Giving writing advice phrased as what you “have to” do

At the con this weekend, a couple people corrected me when I spoke in absolutes. You have to do this, you have to do that. Here’s the thing though, I always choose my words deliberately.

I should always start my horribly crass commercial advice with the disclaimer that if that thing you do is providing you with the amount of success that you are happy with, keep doing that thing. You do you. My advice is meant for people who are coming to a panel on writing at a local con who are either at the pre- or just been published stage.

I spent more than a decade firmly believing that there are no rules. In fact, I can trump that. I spent a decade thinking that a work only worked *if* it broke the rules and still was good. I have no idea who set that idea in my head. In the back of the dealer’s room I used the analogy of if you tell a person it is easier to thread the eye of a needle on the ground than it is on the wing of an airplane, I’m speaking as a person who would have thrown down and rented an airplane for a decade until I could thread a needle there, too. In that decade of my misconception, I did sell. Not often, but five or six stories found really good homes. All of them broke the rules in some way and by luck rather than skill, the rest of the story worked four times as hard to carry that broken rule. It’s not something that I knew how to control though. I’d written dozens of stories in those ten years, and six of them had “it”.

Those are terrible odds. Once I realized that my core belief had a fundamental flaw, that no one is telling you “the rules of writing” to mess with your mind, that when better writers than I was told me “this is how you improve” they’re not giving you a MENSA test. Every single rule handed down in writing 101 is all you need to know to write awesome fiction should not be news, but it was to me. The problem with Writing 101, is that it includes a double agent. All the rules are there to help *but* there are no rules.

Don’t get me wrong, when a story works while breaking an obvious rule, it makes me happy to see the machinations behind the piece, whether by luck or by skill, that allows that rule to be broken and yet still make the whole work. Whenever I talk about how crappy TANR is, people are always quick to point out stories that do break the rules. They don’t know they’re making my point. *If* the piece works *and* it breaks the rules, it’s an amazing piece of work and of course we’re all going to remember it. My twenty-year old self wasn’t entirely wrong, great stories that break the rules are amazing. They’re just not the only way of telling a good story, and they are certainly not the only way of telling a good story.

My issue is telling people just starting out that “there are no rules” right when you’re telling them basic stuff like “show don’t tell” and “drag your action on your page”, how can they not put two and two together and come up with zebra? In order to know how to break a rule, you have to know it inside and out or be terribly lucky. One of those things you can plan for, the other you cannot. If you want a career as a writer, just saying “I plan to be incredibly lucky each and every time I sit down to write” is like buying a lottery ticket and calling it sound financial planning. Writing is more skill based than talent because your talent alone, for the vast, vast, vast majority of us just isn’t enough to carry you to where you want to be.

So yes, when I give advice, I use absolutes. I spent a third of my life correcting other people from using absolutes because like I said, I was a standardbearer, but even if you do not deal with the writing absolutes of show don’t tell, pushing your character to the breaking point, if they have time to lean they have time to scream, your antagonist must have at his disposable everything he needs to win, your protagonist has to change from start to finish, the tension has to constantly increase, whether it’s a slice of life or a world ending tale…even if you decide you’re not going to do one or any of the above, you STILL need to deal with the rule that you’ve broken and make the rest of the story carry the weight of the broken rule.

I don’t deal with formulas or formulaic writing. I deal with recipes. Every element of your story is an ingredient, and what you do with that ingredient creates the recipe that you’re following. Think of the souffle analogy. If a regular cook screws up with egg, cheese and a roux, you still have yummy scrambled eggs. If a molecular gastronomist breaks the rule that all souffles need eggs like all stories need conflict and what he produces is good, it might be better than a home cooks dinner party attempt. But if he screws up, the end result may not be edible. Any rule can be broken, but it makes the story harder to write, not easier unless you’re really, really lucky.

If you’re like me, this is probably going to make a lot of people rent a lot of airplanes to prove how wrong I am. Go nuts. Throw yourself down at the ground and miss. Have fun. Take chances. I hope you’re brilliant at it. But if you aren’t, and if you need ten years to came to the same conclusion that I did, we can raise a glass to getting out of our own way at the 2026 When Words Collide.

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