November 13th, 2013

Hanging Writing Rules Out to Dry

Note: Congratulations to Jeannie Intrieri. She’s the winner of the giveaway from Chuck Sambuchino’s November 1 post.

By Kerry Lonsdale

Kerry Lonsdale

Kerry Lonsdale

First off, I have to credit Natalia Sylvester’s October 8, 2013 post at The Debutante Ball as the inspiration for this post. It was the first post I’ve read where an author confessed they don’t write every day.

Hallelujah! That post kicked a 50 pound self-inflicted guilt monkey off my back. Do I write every day? Heck no! I have a life that includes a husband and kids and more animals than I ever thought I’d adopt.

When I write I go deep in my head. It takes a lot of energy, and time, for me to write well. Even if my schedule permitted, I am mentally incapable of writing every day. While writing for me is a necessity—we’ve all heard the expression: writing is like the air we breathe, we have to do it or we die—it is simultaneously invigorating and exhausting.

But still…

We are supposed to write every day, right? That’s what the “experts” tell us.

The Rules of Writing

1. Write every day. Even if you’re suffering from writer’s block, just sit in your chair and write anything and something will come.

I admire any author disciplined enough to write every day, rain or shine, weekday or holiday. I don’t. I never have, and I never will.

Strike 1.

Writing on Paper2. Set word counts. 1,000 words/day for 30 days. Or #1k1h. Or a chapter/day.

Hyperventilating. (frantically searches for paper bag)

I tried word count goals. My 1,000 words/hour always read like … well, they stink. And the time pressure stresses me out. For someone who already has enough stress in her life, I don’t need to inflict any more on myself. So I write what I am capable of producing during the time I have available. Some days it can be 3,500 words over a four hour period or one perfect sentence that has taken the entire day to construct.

Strike 2.

3. Read vast and often across multiple genres. The more well-read you are, the better writer you’ll be.

Confession: I am the slowest reader. Ever. I’ve always been this way, was even sent to after school reading tutorial sessions to improve my reading speed. I failed miserably. And it took many years for me to be okay with the fact I’m a slow reader.

But I LOVE to read.

Some months I can finish one book per week, when I have the time. Other months, I’m lucky to finish one book. Yes, I’m that slow.

My reading time is limited by the speed at which I read, so I don’t read vast and often. I read the most enjoyable book I can find in that moment I have available.

Strike 3. I’m out. If I can’t stick to the rules, maybe I shouldn’t write. Right?

Wrong. No more guilt monkeys.

Set Your Own Rules Guidelines

And don’t feel guilty about it, because your guidelines are right for you.

My guideline? Finish what I start.

Plot a novel? I finish.
Character templates? I finish.
Fast first draft? I finish.
Second draft? I finish.
Edits and revisions? I finish.

Plotting a novel may take a week. Character templates may take two hours. A fast first draft may not be very fast, taking months instead of weeks. But I finish each step, because every step gets me closer to a completed novel. And that’s more than fine with me.

What writing rules do you break? Which ones bother you the most? Have you set your own writing guidelines, and if so, what are they?

About Kerry

Kerry has written professionally for over twenty years. Prior to discovering a passion for fiction writing, she was a marketing executive. These days her writing is focused on Women’s Fiction and her work has received recognition in numerous writing contests.

She is a Co-Founder & Vice President of Programs of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association. She is represented by Jen Karsbaek with Foreword Literary.

57 comments to Hanging Writing Rules Out to Dry

  • Dead on, Kerry. I’ve seen authors get stuck for YEARS just because they weren’t following the ‘rules.’ Who gives a flying spider hemorrhoid if you color outside the lines – if you end up with a good book at the end of it!

    Cracks me up that creative people try to squeeze themselves into boxes (and I cram myself into that box too) – hellloooo, creative means NO boxes, right?

    Write on!

    • I’m right there with you, Kerry, breaking all these rules! I’ve never heard anyone mention the reading thing, and I’m glad you did. I read slowly, too, and often feel like I’m a year behind on the hottest books. Thanks for reminding us to set our own guidelines. Best wishes to you!

      • A kindred soul! Trust me Lori, I’ve tried reading faster. Finally tossed in towel. My TBR pile is scary, goes back several years. I’m still waiting for that year long vacation on a secluded beach with my TBR pile. (wishing, wishing) Maybe I put a small dent in it within the year.

    • …a flying spider hemorrhoid…

      SNORT! Margie would be so proud, Laura the Cliché Twister Extraordinaire Drake.

