books with Athena

books with Athena

Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Secret Writing Rule Book…and Why to Ignore It

Somerset Maugham famously said, "There are three rules for writing. Unfortunately, nobody knows what they are."

But pretty much everybody you meet in this business will tell you there are a whole bunch. (One is "never start a sentence with 'there are'" —so watch yourself, Mr. Maugham.)

I recently read a great post by editor Jamie Chavez about what she calls the Secret Fiction Rule book. She points out that nobody knows where these "rules" come from, or why so many great books have become classics without following a single one. But that doesn't seem to matter. You will hear this stuff repeated over and over again at conferences, critique groups and forums.

Take them all with several shakers of salt. Most are true some of the time, but if you follow them rigidly, you'll end up with wooden, formulaic prose that nobody is going to want to read.

Here are ten of my unfavorites.

1. Show, don't tell:  Authors who follow this rule closely can write such murky stuff that you never know what's going on.

Is this really the best way to present a character? "He wore a helmet with a wide brim, longer in the back to protect the neck, big black boots, and a protective coat and overalls held up with red suspenders. He smelled of ashes and soot."

Why not just tell us he's a %$@*ing fireman already? After three pages of these guessing games, the building has burned down and WE DO NOT CARE.

2. Eliminate all adverbs. Seriously? Even when you're writing in the voice of someone who is, um, rather vague?

3. No prologues. Yeah, I know I've preached the no-prologue gospel because so many beginning authors use them for unreadable info-dumping, but my readers keep pointing out that George R. R. Martin seems to do OK and he loves them. I think it depends on your genre and what your readers expect. Personally, I'll skip it, but I'm probably not your target audience.

4. You must write every day. Nothing should be done every day. Moderation in all things. Including moderation.

5. You must blog to have a successful writing career. Finally, even agents are seeing the silliness of this dictum. You must do what's right for you and your writing. There are many paths to writing success.

6. Cut the last paragraph of every chapter. This annoys me no end. I write great last paragraphs.

You're not going to take them away from me. No, no you're not!!

7. No multiple points of view. Multiple points of view in one sentence—or even one chapter—can be really confusing, but novels with several points of view can be richer and have more depth.

8. Eliminate the words "was", "that" and "just." This one just makes my blood boil. I wrote a whole blogpost about the "was" police.

9. Kids can't die. Jamie Chavez addresses this in her post.

10. Happy endings are required in any commercial book. Ditto.

And here is a little verse I stole from Dorothy Parker wrote about the rules in that Secret Book.

Rules for the Beginning Novelist
…with apologies to Dorothy Parker

Writer, writer, never pen
Background story till page ten.
Use no flashbacks—no, nor prologue.
Never start your book with di’logue.
Set the hero’s hair on fire.
Keep the situation dire.
Write in genres tried and true
From a single point of view.
Tell your tale in linear time.
Avoid a plot that strains the mind.
No dead kids, bad priests, abuse
Or politics in your debuts.
Copy last year's biggest hit.
No one wants to read new @#%*
Make it light but never funny.
(Humor’s too subjective, honey.)

And if that gets you published kid,
You’ll be the first it ever did.

Have a very Merry Solstice Season, everybody!

What about you, scriveners?  Have you run into the "Secret Writing Rules" book? What are your unfavorite writing rules?

REMINDER: Congratulations to the winners of HOW TO BE A WRITER IN THE E-AGE..AND KEEP YOUR E-SANITY. 

The winners of the ebooks are: E.S. Ivy, Clare London, and Cheri
And the winners of the pbooks are: Stella Notte, Linda Gray, and Jlmbewe

Contact Catherine at ryanhyde at cryanhyde dot com with your address to receive your prize. Some of you don't have blogs or email addresses, so we can't contact you. (A little tip: it's a good idea to put your email address on the "about me" page of your blog. That way agents and editors who fall in love with your deathless prose can contact you. You want to make sure you're home if opportunity knocks. It does. It happened to me!)


  1. I don't know if this is exactly a rule, but my big "unfavorite" from my old critique group had to do with the maturity levels of child characters. They would say, "No. I have a nine-year-old. I know 9-year-olds. They wouldn't say that." While somewhere is a 9-year-old attending MIT. I always wondered why critique groups wanted me to write always about average people, never about extraordinary ones. Or they want me to write about the most common result of an action. But good fiction, it seems to me, doesn't stick to the run-of-the-mill. (Argh. Sorry. Cliche. That's against the rules.)

  2. My publisher asked for a prologue for my first book (although they didn't for the second) so that blows that one out of the water. And cut the last paragraph? I would confuse myself at that point!
    Don't know if it's a rule, but I always hear to write a lot, including short stories and articles, and build a resume first. Crap, I totally missed that one and went for the novel first.

