The Rules of Writing...and Why Not To Follow Them

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

But pretty much everybody you meet in the publishing business will give you a list of them. (One is "never start a sentence with 'there are'" —so watch yourself, Mr. Maugham.)

Last year I read a great post by editor Jamie Chavez about what she calls the "Secret Fiction Rule Book." I wrote about it on the blog last year at holiday time. I got so many grateful comments, I decided to talk about breaking rules again this year, and offer a new version of my little verse, "The Beginning Writers' Rule Book."

The "secret writing rules" are the ones you hear at conferences, critique groups, and forums: the ones people say you MUST follow to be a successful novelist—although as an avid reader, you somehow never ran into them before you started writing.

Jamie pointed out that nobody knows where these rules come from, or why so many great books have become classics without following a single one.

Don't get me wrong: most of these rules involve solid advice, but if you follow them rigidly, you'll end up with wooden, formulaic prose that nobody is going to want to read.

Do learn them. It's much more fun to break rules when you know what they are. But then go ahead and smash them with happy abandon.

Here are some more of my unfavorites.

1. Show, don't tell  

Authors who follow this rule closely can write such murky stuff 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, a protective coat, and overalls held up with red suspenders. He smelled of ashes and soot."

Why not just tell us he's a fire fighter? 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 admit I've preached the no-prologue gospel in many posts. That's because so many beginning authors use a prologue for info-dumping. But our readers keep pointing out that George R. R. Martin seems to do OK, and he loves him some prologues.

I think it depends on your genre and what your readers expect. Personally, I usually skip the prologue, but I'll go back to it later if the book grabs me.

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

Now even agents are seeing the silliness of this dictum. There are many paths to writing success. For me, blogging is the easiest way to build an online presence, but not everybody likes to blog. If you hate it, readers can tell.

You can get a lot of exposure with well-placed guest blog posts and a strong presence in other social media. Some writers are best at spreading a wide net on Twitter, Pinterest, Facebook and Google Plus, and others only use a single blog, or develop a following in one community like RedRoom or Wattpad.

Every publishing path is different. You should plan one that fits with your personality and writing style.

6. Eliminate all cliches

Unless your characters are wildly inventive poets, strange visitors from another planet, or children fostered by wolves, their dialogue and thoughts will include familiar expressions. Don’t rob your Scarlett O’Hara of her "fiddle dee-dees" or deprive your Bogart of "doesn’t amount to a hill of beans."

7. Write from only one point of view

Multiple points of view in one sentence—or even one chapter—can be clumsy and confusing, (and they drive me crazy), but novels with several points of view separated by chapters can be richer and have more depth.

8. Eliminate the words "was", "that" and "just" 

This is one that just makes my blood boil. I wrote a whole blogpost about the "was" police.

9. Happy endings are required and kids can't die

Jamie Chavez addressed the dying kid thing in her post. This is why Little Women has been such an obscure failure, right? Beth should not have died! And Rhett Butler should not have walked out on Scarlet with that rude line at the end of Gone with the Wind. Books like those could never become commercially successful, right?

10. Never repeat a word in the same paragraph 

Would A Tale of Two Cities have been improved if its first line read: "It was the best of times; it was the worst of historical eras." (And Mr. Dickens, the "was" police will be all over sentence!)

Or Anna Karenina with this: "Happy families are all alike; every morose clan is despondent in its own way."

Thesaurisitis can be a worse problem than breaking the secret rules.

Here is a little verse I stole from Dorothy Parker wrote about those rules, based on Dorothy Parker's hilarious poem, "The Lady's Reward".

Rules for the Beginning Novelist
…with apologies to Dorothy Parker

Newbie author, 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!

At the 2013 Grammy Awards, Neil Patrick Harris introduced the band Fun this way: "As legendary gangster-rap icon Katharine Hepburn once said,
'if you follow all the rules, you miss all the fun'.
So listen to Katherine Hepburn and have fun this season, everybody!