    • Laura, that response needed a warning. Coffee all over my screen! Love the flying spider hemorrhoid!!!

    • What the –? Flying spider hemorrhoid. Now I’ve heard it all. Such a lovely visual, too. Oh Laura, you and I need to spend more time at the swim up bar. Thanks to you and your WITS crew for inviting me today.

    • I swallowed my Diet Coke just in time to read the flying spider hemorrhoid (and then had to look at how you spelled hemorrhoid). HAHAHA!!!

  • Thanks for a great post, Kerry. What you will hear today is the sound of others exhaling from the relief of knowing they are not alone. What some may say is that not only do they do the same, they do so with no guilt. One of our group, a published author with a half dozen books to her credit once responded to a “loop” topic to say that she NEVER read a book on writing, refused to take classes on writing and pretty much ignored rules because they messed with her head.

    And so it actually is with many of us. I don’t want to think of what a “spider hemorrhoid is but I grew up with crazy creative folks who encouraged me to color outside the lines 🙂

  • Kerry, you’re so right on all three counts! I think we **must** be related. I’m lucky to finish reading a book over two weeks, unless of course I’m playing nurse at the hospital, in which case I can read a lot! But that’s another story… I don’t write everyday, but when I do sit down to write I have something to say and the words flow. One thing I’ll never do is write instead of being with my hubby, or my family. I’ll sacrifice a lot to write, but not them. Family first. Thanks for daring to “break” inflicted rules!

    • You are welcome, Betty! And thanks for mentioning sacrifices. It’s hard many times to silent the writing mind from wandering, but family is first! I have to slip my writing in between shuffling the kids around town and spending time with the hubby, which is a.o.k.

  • We’re supposed to follow rules? JK. It’s funny, most of my life I am a total rule-follower—I listen to the boss, the teacher, do what I’m supposed to do. Writing…meh. I can’t set daily word counts. Some days I can spit out 5k, others 5. And they’re 5 wrong words.

    I’m at the other end of the reading spectrum. I read too much, and far too fast. I *should* read slower, absorbing style, plot choices, the way the author strings her words together in a way that beautifully flows (or not). Instead I eat books like a bag of Doritos.

    • There’s always somebody who forgot to listen! (Ha! jk) Funny though how the grass is greener on the other side (cliche alert!). I envy your voracious appetite.

  • I’ve challenged myself for NaBloPoMo (National Blog Posting Month) and it’s been a great experience that has me writing every single day. I have a long commute to work, so I write during that time, and at night, and on my smartphone other times. I don’t read as many books as I think I should (per typical advice for writers) but I do read every day, mostly online content.

    • I think we all read every day if online content is included. I probably spend too much time reading online content when I should be writing. I admire your dedication in sticking with your goal to write everyday, and programs like NaNoWriMo and NaBloPoMo are great for that.

  • On reading…

    It’s difficult for me to read when I’m actively writing towards a deadline. I lack the discipline to put down a good book until I reach the end. Worse, if the read is extraordinary, I begin to question my own voice, and have to engage in Retail Therapy (aka Slide & Sign with my MasterCard) to shake that self-defeating behavior. [Yes, I will take a seat on the couch. Hand me the tissues.]

    I recently discovered that a poorly written book fires my let-‘er-rip-and-write-dagnabbit (!) jets.

    I’d opened a freebie book from a writers conference to read during lunch. There were so many flaws in the NYT bestselling author’s novel, I became angry…with myself.

    If a book could be published with backstory dumps, head-hopping, clichés, awkward dialog, and look-at-me-in-the-mirror-character descriptions, who was I to stand in my OWN way on getting my words out there? I chose not to read past the point I reached during lunch. I had no vested interest in what happened to the protagonist after twenty-seven pages.

    I do have a deep-seeded, vested interest in what happens to the protagonist in my WIP. That was an easy read-or-write decision day.

    Refreshing post. Thank you!

    • “Worse, if the read is extraordinary, I begin to question my own voice, and have to engage in Retail Therapy (aka Slide & Sign with my MasterCard) to shake that self-defeating behavior.”

      Thanks for bringing this up! I too struggle reading published books while I write. I compare my style, voice, everything, too much. And yes, very aggravating when the author has ditched every rule you’ve tried to apply. It’s a subjective industry and who knows why an editor chose to publish one book over another. Best we can do is write not only what, but how, we want.

  • Agreed we all have to set our own writing path. I took comfort from reading that Hemingway wrote 500 words a day, five days a week, in a Paris cafe. Whatever works!

