Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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February 9, 2018

3 Writing "Rules" I Break

Author W. Somerset Maugham famously said, "There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are."

Maybe there aren't any rules per se, but there are suggestions given often enough that they almost seem like rules for writers. Yet three of those "rules" I regularly break.

"Just vomit the words on the page."

Many successful authors suggest you write as quickly as possible and with wild abandon. Theories abound that you can tap into that deeper, truer subconscious when you spill your story onto the page like a rushing waterfall.

I'm sure this method works for many, and I encourage writers to give it a shot. However, I've discovered my own "muse" cannot be trusted with such carte blanche. She turns out a lot of horrible drivel that way.

I don't like having to throw out 20,000 bad words I wrote in a hurry when I could slow down and make sure what I'm putting down is the best I can do. I simply don't write well at a breakneck speed, so instead I write at the more measured pace that works for me.

"Turn off your internal editor."

In the same vein is this idea that you should never edit as you go. Rather, you must shut off the pesky internal editor that wants you to fix errors right now.

I agree you shouldn't be editing with a fine-tooth comb pages you may well toss into the dumpster — that's a waste of good writing time. However, I edit some while writing a draft.

1. I start each day going back through the last scene I wrote and tweaking as I go. That gets my brain back into the story but also quiets the little voice in my head that has been wondering since yesterday if "plucked" would work better than "yanked" in that last scene.

2. When I realize I have a plot or character problem/inconsistency, I go back and fix it where it occurs. Some people simply write a note in the margin or asterisk where they need to fix the plot hole or keep a running list of issues to address later. However, my brain goes too far down that wrong road if I don't go back and fix the problem as soon as I realize it's there.

Personally, I like my internal editor. She isn't too bossy, and she gives some helpful advice. But hey, that's just me.

"If you're blocked on a scene, just writing something, anything...just write!"

Writers write and claiming writer's block for days or weeks while you piddle and ponder is certainly no way to finish novels.

That said, when I really hit a wall, I need to step away from the laptop and do something non-writing related. Most of the time, my brain continues working through the problem in the background. Then I suddenly realize what the problem was and how to fix it — like right in the middle of cleaning a toilet or re-organizing my closet.

Would I have figured it out if I'd continued plowing through the scene, trying this or that? Or even jotting down questions and answering them? I doubt it.

I resolve certain plot or character problems better when I'm nowhere near my novel — while walking the neighborhood or taking a shower or petting the cat or even doing laundry. So for me, no more plugging through a scene if it isn't working. It's better for me to take a day off and work out the kinks than keep writing.

Those are three writing "rules" I regularly ignore. Because I've learned that my process varies from these tips that do work for others. And I have to trust my own process.

What about you? What writing "rules" do you regularly break, because you've discovered something else works better for you?

About Julie

Julie Glover writes cozy mysteries and young adult fiction. Her YA contemporary novel, SHARING HUNTER, finaled in the 2015 RWA® Golden Heart®. When not writing, she collects boots, practices rampant sarcasm, and advocates for good grammar and the addition of the interrobang as a much-needed punctuation mark.

Julie is represented by Louise Fury of The Bent Agency. You can visit her website here and also follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

67 comments on “3 Writing "Rules" I Break”

  1. Twins, Julie!!! I loathe editing, and cutting words literally hurts me, so I write as clean (read:slow) as I can!

    The other 'rule' I break is not to write every day. If I'm not in a coma, I'm writing.

    1. Cheers to slow writing! Still gets the books done. 🙂

      And I think that's interesting that you named not writing every day as a rule. Because I've felt like the opposite is a rule: to write every day. Which I don't. But when I thought about it, I realize that I've heard both — spoken with equal passion. Go figure.

      1. I don't write every day either. But, I do something writing-related every day. Like read how-to posts, take webinars, do research, scribble notes. I think we are all always at it.

  2. I like Elizabeth George's technique. She does an extensive setting analysis, then a major character study, THEN plots only about 15 scenes ahead. That way, there's always something new to look forward to.

  3. I've learned very similar things. I can't vomit onto the page, for exactly the same reasons. It ends up being complete and utter crap that most times needs tossed, and that's a waste of time to me. I've also learned it's okay not to write every single day, that sometimes, my brain just needs a break. Oftentimes, giving myself that break ends up exactly what you said, my brain figures out the problem (usually in the middle of cleaning a toilet or doing laundry. lol).