  3. IME about the only thing that really works is to keep writing until you find your own voice and your own style.

    Problem for lots of people is that approach takes work, discipline & risking failure. For many, "rules" seem easier & quicker.

  4. Mark Williams tried to post this, but Blogger blocked him, so he sent it via email. So sorry about Blogger's bad manners, Mark! Here's the comment:

    Great post, Anne. As a creative writing tutor I’ve always told my students there are no rules.
    Writing is an art, not a science.

    As a writer I practice what I preach. Our novels break pretty much every rule you mention, and a zillion others you don’t.

    Treat writing rules as guidelines and you can’t go far wrong.

    Breaking the rules deliberately can enhance the story. Breaking them through ignorance will inevitably cost you readers.

    Mark Williams aka "the quiet half" of Saffina Desforges

  5. Thanks, Anne, yes, the best rule is NO rules. Write out of the box, think out of it! One thing though that is an unfavorite with me is "find your voice". I've never known what that meant. Also, it is my personal opinion that a good writer should be able to write in multiple voices - one for each character!

    For example, my New Adult novel (The Phoenix Heritage) has a rather special voice that isn't my own : it is written from the point of view of a gifted child who grows into a computer genius...What do you think his voice is like? I'm no computer genius, indeed, I'm a techno dinosaur!! And my Baby Boomer novel (A Hook in the Sky) is written from the point of view of the protagonist, an international manager, a man (and I'm a woman) who's retiring and has rather square tastes in art and everything else compared to his cool, artsy wife (I haven't got such a wife, obviously!). So again, a very different style. I really believe "voice" should fit the character profile!

  6. I think the best rule I do follow is: know the rules, well--and then don't be afraid to break them. : )
    Thank you for this wise and humorous post. What a great way to begin the new year.

  7. You sure use your humor well.

    Yesterday, or before that, this one writing blog on Tumblr had a post on what you should never start with.

    Of course, most of their "nevers" have been successfully done by debut authors, and I pointed it out. Never start with more than two characters in a scene? Too many novels broke that "rule" for such advice to be creditable.

  8. Happy Endings are compulsory?
    Forgive me while I join almost every successful writer in history laughing until our sides split.

    Fantastic post, Anne. LOVE that little poem. Even if I do enjoy setting my heroes' hair on fire and keeping things dire. *cackle*

  9. Greetings Anne,
    This is a fine list of the nevers we should never avoid (or something like that). Another "rule" I'd like to add is the infamous, "Never start a book with dialogue."

    Hmm. Phillip Pullman, Mark Twain, Virginia Woolf & E.B. White had/are having pretty good careers...

    Brava again.

  10. Catherine--That's definitely one of my unfavorites, too: characters must be average and behave predictably. Bo-ring.

    Alex--Your publisher wanted a prologue? That's a twist. Kind of like it. You seem to be the exception that proves the rule in getting your first writing published. Congrats!

    Ruth--Great insight.Rules are a shortcut. You're right. Trial and error can get pretty tedious.

    Mark--This says it all: "Breaking the rules deliberately can enhance the story. Breaking them through ignorance will inevitably cost you readers.

    Leanne--Thanks! I wanted something positive for the season. :-)

    Chihuahua--Never have more than 2 characters in an opener? I'd never heard that one. Ooops.

    Charley--It would be fun to find an example from the classics of each of these rules being broken,wouldn't it?

    C. S. I did put it in the poem, since it's so silly. You'll note I left out a syllable and spelled it "di'logue in order to follow the poetry rulebook. :-)

    Claude--I think the use of "voice" can be very confusing. The "voice" of a character is different from
    the "voice" of a novelist. I think it's the difference between an actor's offstage "persona" and the types of characters he plays. They can be quite different. We need another word for it.

  11. My pet peeve is "don't use was, that, and just". AACK! I go through my manuscript and try to take them all out. And I do, for the most part, but why?

  12. "...altogether excellent first novel," is the opinion of a New York Times reviewer of The Art of Fieldingby Chad Harbach, who often changes point-of-view paragraph-by-paragraph. John Banville's The Book of Evidence is written almost entirely as a "tell don't show" novel, yet was a finalist for the Booker Prize. Books with unhappy endings are too numerous to mention. In my own work-in-progress, a child dies at the conclusion. Not sure how I would change that without emasculating the story. I know I don't want to change it and won't, even if it costs me commercial publication.
    Rules for grammar? Okay (except in dialogue). Rules for style and content? Forget them.

  13. Hi, Anne, I must have done something with my elbows and lost my comment so here goes: Someone once said, "Never write the same word on a page until you start a new page." I think it was Brenda Ueland. When I read her classic, I tried this and failed miserably. Now older and wiser--mainly older--I revisited her text and discovered even she couldn't do it.
    Happy Holidays to you and yours and to all of your faithful blog followers. You deserve it.