    • Exactly Carol! I know of other published authors who do the same. 500 words or less/day. Can take them up to a year or more to write one book, and it works for them. It took me awhile to realize what worked for me and I’m good with that.

  • Great post, Kerry!
    We all search for that magic “rule” that will make this process easier. I know what works for me and try to keep the guilt monkeys away (well, monkeys and flying spiders with hemorrhoids).

  • Excellent blog post that will be much help to so many. I admire those with great self discipline and organizational skills, but the rest of us manage to get the job done, too. We all have to do it our own way. Wait, is that Frank Sinatra I hear in the background?

    • Pam, I thought it was you who said you never read a book on writing or took a writing class because you didn’t want to mess with your process. Is that right?

    • Pam! *waves*
      I recall our discussion on the patio during RWA 2012. I admired your process and how as a multi-published author you didn’t give a flying [bleep] about rules etc. You did what worked for you and it works brilliantly. And yes, I think I’m hearing Frank too.

  • I love this Kerry. I always feel guilty too when I hear about writers who crank out 2,000 words a day. Some days, after coming home from work, making dinner, doing laundry, etc. I’m lucky if I can keep my eyes open when I sit down at the computer to write. I’ve literally dozed off in mid sentence! Good for you for finding what works.

    • I’ve done that too Linda! I push off the writing until the end of the day thinking I can power out a chapter. I finally sit down and am overcome with exhaustion. 2000 words/day is hard work. Sheesh! 1000 words/day is hard.

  • What a terrific blog post! Exhale! Writers today need to stop putting so much pressure on themselves! If you can write every day, then do. If you can’t, then that is okay too. The rule I can’t stand is the following:

    “You have to be a part of a writing group”

    I totally disagree. I think that writing groups are not for everyone. They certainly aren’t for me. I need solitude and quiet to write and sharing just isn’t in my DNA.

    Thank you for batting a thousand on this blog post! 🙂

    • Let’s all exhale together and throw the monkeys out the window, see if they fly.

      Writing groups… good point! I haven’t tried an in-person group, but I don’t think I could participate in one either. Solitude, quiet, just me and a blank screen. That’s the way I roll.

  • OMG, Allelujah (sp?) and God Save The Queen! Thank you for this post, Kerry. I have been too scared to ever write anywhere on the internet or in my online groups that I don’t write every day (snort, as Gloria said), I’ve taken many classes and all of them but one I didn’t enjoy and they weren’t helpful, I am a very slow reader, I find it hard to read a book when I’m in the middle of writing one, and I’ve never seen a spider with a hemorrhoid! Everyone’s comments have made me feel that I am not alone! Finally. And, as Gloria also said, I get so sick of thinking my writing must suck because I can’t find an agent then I read a NYT bestseller that really sucks the big egg and it makes me feel sometimes better and sometimes worse because I know there’s no magic bullet.

    • “I am a very slow reader, I find it hard to read a book when I’m in the middle of writing one”

      Me too. There seem to be plenty of kindred souls here today.

  • Kerry, you have no idea how happy it makes me that my post inspired you the way it did. Thank so much for that!

    I feel like I really needed to read this today. Even though I don’t write every day, and I’ve come to terms with the fact that this works for me, this month I challenged myself to try NaNoWriMo. Not surprisingly, it didn’t go like I thought it would. Rules just don’t work for me, so while I’m thankful for the jumpstart it gave me, I’ve had to adjust my approach and expectations in order to avoid getting sucked into a massive, self-inflicted guilt-trip over the fact that I’m not meeting the daily 1700 word requirement. But I have to remind myself that, like you, I finish. It won’t be in November and it’ll probably be several months before I have a draft I’m happy with, but since I started (which I have to remind myself, is its own accomplishment) I know I’ll finish. Thanks for the inspiration!

    • “it’ll probably be several months before I have a draft I’m happy with”

      I started my second fast draft of my current WIP at the end of October. Half way through I realized I’d switched from third person to first person… several chapters after I made the switch. So rather than finishing the draft, I returned to the beginning and started over. Another thing I discovered is that I wrote the fast first draft during the summer when my MIL passed. My husband was her only child and the kids were very close to her. Going back through my notes I noticed how depressing and dark the story was. While that’s fine in and of itself, it wasn’t the book I wanted to write. Newbie writer me would be extremely frustrated and pissed off I was off schedule. (Who’s schedule? Mine. Yup, there’s the guilt.) But today? Nah. I can’t be or my frustration and self-guilt will affect my writing. Best news is that I’m much happier with this draft.