    1. We tried vomiting those words, didn't we, Joanne?! But it just doesn't work for everyone. And it's such a relief when you embrace the process that works better for you. Here's to your writing process!

  4. Great post! I especially agree with number three--go do something else to free up your mind. I do my best plotting and other creative thinking while cleaning my horses' stalls. Something about the repetitiveness of the chore loosens the mind up to grasp an elusive creative thought.

    1. I think that's a key point, Irtrovi! Those mental breakthroughs often come when you're doing something repetitive that takes some mental focus but not so much that your brain can't keep working on the problem in the background. And ooh, horses. Love 'em!

  5. We must share a writing brain. I take #2 a step further and print out the scene/chapter I've written and read it in bed (away from the computer, different medium, fresh eyes) and make basic notes. That's where I start the next day. I think reading it in bed also gets the story into my subconscious.

    1. I do something similar -- I read the chapter on my Kindle (for the same reason -- different format). I'll put comments in where I notice inconsistencies or figure out a better way to approach something.

  6. I love reading posts tike this. I think # 3 is really powerful. I generally take a walk after writing and it’s amazing how many ideas, solutions, improvements swirl through my brain as a hike around the neighborhood.

  7. Thank you! In so many writing groups and classes I've taken, #1 and #2 were considered writing laws. Yikes, just not me. I have limited writing time, so I don't like to waste it writing "vomit" that I'll just have to struggle through later. Unlike other people who use this method, I rarely find gems in the chaos. I'm glad those methods work for others, but definitely not for me. I feel vindicated finding others who are using a different approach successfully. 🙂

  8. Good advice. As Jack Sparrow said of the "Pirate Code" - they're really more guidelines than rules. Different people – with different personalities and strengths – will prosper most following what works best for them. The trick, of course, is recognizing if what you're doing IS working.

    1. Ha! I love that line from Jack Sparrow — good one for writers to know! And you're right about that trick, which is why I think other methods are worth trying to see if they work better. Thanks, Jerry.

  9. You sound like my kind of writer. I "do" all the "don'ts" you list and am glad to see my approach reinforced with some logical arguments.

  10. I love breaking writing rules. It's interesting to see how different writers break different rules, because I usually FOLLOW the first two you mentioned. I've found that the best way for me to actually get words written is to ignore my very perfectionist internal editor, and just go for it. For example, my WIP is actually a story I've been trying to write off and on for the past 2-3 years. I restarted it a total of SEVEN times, because no matter what I tried, it just wasn't working. So I finally set a word count goal and a deadline for myself, and now the story is well on the road to completion!
    I do break other writing rules, though. All the stuff you hear about how to outline before you actually start writing... I don't do any of it. xD

    1. I completely agree that if your internal editor makes it hard for the book to get written, ignore her. I'm glad you figured that out and will soon complete your story! Good for you, Talia!

  11. It's liberating to hear an accomplished writer like you, Julie, say you find it unproductive to write rapidly w/o crafting as you go. Thanks for giving us permission. Balance seems to be the key...we can't agonize one word at a time, either.

  12. Julie, you know I love NaNo because it makes me sit down and focus.

    The writing rule I love to break is that ironclad "only one POV per chapter" rule. That one just irks me. I'm an extrovert - I LIKE knowing what's going on with all my characters. And sometimes more than one person needs to get in on the action. That doesn't mean all head-hopping all the time, just that I don't see a thing wrong with changing POV between scenes if it adds to the story.

    1. I have the impression that the problem usually isn't head-hopping per se. It only really seems to be a problem when it's done clumsily.

    2. As long as you tell me we've switched, I'm all good! It's the stuff where you're in one head and BAM! without warning you're in someone else's. 😉

      I also like calendar-driven challenges. But I have to check my expectations. Still, we'll always have that one NaNoWriMo win together!

  13. Julie, I had to laugh when I misread the following lines: "I’ve discovered my own 'muse' cannot be trusted with such carte blanche. She turns out a lot of horrible drivel that way." I was reading way too fast and thought "drivel" was "driver"... and thought you were saying your muse was a terrible driver!!!! My muse can sometimes be like The Little Old Lady From Pasadena...and a few minutes later be a drag racer responding to a green light at a drag strip with engine screeching and rubber melting. Thanks for sharing your wisdom today!

  14. I've been trying to find a process that works for me for several years now (full time job, kids, and a strong desire not to be That Guy Who Never Helps Out Around The House are all working against me), but one thing that doesn't seem to have changed is that I work best if I can just start writing, and write straight through to the end. I do edit as I go, but I'm honestly not sure that I'm capable of working through distinct drafts.

