Stephanie Morrill is the creator of GoTeenWriters.com and the author of several young adult novels, including the historical mystery, The Lost Girl of Astor Street (Blink/HarperCollins). Despite loving cloche hats and drop-waist dresses, Stephanie would have been a terrible flapper because she can’t do the Charleston and looks awful with bobbed hair. She and her near-constant ponytail live in Kansas City with her husband and three kids. You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, and sign up for monthly updates on her author website.
I have listened to a lot of different writing podcasts in the last month, trying to find new ones that I like as much as Writing Excuses and Helping Writers Become Authors.
Binge-listening to so many interviews has driven home to me yet again how confusing all the writing advice can be. One bestselling author will encourage new writers to learn the rules of the craft and study genre tropes. Another bestselling author will say to forget the rules and that readers don’t really care about genre tropes so much as they do a good story.
Even with how long I’ve been writing and studying writing, all the conflicting advice can really mess with my head.
So, should you care about the rules of writing? Or about the traditions of your chosen genre? If so, how much should you care?
Writing rules are about clarity.
When it comes to the idea of writing rules, I’ve observed two general camps of writers (And, of course, there are those who fall in a healthy between place.)
Rule lovers: For some writers, the idea of writing having rules is exciting. They want to learn all the rules so they can grow in their craft and become better writers. The drawback of being this type of writer is you can get so caught up in the rules that you lose sight of the art.
Rule snubbers: The other extreme is writers who groan about rules and resist them at every opportunity. Three act structure? No way, man. You should only write with nouns and verbs? Forget it—they’re going to write their book with only adjectives and adverbs. In second person. Take that, world.
The drawback to snubbing all the rules is the potential for losing clarity. If you think about most the rules we’re taught as writers, the purpose of those rules is to communicate the story clearly. Sure, a little pushing, testing, and tweaking of rules is healthy for an artist, but if you decide to ignore most or all of the rules, you’re potentially sacrificing the clarity of your story.
That's because storytelling existed before the rules, and the rules are drawn from observations of existing stories. Meaning, the art of storytelling didn’t begin with someone saying, “I’ve invented this thing called three-act story structure, and we are going to tell all our stories using it.” Stories already existed, and the three-act structure was born out of observing patterns in stories that resonated. Someone put language to what already existed and said, “People sure like stories when they have a beginning, middle, and end!”
If you have rule snubber tendencies, consider substituting the word guidelines. Guidelines are more about, “Yeah, there are exceptions, but in general these are things that have worked well over time.”
Discerning writing rules versus personal writing preferences
My daughter is in third grade, and sometimes she comes home with worksheets about facts and opinions. She has to read a sentence and then decide which one it is. Writing rules (or guidelines, if you prefer) should go through a similar filter to discern if this is something you probably should do, or if it’s something that’s just a personal preference.
Let’s take a couple statements and consider them:
If you write a novel, you should separate your book into chapters.
This is a rule that’s so ingrained in us, you maybe have never even considered that it’s a rule. If you've written a 75,000 word book, chapters are a smart idea.
Let’s try another:
You shouldn’t use chapter titles in young adult books, just middle grade and early reader.
This one rings more like a preference. If I wanted chapter titles in my YA book, I might just shrug this one off. Here are more examples of writing advice that leans toward preference rather than rules:
You shouldn’t have a prologue.
Your main character should be likable.
Start in the middle of action.
Your book needs to be fast paced to keep readers interested.
Even though these are preferences, it would be foolish to completely ignore these pieces of advice without questioning why they exist. Even if you don’t want to write a fast-paced book, there’s value in considering why that’s so often suggested, and thinking through why your moderately or slow-paced book will still intrigue readers.
When I'm faced with advice that contradicts the choices I've made about telling my story, I have a tendency to think, “It works fine in my book. They just don’t get it.”
This happened to me once in my early 20s when I had a young adult book that I was shopping. The first scene was two high school girls having coffee together. Though it wasn't action packed, I thought it worked because the conversation had lots of conflict.
Even when another writer read the book and told me she thought I wasn’t opening in the right place, that it was slow and boring to start the book with two characters sitting and having a long conversation, I thought, “She just doesn’t read much YA. This works great.”
Simultaneously, I was reading a book that had been recommended to me, but I couldn’t make it past the first chapter without looking for something else to do. Eventually I pushed through what felt like a slow opening and enjoyed the rest of the book very much. Later, I realized the opening of that book was three friends meeting up at a pub and having a long conversation. Even with all the conflict in their conversation, I had felt really bored.
I knew then that I should revise my opening as well. That it was a darling I needed to kill.
Intention counts for more than you might think.
Thanks to Go Teen Writers and being a contest judge multiple times, I've read a lot of manuscripts by new writers. One of the biggest surprises to me was that as a reader, I could tell the difference between ignorance and intention. Particularly with POV. I wouldn't have thought it, but it's easy to spot a writer who doesn't understand POV rules and is head-hopping out of not knowing better versus someone who has chosen to tell their story with an omniscient narrator.
Roseanna White and I have had lots of talks about this before because she’s a “gut” kind of writer who doesn’t plot out ahead of time or pay much attention to writing rules. (She will be here on Wednesday to expand on this—yay!)
Roseanna talks about this in her 5 Tips to Self-Publishing article, but the first time she released a book, she didn't understand POV and head-hopped frequently. When she figured out the rules, she was able to fix a piece of the story that she had instinctively known wasn’t quite working, but hadn't known how to correct.
That’s when writing rules are their most powerful: When they help you give language to the problem you can sense, but don’t yet know how to fix.
Do you tend to be a writing rule follower, or the type to snub your nose at them? What’s a writing rule that you’ve learned that’s helped you?