      And thank YOU! I think it’s about time we all confessed while these rules are good for some, they aren’t good for all.

  • Wow. I’m really glad I read this post today. I’ve thought before that I’m more of a “burst” writer. I stew things in my head and then burst them out when they’re ready. When I try to force a “sit down” at the computer every day (as per the rules) it actually slows me down. You’re right. You should go with what your gut tells you. Pretty freeing actually. Why didn’t I think of that? ha! Thanks.

  • Just what I needed to hear today. Thank you!

  • Oh my my my how many rules I have broken… LOL!!! I really don’t follow any. Like ANY. I don’t plot (until I’ve started writing). I don’t do character templates (I do write things down as they reveal themselves so I don’t forget details). I don’t do any story structure boards or beats or cats or snowflakes or acts or whatever the latest trendy writing thing is. And while I used to try to stuff myself into the 1K a day rule, it’s just too difficult with a full time job. There are some days I do it….and some days I sit in the chair (like Linda, falling asleep midsentence!) trying to tap something out but ending up going online because it’s easier that day. Or doing some kind of promo. And there are some days that I never even make it to the chair. There are some days that watching TV with my husband and our now empty-nest house is more important. I try to balance it out with some kick butt writing days on the weekends, but that doesn’t always happen either. LOL. We aren’t robots, we’re people, and we have to live life too. Those big names that crank out six books a year also have assistants for the business side and cleaning ladies for the home side. 🙂 Kerry, you are the bomb on organizational skills, so I bow to you on that! And congrats on coming out of the rule closet and admitting you are a rebel too. 🙂

    • Oh Sharla! You are the most organic, by-the-seat-of-your-pants writer I know. I don’t know how you do it but I admire you all the more for it. And here’s another confession, I’m not the hardcore plotter you think I am. More of a hybrid. I think it has to do with that “stuffing creativity in a box thing.” Doesn’t seem to work. I’ll outline the structure. Do a fast draft, see if it works. If it doesn’t I start over, and tweak some more. It’s a long process, but I finish, and that’s what matters. Miss you!

  • Reblogged this on jbiggarblog and commented:
    Loved this blog, I’ve been feeling so overwhelmed lately with all the rules of the trade that I’ve stepped away from my work. I know, cardinal sin. This article made me feel so much better, I think I’ll go look things over again, maybe revise a little, maybe write a little, 🙂

  • Good stuff, Kerry, I like what you said. Each of your ideas are very effective to get creative.

    If you want ideas to write check out my website http://www.thewritersstimulus.com

    What we do is watch an interesting film and then apply the eBook tools (brain training tips) to that movie as we start an eBook film file named after that movie. The exercise is to connect these eBook tools to that movie, hence, the movie is the research or homework one has to do. You might connect eight or forty of these tools to the movie you watched – you might repeat those tools to that movie after you’ve watched the movie more times as new creativity arrives from the movie and eBook tools after each viewing. When you get bored working on that film move onto another one and go through the same process. This exercise gets you brain training and creative writing.

    This eBook film file is your own creative possession and it’s yours to keep forever – you can refer back to it after three or six months, or two or three years later as we continue to develop our creativity as writers.

    I personally use my eBook as a checklist for screenplays I write. No matter how polished you are as a writer of any type, there will be a tool or four in this eBook that will stimulate a different aspect of how you look at the world, writing and general creativity.

    • There’s a promo for you! Thanks for the tip Michael. For me though, I’m fighting for time just to write, let alone participate in workshops and do creativity exercises. If I’m lucky, I’ll pick up one or two craft books a year.

  • Boy has your blog ever hit a nerve. I can’t think of a WITS blog that has gotten so many long heartfelt comments! I read very slowly too. I think, what’s the point of skipping over all those beautiful words? I lap them up like cream. And if they aren’t so beautiful, I stop reading. What’s the point of reading them faster?
    When I’m writing a first draft I can’t read. I concentrate on another story. My story is running like a movie in my head and I wake up wondering what’s happened since I stopped writing yesterday. LOL On other drafts I like to read in the genre, writers I really admire, hoping some of their sparkle will rub off. So that takes care of reading widely. Although I do belong to a book club just to be sure I read a few books outside my genre.
    I’m lucky I do get a lot of time to write, and manage to do some almost every day. I really respect writers who produce while working another full time job.
    Thanks for letting us all vent.
    Judy Hudson
    http://www.judyhudsonauthor.com

    • Judy, I’ve been amazed at the number of writers who contacted me today (off this blog) to confess they are slow readers. Here I thought I was the only one. Lol.