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

We Have TWO Books of the Week!!

The Lady of the Lakewood Diner is finally here! 
$2.99 at Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon CA

Anne's new comic novel about the Boomer generation and the myth of the Golden Age.

Many thanks to Keri Knutson of Alchemy Book Covers for the hilarious cover


Who shot Morgan le Fay? The Lady of the Lakewood Diner is a comedy about a six-decade friendship between an aging rock star and her childhood best friend—the owner of a seedy diner in Central Maine, who might be the only person who can figure out who's been trying to kill the rock diva. It's Beaches meets Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe.

On SALE for the Holidays!
CHANEL and GATSBY: A Comic two-fer. 
Now only $2.99!
Hollywood and Manhattan: it's Bi-Coastal Comedy!

Available at NOOKKobo, and Amazon USAmazon UKAmazon CA

The Chanel Caper


Blake Weston is a smart, savvy, no BS, 56-year-old Nora Ephron-like New Yorker. Her DH, Ralph Marino, is a très James Bond ex-cop and head of security for a large international corporation. At a tense time in their relationship, Blake and Ralph are forced to work together to solve a murder in Shanghai and break up an international piracy ring.

The Gatsby Game


When Nicky Conway meets Fitzgerald-quoting Alistair at a Princeton mixer, she falls for his retro, Jazz-Age charm. But she discovers he’s a con man obsessed with his own “Daisy”—British actress Delia Kent. After Alistair manipulates Nicky into nannying for Delia’s daughter on the set of a Hollywood film, Delia finds Alistair dead in her motel room. Local police can’t decide if it’s accident, suicide—or murder, in which case, Nicky is the prime suspect.

Opportunity Alerts

Screenwriters!! 16th Annual Scriptapalooza Screenplay Competition. Over $50,000 in cash and software prizes. Every script entered is read by either a producer, manager or agent. Scriptapalooza will promote, pitch and push the semifinalists and higher for an entire year. They have relationships with producers, managers and agents that are actively looking for material. Only $45 to enter if you get it in by the early bird deadline January 6th.

Dog Lovers! Here's one for you: AMERICAN KENNEL CLUB FICTION WRITING CONTEST  NO ENTRY FEE. Submit one short story, maximum 2,000 words. Entries can be on any subject, but must feature a dog. (But it can't talk) Prizes $500, $240, $100. Deadline January 31, 2014. 

CRAZYHORSE PRIZES IN FICTION, NONFICTION, POETRY $20 fee (includes subscription). This is a biggie, well worth the fee. This venerable literary magazine has published the likes of John Updike, Raymond Carver and Billy Collins. Winners in each category receive $2,000 and publication. Submit up to 25 pages of prose or three poems. All entries considered for publication. Submissions accepted in the month of January 2014 only.

 $10 ENTRY FEE. Submit 2,000 words or fewer on the theme of "Food Stories". In addition to a $200 prize, the first place winner's story will be considered for print publication in the Bethlehem Writers Group's next anthology or as a featured story in Bethlehem Writers Roundtable. Their last anthology won Indie Book Awards for Best Anthology and Best Short Fiction. Second place will receive $100 + publication in the BWG Writers Roundtable. Deadline January 15th, 2014

GINOSKO LITERARY JOURNAL FLASH FICTION CONTEST: $250 Award, $5 entry fee, Submit up to 2 pieces, 800 words maximum each piece. Deadline March 1, 2014.

AARP/HuffPo Memoir contest for Boomers! You must have been born before 1964 to enter. The winner will get a $5,000 prize will be excerpted in AARP The Magazine and featured on The Huffington Post’s website. In addition, Simon & Schuster will consider publishing the work.  Finalists from this round are invited to submit their complete memoir by June 15th. The books should run between 20,000 to 50,000 words. The first 5,000 words of the memoir is due February 15, 2014.

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