  14. Thanks for the shout-out, friend. :) And merry Christmas!

  15. And THIS is why I love your blog (and you) the best! Thank you, Anne.

  16. A big YAY for this post! I hate rules, and I've been bending over backwards learning them and writing with them for years now. No more - I'm sick of coloring inside the lines.

    Sadly, I think agents still subscribe to rules and use them as any easy reject-reason. On the other hand, I obey all the rules and still get rejected, so who cares anymore?! lol

    ♥ Merry Christmas! ♥

  17. Excellent post! And love the poem, too.

    One "rule" that kept me from writing altogether for years was "write what you know".

    I didn't think I knew anything, or that anyone would be interested in what little I did know, and so I barely wrote at all.

    Decades of potential lost. Decades.

    Now I'm trying to make up for that lost time, and hope to get a lot more work up in the coming years.

    As for the other things listed, well, rules were made to be broken. LOL That's why writing is an art, not a science.

  18. Thanks for the great chuckle, Anne!

    I've been told there's a Rule #11 - Zombies can't have sex. I break that one ALL the time. LOL

  19. Sheila, I totally agree. If we only wrote what we know, there would be no Sci-Fi or fantasy or anything else that comes from our imagination.

    My least favorite is adverbs being pernicious weeds. Thank you SK for making me paranoid about that one until I decided part of my style is using adverbs.

  20. I've used a prolugue a couple of times because I wanted to use a different POV (in a book that has one POV character) to get across some information I couldn't otherwise. It was merely a short scene.

    In my other series I use many POVs though they each have there own scene. Like I've told writing students, use the POV of the person who has the most at stake in the scene.

  21. Patricia--I hate myself for it, but I'm just the same. Ever since I heard the rule, I do a search for all those words and try to eliminate them. Often ruining perfectly good sentences that my editor has to fix. :-(

    SK--Now that's a rule I can live with: "Rules for grammar? Okay (except in dialogue). Rules for style and content? Forget them."
    Paul--That's a rule I've never heard before. Aaack!

    Jamie--I really enjoyed your post!


    Lexa--It's true that agents can use these as a reason for a quick reject. Especially prologues.

    Sheila--That one definitely should make the list. We should have no sci fi or fantasy? Just whiny books about My Rotten Childhood?

    Suzan--I did not know that about zombies. There goes my new ms. for 50 Shades of Zombies!

    Margaret--I must admit to being rather fond of adverbs myself.

    Marilyn--Using the POV of the character with the most at stake is a rule I hadn't heard before. Might be one worth following.

  22. My biggest unfavorite is adverbs. I use them all the time much to the chargrin of one of my critters.

    Happy Happy Christmas, Anne. I hope Santa brings you everything you ever wanted.

  23. What a great post! I totally agree with you (being the mentor of a writing forum) but I do believe to become better writer we must learn these rules in order to know when to break them for the good of the story. I wouldn't suggest just throwing them all out the window, especially if you're new to writing.

    Merry Christmas, by the way :)

  24. Strangest rule I'd ever heard: don't kill the dog. Apparently you can never, ever kill a pet in a popular fiction novel or he work is doomed to rejection by editors and readers alike. And of course, never split an infinitive.

  25. Anne--I don't know how you can write stories set in Regency England without using adverbs. Jane Austen was rather fond of them. Best wishes for the New Year to you, too!

    Email--You're absolutely right. We need know know the rules in order to enjoy breaking them. :-)

    Alma--That's a biggie. I've heard that for years. Last night I watched Moonrise Kingdom. Big hit. Oscar mentions. Dead dog. Yup. Film got made anyway.


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  27. So many rules, so little time! Cliches are forbiden, exclamation! Drop all those "lys", never rhyme. Repetition is bad. Bad, bad, bad. I break these rules all the time. But, I do agree, it is important to know them so that you can break them on purpose. I don't care how a story starts as long as I know where I am. I need to see it to beleive it. Cliche, cliche...ack! Never heard the one about dropping the last paragraph. Don't like it. I wish it was okay to break spelling rules. Ha! Great post Anne, thank you!

  28. I agree with you, which is why I never blog about writing or give writerly advice. I've managed to get published, and am doing okay.

  29. A lot of these are fine guidelines, originally designed to help writers avoid common pitfalls. Littering a text with redundant adverbs, stating every emotion straight-out, and head-hopping from one paragraph to the next really does make for a terrible read. The problem is that, somehow, this legitimate advice warped and hardened into "rules." The difference between an editor who takes them into judicious consideration and an editor who follows them rigidly is the difference between a nutritionist who says that sugar isn't good for you, but a treat now and then is fine, and a nutritionist who says you must cut all traces of sugar out of your diet now...even the fruit. The latter doesn't realize that (a) people on such strict regimens will eventually resent them and rebel and (b) living without any indulgences or flexibility isn't healthy, either.

