverbs with your dialogue tags.

After you've written the first five chapters, throw Chapter One out and begin your story with Chapter Two. You can't possibly write a good first chapter--you will always put too much backstory in it.

Never use italics. That's weak writing.

There are many more, of course. And as Chip suggests, the more of these rules we all take to heart, the less distinct our individual writing voices will become. That's doubly unfortunate, because you can follow every rule and still not get published.

The real secret to getting published is: Write a ripping good story. Even if you're a little lavish with your adverbs, and if you get silly (as I do) about italicizing words, and if you occasionally write "he opined" or "he sputtered" instead of "he said," and if you break just about every other Writing Rule you so eagerly recorded in your conference notebook while sitting through all those workshops, chances are good that a publishing professional won't care because those are small things, fixable things, and they'll be well worth correcting in order to publish your amazing story.

So if anyone wants some free advice from yet another "multi-published" romance writer, here you go:

No rules.
Just write.

Be yourself. Tell your story. And have fun!


Kristin said...

I am one who cannot write the stuff she reads. It somehow taints my writing and my ideas if I read 'too close to home,' so to speak. I love historical romance, but could never write one. I know in my own head, I'd be copying the authors I love and not writing with in my own voice.

I wrote a short story recently about shapeshifters. I'd never read any of the 'hot' romance books about werewolves. In fact, I don't think I've read ONE werewolf romance. But I had an idea and so I wrote it how I wanted.

Apparently, according to several authors who've read it and are 'into' this type of romance, my take on it is unique and refreshing. Who knew?

I think sometimes you can ruin your own ideas and creativity by taking other books and authors into account when you write. So I tend to avoid the genres I like to write in, and read outside of it instead. I can still learn from good authors, but without tainting my own ideas.

Cindy said...

Thank you, Brenda! I've been trying to follow those exact rules in my WIP and it just seems... dead. I'll get through the first draft (I've put a deadline on it) but then I'm going to "cheat." LOL!

Rachel said...

Totally off topic but I wanted you to see this.
I'm reading Finding Hope and I was wondering if you'd give your readers a Christmas present - the recipe for Hope's Oatmeal Cookies that smell like molasses and have flecks of orange zest.

Brenda Coulter said...

Kristin, I don't usually read in my own subgenre, either.

Cindy, I've been told I take this "no rules" thing too far. But all I'm really advocating is common sense. Too many writers are so desperate for tips and shortcuts that they'll mindlessly accept any bit of writerly "wisdom" they stumble across. Some of the rules make sense some of the time, but writing is a creative endeavor, and "painting by the numbers" is not a sure path to publication.

Rachel, you wouldn't believe how many people have asked me that question! There is no recipe--the cookies came straight out of my imagination. Sorry!

Henie said...

As a photographer, I always shoot with no rules either, making the technically perfect photogs curdle...I apply the same to my writing...while I may never be published, writing simply for the love of it is sufficiently rewarding for me:)
Lovely to have stumbled upon your site!

Brenda Coulter said...

Thank you, Henie. I'm so glad you stopped by--and took the time to comment.

Brenda Coulter said...

Sorry, friends. After receiving and deleting about a dozen comments from the same spammer (the jerk comes back at least once a day to try again), I am compelled to disable comments on this post.