Confessions of an ex-there-are-no-rules writer

Oh my goodness, this got long. By the time I got down to the end of it, I realized I don’t like the word “rules” when talking about writing, so I decided to crib off of the science world and called them writing theories. To quote Star Gate Atlantis, Like “dinosaurs turned into birds” theoretically or “theory of relativity” theoretically?” It’s somewhere in between.

At age nineteen in my second year of higher learning, a show came to Edmonton. Picasso’s pencil sketches. Because I was nineteen, I walked into the gallery expecting to see what I was expecting to see because at that point in my life I thought, as all nineteen year olds do, I thought I knew everything.

I knew nothing. At fifteen, Picasso was drawing photo-realistic pictures of people. His sketches were absolutely freaking amazing. I could see why he’d started to go abstract because after you master something at such a young age, where could anyone possibly go?

In 1996, I had already been writing for over a decade. I had about a dozen novels under my belt. None of them were any good and I knew it, but I am the writer who can’t contain all my thoughts in my head and if I didn’t write them down, I was sure my head would explode. I read anything I could get my hands on about writing and by the time I was in my late teens, I could quote them as fluently as anyone, but the one rule I held onto most dearly was that rules were meant to be broken. I was its standard bearer. I looked at the rules like bars in the zoo, keeping the ideas trapped in behind them.

For the next decade, I did have some minor success. My teenage dream of being an established writer by 25 was quietly shaved down to be published by the same age, and two months before my 25th birthday, I was. Every once and a while, a story had “it” and more often than not, a short story contract followed, but if I said I had one “it” for every 10 “not its”, I am being generous to myself.

And it’s not as though I didn’t have help. Every single time someone I respected offered me a critique, they would always come back to the rule that I had broken, on purpose, and as gently as they could they would try to “help,” while inwardly I seethed at how dumb they were for not getting that I had broken the rule on purpose, though being Canadian of course I was exceedingly polite about it.

A decade later, in 2006, something inside me just clicked. I realized, horrified, that actually, the rules that I had spent the past decade trying to bend back on themselves until they broke, were actually exactly what you need to do in order to find an audience for your stuff. To be fair, I realize that not everyone who is writing is writing to be published, but oh, my god. You can thread a needle on the ground or you can thread a needle on the wing of a stunt plane, but if your goal is to finish the quilt you’re sewing and not just learn how to thread a needle on the wing of a stunt plane, it is so much easier to tell a story that someone else who doesn’t know you personally might want to read.

Show, don’t tell. Murder your darlings. Tension on every page, have characters that the reader can empathize, if not sympathize with. These are the iron bars that kept the tiger from devouring the public, they’re ingredients you need to make your final product edible. You could spend ten years and finally write one story about an unsympathetic bastard who does nothing and then dies with enough skill that it might find an audience, but if you spent that decade using more common ingredients, when you do write that the story that bends the rules, your main character by muscle memory alone is going to be more empathetic than not.

But here’s the big thing. If you are the Pablo Picasso or the Neil Gaiman of your generation, chances are no one will ever need to tell you that there are no rules, or that they were meant to be broken. Once I realized I was fighting against the current for no other reason than the fact it was there and actually used the ingredients that writers a lot smarter than I am have been telling me for fifteen years at that point, I sold the next story I wrote. I got an honorable mention in a year’s best anthology for it, but by the time that came out, I was already on my second paranormal book that I sold on spec to the publisher of the first.

The scientific method clearly states that if your results are not reproducible, no matter how perfect and pretty your theory is on paper, it’s not valid. If your worst enemy goes into his lab and can reproduce your results, you’ve got yourself a true theory.

Because I had my list of ingredients, I could spin story after story, all of them closing in on what I wanted to say, without compromising my voice or message. Now people were willing not only to send the money to buy it, they were willing to spend the time reading it. Finally admitting that I didn’t know everything and what I was doing wasn’t working let me change to the point to where it was working.

When talking to other writers in a group, it doesn’t seem to matter who I’m talking with, whenever I talk about the rules of writing only being there to help beginners find a solid foundation so that they can avoid common traps of unpublishable stories, there’s always a self-published, unpublished or underpublished writer willing to jump in and say some variation of “there are no rules.” It’s like they’re not hearing what I’m saying. If you just want to write, absolutely, there are no rules. If you want to write stories for other people to read, though, the guidelines we call rules are only there as the white lines on the highway telling you where it is mostly safe to drive. You *can* drive anywhere you want. But for most people learning to drive, learning to drive the right way is usually easier than learning to drive upside down on the wrong side of the road going backwards.

