Why “There are no rules” is only half the rule (and not even the important half)

There’s an implied assumption when you preach from the “there are no rules” pulpit. The first one is that following that belief has actively improved your writing and has gotten you exactly where you want to be, and that others who follow you will have the same success that you do. But it’s as backwards as telling people that because people win the lottery all the time that they are a sure thing to win. There are no rules IF the writing works. If the writing doesn’t work, there’s a raw-ton of guidelines the writer could apply to the work and rewrite it until it does work, but that’s never mentioned.

Writers start out with nothing but the talent they bring to the table. There is a certain amount of luck to writing as well, but luck, and especially beginners luck, doesn’t last. Grinding away at writing helps too, your seventh story is going to be better than your first, your twentieth better than your seventh and your hundredth will be better than your twentieth. Each story might not as good as the story that came before it, but plot it out on the graph and anyone will see an upward correlation between time and “good”.

What they aren’t going to see is a clear line on the graph that indicates what “good enough” is going to be. If all you have is your talent and a “there are no rules” mentality, it’s going to be luck that determines for a lot of people when the words that fall in a line in a row will be pleasing to someone else so much that they are willing to put their money and time in exchange for the story.

You can’t teach *there are no rules*. When you first sit down and learn show don’t tell, murder your darlings, conflict a good thing to include, try to write empathetic characters…it makes writing seem like a hard thing to start. But then someone says but really, there are no rules and you throw your notebook away, because if there are no rules, it must mean literally that all those rules I just listed somehow don’t apply. I spent years writing the exact opposite of what “the rules” taught me I should write, not only because I was a very contrarian young writer, but because I thought the “secret” of writing wasn’t in following the rules, but once you got good enough, people only wanted to read stories that successfully broke the rules. (Please note, if anyone who tried to teach me about writing in that decade is reading this, I can assure you, you didn’t tell me that at all. I can’t help what I heard even if no one ever said “break the rules” directly to me.)

Because that’s my knee jerk reaction. When someone is telling you “there are no rules”, they are not telling you “break the rules”. They’re telling you that any story, if it’s good enough, doesn’t need to follow the rules in order to be “good”. They are not telling you that you are good enough to break the rules. You might be. People win the lottery all the time. That doesn’t mean that you’re likely to win the lottery, either.

The truth is, it is a lot harder to be good enough to break the rules than it is  to follow the rules so that you can tell a good story. You need a lot less raw talent, a lot less skill and a whole lot less practice to use the basic guidelines that someone a lot smarter than most of us to realize that in order to keep the reader’s attention, a solid conflict works a lot better than Margaret Atwood level writing. That you can be as bad at telling a story as Stephanie Meyers and yet still create such compelling characters that people will want to buy underwear that has the face of the actor who plays him in the gusset. That storytellers like Stuart McLean can craft a story so well you will never know that he’s using 2000 words to tell you a story most people would tell in a paragraph. That doesn’t mean that you’re supposed to just throw out all the guidelines we have and hope to find a good story in your writing like you’re trying to find your phone number in pi.

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