Should you or shouldn't you?
Some people think that’s the best advice any creative person can hear. Let’s face it, rules are the enemy of the creative process. I mean, what’s this stuff about plotting, about character sketches, about inciting incidents and turning points. I just write and those things take care of themselves.
Sometimes, yes. Sometimes everything just flows. Your people come alive, your story holds together and sizzles with tension. Never, ever, have you not needed rules more.
What happens, though, on those days when you aren’t quite in the groove? If it’s just a day or two, you think it’s a touch of the flu or your preoccupation with an upset in your life, and it goes away. But then your editor calls and offers you a novella and you’re tearing your hair out trying to find an idea. Plus, your work in progress hits a really saggy middle. The realities of being a successful author sink in.
When inspiration fails you, rules come in handy.
Not stuffy rules like, oh say, the heroine’s mother always has to be a paragon among women. Or the hero always has to be the richest man in the free world. Or there can be no romance or sex in mysteries and fantasy. At one time these were standard conventions in contemporary fiction and cross genre writing was a big no, no, and no one read erotica that didn’t come in a brown paper wrapper.
No, I’m talking about using rules to build a comfortable structure in which to write. Rules like, say, every story needs an arc. Characters should have flaws. Listing twenty things that could happen in your book on a daily basis keeps ideas flowing. A consistent writing schedule is the surest way to productivity. Take rejection in stride. Pay attention to methods of promoting your career. Be alert to a changing market.
These rules create professional writers. Craft and business rules provide a foundation for your daily writing routine and support your writing efforts when inspiration alone isn’t enough.
That said, I now circle back to the title. Watch out for the subtler rules that inhibit creativity. We often call them conventions. For instance, for a long period of time contemporary romance was always written in third person — definitely an unspoken rule. Before that, much of it was in first person, then that died one day and, lo, first person was shunned. Mysteries remained solidly first person; you seldom saw one written in another voice. Although taking place in invented worlds, fantasy were always Medieval-like. Westerns could only be written by Louie L’Amour (just kidding).
If no one had ever broken through these conventions, we wouldn’t have riveting third person thrillers, chick-lit would have never been born, urban fantasy would still be a fantasy, the western romance would be even more unpopular than it is today (another joke).
Another area where rules are being challenged is the area of being published at all and the arenas in which our works will be offered. Nobody knows right now where publishing is going and writers who cling to the rules are in danger of being left behind.
Rules are a mixed bag. Even the foundational rules of structure — plot, character flaws, scene and sequel — can sometimes hinder. Which mean we have to be willing to stretch beyond “what everybody does.” Once upon a time the way to modest success was to find someone who’s doing it well and emulate them. No more. Those who soar to the top always write with a distinctive flair. They push stories to the edge, and then slightly beyond. They take a different approach than the average meerkat. And at the same time they scrupulously follow important rules like consistent writing schedules and meeting their deadlines and networking as needed.
Most of us know how to follow rules. It takes tweaking of the perspective to break rules. If you’re interested in pushing your own personal edges, take a hard look at your current writing. Do you always write in third person? Try a chapter in first person. All your heroes are alphas? How about introducing yourself to a beta hero.
Is your writing style in a distant and objective point of view? Try writing just one scene in the emotional deep pov. If you always write romance, try you hand at a young adult, or a mystery, or a goofy comedy – not the whole book at first — my, that would be too daring — but a scene, a chapter, a short story. Stretch the way you write, continually look for new approaches. Just for the heck of it, despite your deadlines. Who knows, you could enter a new period of your writing when a fresh voice just bursts out of you.
How do you deal with rules and with the need to adapt in your writing career and, just as important, in your own life? If you have comments or insights, I invite you to post them.