  • This is my kind of writing! I hate rules. And you’re right. The no. one rule is Finish.

  • Kerry, you dared to put in writing what many of us think. To heck with rules! I write every day, but not on my current WIP. Many days go into blogging either on my own sites or others, and then there are the “special” projects like editing another author’s manuscript. I’m paying it forward there from years back when Sharla Rae — Hi Shar! — did the same for me with my first manuscript.

    As for word counts, forget it! Some chapters flow by at the speed of light, but with others it’s like slogging through an Irish bog. I’m an indie author so I’m not required to meet a publisher’s deadline, only my own, and if I don’t quite hit the mark there, tough. I want my books to be good. If that means taking extra time over them, so be it.

    On the reading front, I used to devour books, but now I have so little time to read for pleasure that I might only finish two books a month, maybe not that many. It’s sad, but if it’s a choice between researching and writing my own stuff or reading someone else’s, guess what I’ll choose.

    • Thanks so much for sharing! Writing takes a lot of energy. On days I write a blog post, I don’t write on my wip. That’s about all I’m capable of producing (or have the time to produce). And you’re right about wanting your books to be good. Me too. So it’s good to write/type at our own pace.

  • Ellie

    What a relief to know there are others out there like me! Excellent post – thank you 🙂

  • Kerry… I’d love to carry on about this wonderful post but… let’s face it… you wouldn’t finish reading it until tomorrow. Kidding. I’m a slow reader too — and am grateful I now have homies.
    Thanks for outing us all.

  • I think the only rule we should have is, “How long will it take you if you never start?”

    Oh, and of course, the second rule: That there are no rules.

  • Love this post, Kerry. I’ve felt guilty forever because I don’t work on the WIP every day. I write every day if you count blogs. And I do writing work every day, supporting other authors, emails etc.. I tend to take it in spurts and starts. Having a deadline of some sort helps me. I was going to a writing retreat the first weekend of the month to begin writing a new book. All those things you mentioned in set your own guidelines had to be completed or a big chunk of them done before I could begin. But begin I did and wrote just under 14,000 words toward my 7th book, and had the very sore shoulders to prove it. My 4th book is pubbed and the 5th is coming out this spring. What I’ve learned in six years of doing this business is we all have to find what works for us. I’m a rule follower and one of my big frustrations when I began was how the rules seemed to wivvel. Thanks for the reminder to not beat myself up because I’m not working on the WIP every day.

  • Maybe we should start a club for all of us who break those rules. We should call ourselves something like “Free of Guilt Monkeys.”
    As others have pointed out: do what works for you. That should be your number one rule. It’s not about how much, but about quality. Some people write 10+ stories a year and I applaud all of them. Others are slower, maybe coming out with one novel a year, like myself. Personally I prefer to write when my muse strikes. I found out that writing only when my muse strikes requires less edits and it’s of a greater quality versus sitting in front of my computer and, for lack of imagination I have my heroes talk about “what’s for dinner.” Writing just because is not writing. I consider it a complete waste, and this is personal preference.
    The days of rules, regulations and boxed writing are gone. Instead there’s a freedom of expression unlike other period in the humanity history and we all live it, experience it, embrace it. THAT’s what matters. A day without writing is not the end of the world. A day beating yourself up because you couldn’t write is a wasted day. Accept yourself for what you have, write when you can, and not when you must. Writing is a passion/calling/love whatever you wanna call it, and not a chore. Keep it that way.

  • […] always like posts about writing guidelines vs. rules – here’s a brief one that I could relate to as it talks about time and effort. In this National Novel Writing Month where many writers are getting 50k words written in 30 days, […]

  • […] Lonsdale: Hanging Writing Rules Out to Dry. “When I write I go deep in my head. It takes a lot of energy, and time, for me to write […]

  • Merry Muhsman

    Thank you for this post! I have fallen more than once into the sticky thick writing rules pit and felt like a stressed out failure who will never break through. I am learning all things come in their own time. And am a slow reader too. I could read or write and I try to do a little of both between job, family, life, etc. May not be perfect but it’s what works right now. Thank you for your post!

  • I like to think of ‘rules’ as ‘guidelines’ or even just as ‘pieces of advice’. Seen that way, you pick up what rings true and works for you; you adapt some to your own style and you chuck the rest away! However, even a rule that doesn’t work is better than nothing at all if if gets new writers from the ‘I want to write one day’ stage – with nothing but a blank piece of paper to show for it – to the ‘I am a writing’ stage. Experience tells us later what we can drop.