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!)

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