I tell people I only have two rules for writing. First, do what works. Second, don’t be boring in the final draft.
Aside from having the advantage of being vague and therefore virtually impossible to refute, these rules cover just about anything you need to develop as a writer. You just have to figure out how to define them in relation to your writing process.
I’ll discuss the second rule at another time, like maybe when I’ve finally mastered it. In the meantime, here’s what I’m talking about when I say ‘do what works.’
When you start out as a writer, you’ll get a lot of advice. Maybe you’ll buy writing magazines at the bookstore, or have the opportunity to talk to more experienced authors. You’re going to hear lots of suggestions, many of which will be presented as rules to write by, but here’s the thing: many of them will not work. Some of them will be utterly wrong-headed, offered by well meaning people who do not know enough about the business, or who work in a different genre, or who like to be considered An Authority.
So here’s sub-rule #1 for ‘do what works’: Beware of anyone who presents their method as the One True Way of becoming an author. The truth is that there isn't any One True Way. In fact, when you’ve talked to a bunch of writers, you’ll find that every single one does things a little differently. And that’s okay. We’re making stories and poems. We’re making art, not Buicks and swimming pools.
Talk to lots of people. It may take a while, but you’ll learn whose advice you can trust, which authors have work styles most similar to yours. Even then, you won’t be able to do everything exactly as they do and have the same results, but you’ll have some ideas of where to start.
Of course, it would be reassuring to have a handbook that would give you precise directions on which steps to follow to be a success. Instead, you have sub-rule #2: Find out what you need to do your work well. I have friends who make intricate outlines before they start chapter 1, and others (like myself) can’t plan more than a few scenes ahead without losing the thread of the story. I envy my plotting friends, but it’s not a method that works for me.
I have friends who participate regularly in NaNoWriMo to draft novels, and others who find so much concentrated creativity overwhelming. I’ve met writers who churn out thousands of words per day, every day, in rough draft material, and others who save their writing for a few hours on the weekend. Some folks never suffer writer’s block, others struggle with it regularly. Buying in to the ‘write EVERY DAY’ rule can be a crippling source of guilt. Recently Daniel Jose Older wrote a terrific essay on that subject, and its main idea is an important one.
Sub-rule #3 is related to that: Be patient with yourself. You’re learning. No matter how long you’ve been writing, you’re learning, and that’s a good thing (a good thing, but sometimes also uncomfortable and awkward and frustrating). Yet if you persevere, sooner or later you’ll see the growth you seek. One of my track coaches in high school used to talk about plateaus and quantum leaps. His thought was that, with any worthwhile endeavor, you work for long periods of time without seeing much improvement. Those plateaus can be hard to endure, especially when you know you need to reach that next level to get to where you want to go in your career. But as my coach said, if you continue to strive, sooner or later you’ll have a quantum leap in ability, that moment when you suddenly understand some aspect of the craft that eluded you before. And that moment is pure magic.
On a related note, here’s sub-rule #4: Be willing to experiment. Be flexible. You might think that there will be a point where you’ll know everything you need, and it’ll just be a matter of plugging those words into the computer day after day. (Spoiler alert: ahahahaha NO.) Many authors will tell you each book they write is a new challenge, and each one imposes new demands on them. And after all, wouldn’t you get bored if writing turned out to be just the same thing over and over?
If there’s a secret to writing, it’s this: We all get frustrated. We all have those moments where it doesn’t seem we can go on. Last week, I emailed a friend and said, “That’s it. I’m done. I can’t bring myself to sit down and write any more. It’s pointless.” Today I started a new story. Well, okay, it’s a new draft of an old story that wasn’t working, but my point is that those difficult moments will come. Ride them out. Sub-rule #5 is simply, Keep going. Don’t give up. Step back if you need to, write only for yourself, scribble a few words a day on the back of a grocery store receipt. But don’t quit.
The world needs your voice.