Rules are for Pansies
Life is a series of uncertainties. We grasp in all directions for a guarantee of success to abate the panic. Religion. Horoscopes. Anything to tell us we’re making the right choice; that everything will be ok.
Writer’s are no exception. We scour the internet looking for rules or formulas that’ll guarantee our success. ‘Stephen King did XYZ; if I do the same, I’m guaranteed to get picked up.’
There’s nothing wrong with observing the success of others. But attempting to adopt their methods can have unforeseen consequences. One of these is a diminishing voice.
Let’s say for example Jane wants to write mystery novels. In her eagerness to guarantee success she looks at what her favorite author, Jack Doe, recommends.
“Start every book with a dead body,” Her buddy Jack advises.
Ok, so she decides she needs a dead body.
“Kill your babies,” Jack says.
Aha! The body is that of a dead baby!
Ok, that last one was a joke. But I think you see what I mean.
When Jane starts her book with a dead body suddenly the beginning of her plot is partially derived. She doesn’t know who her antagonist and protagonist are, yet she’s determined there’s going to be a dead body.
The main problem with adopting Jack’s advice is the reasoning behind Jane’s decision. Jane wants to be a successful novelist and see her creations reach the New York Time’s Bestseller’s list. Because Jack is on that list she assumes if she models his method, she’ll get there too.
The mistake isn’t in starting her book with a dead body. It’s in blindly following the methodology of another artist. When we don’t know why we do the things we do, it ceases to be art. Instead it’s simply imitation. The author’s voice has nothing to do with rules and everything to do with choices. What choices does an author make and why?
Let’s imagine your novel as a house. A beautiful Victorian mansion with fifty rooms. In this fantasy you’re rich. Enjoy it while you can.
Your novel is like a house. Potentially you can be in whichever part you choose. When you adopt someone else’s rules a room suddenly gets shut to you. Stephen King comes in and says ‘I never use basements.’ Ok, you figure you don’t need the basement. But then Jack Kerouac comes in and says he never uses the bathroom. Shit! You need a bathroom. But it’s Jack Kerouac so you’ll hold it. Eventually, in your search for guaranteed success, you realize every single room is discouraged by the advice you’re receiving.
Suddenly you need an exorcism to reclaim your house! In this case, reclaim your artistic voice.
Some of the best novels break the rules. Yet we cling to them in hopes that if we follow them exactly, we’ll slip through the walls and our novel will hit the publishing floor.
What makes us do this?
Fear of rejection. Fear of mediocrity. Fear of failure.
I’m not saying forgo rules of all kinds. We all need periods and commas—ok, periods more than commas. The nature of putting words together to form sentences is similar to the nature of building a house. We all have the same materials, yes. But how we put them together is up to us. The decisions we make affect how it will look. This is what makes us artists and not simply carpenters.
Now if you want a carbon copy of your neighbor’s house, then follow the rules used by the builder. Go ahead; you’ll get exactly what you’re looking for. But your distinct voice will be lost.
The only rule an artist should adopt is this: We make the rules. This frees us to choose what we like and obligates us to toss out what isn’t working. For example Jane starts thinking about her characters and realizes a kidnapping would serve better, she is obligated to go where her muse takes her. If she insists on following Jack’s rule about a dead body she’s giving up her artistic freedom to choose.
Jane may soon find out kidnapping is her thang (gratuitous triple snap). She could develop her own rule: start by stealing the kid. Suddenly she’s found her artistic niche and people will notice this. She’ll stand out.
However, making your own rules doesn’t exclude learning from other writers. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel to maintain artistic integrity. The key is to knowing why a rule works for you. Knowing why the rule works and applying it in a unique fashion will put your stamp on it.
In romance there’s a rule where the hero and heroine must meet within the first few pages. Talk about limiting. Yikes! This rule was developed to keep a story moving and skirt loquacious writers around our tendency to expand on back story before getting to the action. It’s also useful when writing category romance; when there’s little space and so much to tell. There are dozens more whys this rule has been lobbed around as a rule of thumb.
Knowing why a rule works for some writers gives us the tools to make an educated choice. Will it work for our story? If your instinct says no, ditch it.
Be a rebel! Stand out! Don’t let your fear over what lies ahead paralyze you so much you cling to what others say ‘works’ for them. Remember, it’s about the process, not the product. If we can embrace the journey the destination will take care of itself.
Want to know more about Eileen Andrews?
Eileen’s been reading romance since the ripe age of 12 when her parents decided it wasn’t so bad as long as she was reading something. Hence began a misbegotten youth of skipping school, staying home all day in bed to read, then sneaking out and walking back in like she’d been in school all day. Of course, she’s now relieved her juvenile delinquency can now be attributed to market research.
Having spent time as a journalist, social scientist, and retail manager, Eileen is eager to create her own worlds and promises they’ll be much more fun than reality!
Be sure to keep up with Eileen on Twitter @EileenAndrews and check out her fantastic blog HERE! Thanks so much for a wonderful post Eileen, it’s a great message for writer’s to stay true to their voice.
How do you maintain your writing voice? Let me know in the comment section or on Twitter.