There Are No Rules

There’s been a lot of pushback lately–I mostly see it on Twitter–from authors who say writing advice focuses way too much on plot and character, on spare, lean, energetic story-telling rather than the craft of writing: the lyrical, the quiet, the rhythmic. And I’m certainly guilty of that here. My writing advice on this blog is all about how I write, and I recognize that sometimes I make it sound like that’s the only way to do things.

Hopefully nobody fell into that trap. I love all kinds of books. I like slow, meandering books all about world-building, where plot is just a thin scaffolding to connect wonderfully indulgent paragraphs of pure prose. I love the picaresque, the Menhippean Dialogue and the road story. I love experimental fiction, especially when it works. I love books that take crazy stylistic choices–second person narration, wildly shifting viewpoints. And I like big hard-boiled adventure stories. I am a complicated person and I refuse to limit my reading to any one style of book.

But here’s the thing. Because I write lean prose, I don’t feel comfortable giving you advice on how to make your book lush and decadent–even if I might love to read it. I’ve spent decades learning how to hone and polish a plot until it’s airtight. If you want to know how to write beautiful sentences, you’ll need to look elsewhere.

So let me state the one useful thing I can, here, about style. About writing lovely books: THERE ARE NO RULES.

There are guidelines. There are quicksand pits I can help you swing over. There are little tricks only a pro ever learns, and those I can share. I can take you inside the sausage factory and show you how the sausage is made. One very particular type of sausage, anyway. But anything I say here should have a simple caveat attached:

You want to write in three act structure (except when you don’t).

Character arcs should be simple but not easy (except when they should be complicated but effortless).

Show, don’t tell (except when you really, really need to tell).

THERE ARE NO RULES. There’s an old cliche in writing advice that you have to know the rules before you can break them. That’s nonsense. Writers since the dawn of written language have been making shit up as they go along. You absolutely can, too.

If you want to know how I do what I do–and why I choose not to explore certain things–you can read this blog and follow along as I unpick my own mental knots, as I study my own brain in a conceptual mirror. Hopefully you’ll learn something, and maybe it will be useful to you.

If it isn’t, if it feels wrong, if it counters something you really want to do–absolutely ignore everything I say. Find your own path. I have no doubt it’ll be an interesting one.

THERE ARE NO RULES. Go forth and write. That is the only rule.

[That being said, I have a great idea for a blog entry on style for next week. Stay tuned.]