    (Obviously a project of any length is going to be written in sections, but the "re-read the last couple of pages, tweak anything you need to, and then go!" approach is about as close to an unbroken effort as I can manage, and so far it's the only thing that seems to work for me.)

    1. Once you find what works for you, embrace it! That's great, Heath. My rules and your rules don't need to be the same, as long as we get the books written. 🙂

  15. Thanks for the tips, Julie. As a new writer, I'm still trying to find what works best for me. I tried the vomit first draft approach (well, mine were more like a norovirus draft) and it took me so long to weed through what I wrote, I could barely get to draft #2. Now, I write more of an outline, still without too much editing, but I don't flush out my thoughts until they have been somewhat organized. We're all unique - right? So our writing habits should be as well.

    1. I'm glad I tried different approaches to see what worked. At times, maybe I held onto something for too long because so many people pushed it, so I would advise against that. Be willing to try various things and then lean into what works for you. Happy writing, Karen!

  16. Amen to all three 'violations'! The three 'rules' are perhaps more appropriate to discursive 'slice-of-life' literary novels where the 'pantser' writer begains without a detailed plan. Genre novels, such as I write, require more intention and infrastructure.

    Like other commenters, I find walking inspiring. I haven't tried mucking out stables, but that might indeed help me to not write horse-sh*t!

    As for Jack Sparrow, his father SHOOTS a pirate captain who criticizes the Pirate Code! We just have to ignore such legalists at times. My only real rule is to try to break the rules deliberately, not accidentally. Or, as is attributed to the Dalai Lama, among others, learn the rules well so as to break them properly!

  17. Hi, Julie, I break the first two, but find that sometimes the third one helps. If I'm truly stymied for more than a few hours, I'll move forward, or even to the ending, and write there instead.

    If I'm being totally honest, I break all the Hemingway rules all the time and most of the grammar rules whenever I want. You just can't give rules to an old Irish rebel and expect them to stand!

    1. I have yet to make it through a Hemingway novel, so I'm not the person to argue for his rules! Lol. But just find the rules that work, discard the rest, and move on!

  18. Excellent post, Julie! For me the message is that we each must find our own way. Like all writers I have been approached by folks who are looking for how to do it, and I wish I could tell them. I wish I could tell me! The important thing I try to remember is that to find your own way, you have to keep looking.

    1. Well said! It feels like this journey is a labyrinth with many paths to get to the middle, but once you find the center, you can't necessarily tell someone else how you got there. And I guess I'm just not in favor of people giving directions like there's a one-and-only-way map. Thanks, James!

    1. I like NaNoWriMo for pushing me to write more hours and giving me community, but I've only ever met the 50k goal once. And I'm pretty sure a good third of that project is just poop. So yeah, no-no on the major goal of NaNo! 🙂

  19. This week my blog was titled “Confession of an Inefficient Writer “ and I basically confessed to the same writing procedures as you mentioned, which ignore what we’re told over and over to do. I’m so glad to know I’m not alone.

    1. Sometimes it seems we measure writers by word count in a certain amount of time, but finished and well-written books seem to me to be a better standard. And for some of us, that means we have to write slower. Not everyone, but some. Thanks!

  20. I don't feel "less than" for never having adhered to these three rules, Julie. We all nod at, "Everyone's writing process is different," but some people take what some successful writers do as "the rules to write by." Guess I'm a rebel.

    1. Yeah, but you and I have been around long enough to have read those books and attended those workshops where someone is so convinced that this one process is THE process. I'm with you, Fae — Rebels Forever! Should we make bumper stickers? 😉

  21. Last year I had the start of my WIP critiqued by two different professional editors. They disagreed with each other enough to remind me that even 'gatekeepers' do not all follow the same rules.

  22. I have to admit to vomiting on the first draft (yes, it's messy) as that's the only way I can really figure out what I'm doing. If I plan too much beforehand, I get bored! But every draft after that, I'm tweaking as I go, and like you said, tweaking the previous day's work always helps get me back into the story. I also find it best to step away if blocked. Here's to finding our own rules!

  23. Julie, it sounds like our writing styles are similar. I always start by reviewing what I wrote the previous day. Sometimes I pick up mistakes I didn't realize were there. And now that I've released one novel and have a much better idea of what I'm doing, writing #2 will be less stressful.

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