“But what about *famous outlier*?!?” the un/self/under published author cries, as though they’ve slain my argument at my feet. Well, what about them? Writers are extremely susceptible to the Dunning-Kruger effect. That’s when you think your talents are better than your talents actually are. Even after you’re told that most people over-estimate their abilities, most people are going to think that their self-evaluations of their stuff is still accurate. It’s true that there are some people, like Picasso, that utterly nailed their early attempts and only got better at it. There are some writers that do publish and take off like a shot. The late, great Jay Lake, for example. He had a meteoric trajectory in his career.

I’m not saying people don’t win the lottery of talent, but the chances that your talents alone, without an ounce of hard-won skill, won’t carry you through. Even if your first book has 2-3 times more raw talent than the average first novel, you probably still had, and still have, a long way to go before your very best first attempt equals that of someone else with half your talent’s best attempt at their tenth novel.

“But wait! There are millions of readers out there. If you find 1% of 1% of people who like what you write, you can be successful!” I’m dubbing this the Dragon’s Den fallacy. You see it all the time on pitch to the millionaire shows, be it Sharks or Tigers of whatever. Four billion dollars are spent on dog products every year! Ipso facto, even if 1% of those people buy my doggy bib that turns into a diaper, it’s a sure hit! In theory, it should work but in practice, unless your product fills a need, there is no need for it. The more limits you put on your audience, the less chance you have to succeed.

“So, what, you say. Are you telling me we all should be writing Twilight? If it doesn’t have mass appeal, we shouldn’t even bother?” Okay, that’s going to take a little longer to unpack. First off, I’m sick of people knocking Twilight as an example of really bad writing being successful. Even though it is, in my opinion, a terrible book, and it’s a terrible book for a multitude of reasons, it obviously scratched an itch that people had. Just because you are not the book’s intended audience, it does not make the whole thing inherently “bad”. Just because it’s a terrible book for me, does not mean that the people who bought it and loved it are terrible people.

Secondly, I write gay smut. I write gay, paranormal, bdsm smut that offers redemption to those of us that had a shitty lot in life but don’t want to be defined by the crumbling foundations that they constructed at an age when they didn’t know life could be any better than what it is right now. I realize that my market is very, very small over the very large body of work, but my sales are actually pretty good, thanks for asking. If you want to be published, you need to have an ideal reader that you are writing for. “Everyone” is not a target audience.

Which leads to my third point. The general reading public values their time and money more than you think they do. If you think there is an infinite population out there willing to throw their time and money down the toilet time after time while an author is still trying to find their voice, you are sadly mistaken. You enter into a contractual obligation with your reader when they put down after-tax dollars and after-work hours. Your end of the deal is, first and foremost, I WILL NOT WASTE YOUR TIME.

Anyone might be persuaded to buy anything once, but the best, most sustainable promotion does not come from advertising. It comes from Person A telling Person B that the story they just finished was so good that they want you to read it. Your brain is an amazing reward center. Not only do you get a shot of dopamine when you read something awesome, you also get a dopamine shot when you share what gave you pleasure to others. It’s just like telling a joke. You get the same shot of joy-juice when you hear the joke as when you tell the same joke to others. It wears off quickly as the connection in your brain gets established, but that’s okay. Your next story should be as good as the one before it. 

And lastly, yes, you should bother. Even if the book you write isn’t good enough yet to be picked up and published, every single time you write anything, you’re going to be better at the craft than you were before you started. On one hand, I wasted a decade believing that rules were meant to be broken. I cranked out…seven…eight? books in that decade, and not one of them were good enough to be published. Did I waste anything at all? Not even a little bit. Regardless of all the things I was doing wrong, I was doing as many things right. I’ve probably started a hundred books in my career. But I’ve also middled and ended probably about forty of them. That practice, the art of maintaining the plot throughout the middle forty to fifty thousand words and then bringing everything to a close at the end is as important as the beginning. Some people have been writing for a decade and only ever middled and ended a book three or four times. If writing is as much skill as it is talent, that’s not a great deal of practice.

In all my mistaken belief that going back and rewriting a story is “wasting” my efforts, I never went back and rewrote anything. My first draft was my last draft. I always had a new, better, more shiny plot to write.