    Fortunately, I don't think most editors or critics are silly enough to apply every rule without discretion. When I was in middle school, I entered a contest for continuations of historical novels by a local author. I chose one set in Puritan Massachusetts and mercilessly killed off both a teenage bride and her baby in an influenza epidemic. And I won. So there :D

  30. Hilarious!The last issue of Writer's Digest has a page for "Reject a Hit" - sending in a spoof publisher's rejection letter for a famous book. I laughed with a writer friend about how people can't seem to read a sentence with a conjunction any more. Split up your sentences. And start the next with your conjunction. Charles Dickens(one of my faves) would have been toast in today's writing world!! Think about it...

  31. Good post! As a newbie I've been reading a lot of writing advice, and it's baffling … as u say writing is art not science, im ignoring the rules for now…I'll get back to them soon…perhaps!

  32. I love Dorothy Parker. Need I say more?

    I love this post.

  33. Christine—Oh yeah—those spelling rules. I'm afraid we can't get away with breaking those, or nobody will understand what we want to say. I guess that's what all the rules are about: clarity. If you can be clear without following the rules, great. But if nobody can understand what the *&#! you're trying to say, then these rules can be pretty helpful.

    Michael—There's an awful lot of writing advice out here in Cyberia. Great you can sell books without contributing to the glut.

    Tamara—Very well put. Every one of these is useful as a guideline, and they can all be helpful for the beginning writer. Love it that you killed off Hester Prynne. I always found her annoying. :-)

    Laura—The Writer's Digest thing sounds like great fun—and you're so right about Dickens. He broke every single one of those rules.

    Chaz—I's good to learn the rules, because it's way more fun to break them when you know what they are.

    Yvonne—She's one of my greatest inspirations. No situation is too dire for her to laugh about.

  34. It's lovely to meet you Anne. I came here on the recommendation via a tweet from Rob Cornell. I'm glad I did. This is a fun post and I loved reading all of the comments (was rather disappointed not see on from him).

    I have a bit of a different take on this subject. A few eons back, I made the decision to pay very careful attention to my teachers, professors and the writers whom I read. Once I was pretty confident that I had assimilated all of their sage advice, I vowed to use it to the extent that it didn't squelch my unique POV as a writer. This has worked very well for me thus far. Other than that, I don't have any rules.

    Communication has never been strictly a linear thing historically. This makes sense to me. There are always methods of writing that will be en vogue and widely subscribed to. As for me, I'm the equivalent of Rhett Butler.

  35. Ha! I especially love "Moderation in all things. Including moderation." As a binge/couch potato writer (two weeks binge/one-to-ten weeks couch potato), I relate. Just need to work on moderating that second part. :)
    I'm so excited to have won HOW TO BE A WRITER IN THE E-AGE AND KEEP YOUR E-SANITY. Thank you! I started it this morning and am loving it.

  36. cinema--You're so right about "rules" being dictated by fashion. Victorians loved omniscient "storytelling" narrators (Oh best beloved reader), but modern readers generally don't. But when you're doing epic storytelling, (especially for fantasy)that old fashioned voice can work. But it's harder to do without confusing your readers, so it's not the best choice for a beginner. But that's not the same as "wrong". It's the same for the other rules. They all make sense some of the time, but experienced writers can break all of them and write great prose.

    Linda--I'm so glad you got your prize copy of HOW TO BE A WRITER. Good to hear you're enjoying it.

    A little couch potato activity can be very good for the muse. I'm giving my own muse some couch time this weekend. :-)

  37. I enjoyed this a lot, especially what you said about show don't tell. That's not to say that it isn't useful advice sometimes, but if you don't have to apply it all the time then it's not a RULE is it? Ha!

    That's the thing about all of these "rules", they are helpful to bear in mind, especially if you're just getting started. But to steal a quote from an English teacher,'Once you understand the rules you can break them.'

  38. Alex--The show don't tell rule is a pet peeve of mine. I've sat through so many critique group readings where the only tension is finding out what the %&*@ the author is talking about.

    Your English teacher was very wise. We have to know the rules. Otherwise, breaking them is no fun at all. :-)

  39. Wise advice. There are so many 'rules' which are imposed on writers that make it all far to prescriptive. You know when things work and when they don't without a formula.

  40. Love this read! I decided to make up my own rules and then break them. That's what humans do anyway. My first rule was 1000 words a day because I'm a haphazard writer. I did well for about 5 days. Not consistently. Now I am at 1000 words more often than not, and typing my handwritten journal entries counts! : )

  41. fc--I agree that we generally know when a "rule" doesn't apply.

    Dorothy--Rules we make ourselves can be just as restricting as the ones handed down by "authorities", can't they. But we do need to make them. I need to sit down at the keyboard at exactly the same time every day. I don't know if I always get out 1000 words, though? Do blog comments count? :-)


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