We had a blast with my smut money. While I was still working a day job, it was our vacation fund ever year. Considering what the average small press/self published author makes, we were doing all right. Just when I was starting to think that I could say I had a good grasp of this how to write, I sat across the table from Ms. Kerr to pitch a book in 2012, confident that I was good, and she asked me what my book was about.

I didn’t have a clue. I knew the rule about the elevator pitch and knowing what it is your book is about off by heart as much as I knew show don’t tell, and it was with a shock that I realized, holy cow. I know nothing about what any of my books are about beyond the “it’s about a guy who does stuff” level.

When I started my next book, I sat down to write a book about knowing when to let go. There is so much to say about what the book is about, it practically wrote itself. Your book should have a purpose. Even in my smut, even though I’m telling the story of a main character who sells his body because it’s the only way he provide enough money to keep his brother with him because any job without the main character could do would demand that he has to give up the evenings and weekends he needs to be with his brother. Even with the love of his life willing to swoop in and take him away from his terrible life, it’s not enough to save him from the terrible choice he needs to make.

So, yeah. That’s the full confession of a writer who went from honestly, whole heartedly believed that there are no rules to speaking in absolutes when I talk about the rules. They are not there to keep the your voice locked up. They are there to help you say what you wanted to say in the first place.

Honestly and truly, if you are innately good enough that the rules can be played off, you don’t need someone to tell you otherwise. For everyone else, unless you don’t mind hundreds and hundreds of face plants, there is no shame in learning how to walk before you run.

TL;DR: If you are the kind of writer I was who honestly believes that there are no rules of writing, if commercial publishing is what you are trying to achieve, it doesn’t take much to change “there are no rules” in writing to “There are a couple of ingredients in writing that are applicable to most writers and the sooner you understand why some people call them rules, the less time you’ll be face-planting”.

In science, there are no facts. All we have are theories. It’s exactly the same in writing. The hard-core four – show don’t tell, murder your darlings, write empathetic characters and every story needs conflict are all pretty good theories that will help your writing get better. It is theoretical to have a successful story without all or even one of them, but in practice, it is unnecessarily harder. But if you don’t believe me, I get it. Ten years ago, I would have either not read past the first paragraph of this post or I would be crafting a systematic, line-by-line critique of every single thing I’ve said, and so if you feel the need to do so, knock yourself out.

I know there are exceptions to every single thing I’ve said. I have argued for hours defending the “there are no rules” rule. Luckily, there are a lot of people who had the patience of a saint to put up with my Sith-like thinking in absolutes. Thank you for all your time. I can finally say that it wasn’t in vain. It sank in eventually.

 Hopefully this will be my last post on the subject of writing theories in a good long time. As much as I love talking about it, I do believe the horse is just not getting back up without the help of a forklift. 

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6 comments

  1. Bookmarked, Tweeted, followed – great post. Really, really great post. I was “lucky” in that I didn’t stay in the ‘one draft, fuck ’em all’ stage for very long. I can thank some good podcasts (I Should be Writing, Dead Robot’s Society, etc.) and blog posts like this for my quick turnaround and rescue from the dark side 🙂

    Though, I did send one of those ‘one draft, fuck’em’ stories I wrote to Asimov’s once. Oh man does that make me cringe to think about it now. If they didn’t use it as toilet paper it was only because they had it hung up on the dart board.

    1. I’m so glad you didn’t double-down. It’s the natural human reaction. I remember hearing an editor telling a story about how he’d just gotten a submission from an author that he’d rejected nine other times, each more curtly than the last. He went around the office bitterly complaining about the drek he had to read. He had to eat crow, though. They story was so good they bought it. I’m sure editors are actually quite delighted when they can see the difference between submissions. It might make them think they had something to do with your growth.

  2. An intelligent post. My only comment was going to be that a decade later, you may not only have added in “the rules,” but may have put in your 10,000 hours and become a good storyteller, period. So that overall, your craft level rose, not just obeying the rules. Hence, sales. But you talked about that at the end, too.

    1. Yeah, it’s a really complicated topic that a lot of people who don’t know what they don’t know think they’ve got it completely nailed down. I was trying to get all the common yeah-buts out. I was arguing with a guy on reddit, who had managed to publish his first book if he thought that he wanted to die on the hill of the fact that all first books should be published, or if, maybe, most people wouldn’t do well with the idea that writing for practice first isn’t a bad idea…he didn’t answer back.

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