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Kick the Rules to the Curb and Write

Steven King has an oft-repeated aphorism: The road to hell is paved with adverbs.

I believe the road to hell for a writer is paved with hard and fast rules (known henceforth as “Da Rules”) that keep writers, especially new ones, from getting any words on the page.

Sure, King’s book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft is full of good advice and provides insight into the business and craft of being a writer. But when someone so influential makes a statement, it can paralyze us lesser mortals. After all, he’s famous and successful, so everything he says must be gospel.

It’s a great sound bite. It wouldn’t be as powerful if he added “sometimes” or “usually” or “unless it sounds better with adverbs.”

I don’t think King is entirely responsible for that particular rule – just a catchy way to say it. Unfortunately, it’s one of many so-called rules that keep writers from writing. It makes novices feel like they are “Doing It Wrong,” and that following Da Rules is the secret to publication.

It isn’t, but you should see the problems caused by Da Rules.

I belong to several writers’ groups on social media. I was surprised by the questions that are asked by those hoping to join the ranks of authors, but then I realized how rule-bound new writers feel.

One of the more common questions has been, “Do I have to read to be a good writer?”

The people who ask this question often justify it with statements about not liking to read (which seems odd for a writer), or getting inspiration for their writing from music or art. But I would have to say that reading is necessary to a writer’s craft, if only to answer certain types of questions about the structure of a book, something else that creates a lot of questions.

Like, “Do I need chapters? Should I title my chapters or just give them numbers? How many words should it be? In fact, what the heck should I write about?”

If you read widely enough, you will have noticed that not all books have chapters. Book chapters do not always have titles. The word count to shoot for is the one that allows the author to tell the story. And the topic you pick is up to you. What stirs your passion? What makes you argue? What are your fantasies?

“But do I have to read?” Reading gives your mind the tools to frame and shape your story. If a picture is worth a thousand words, reading helps you choose those words and some clues to putting them together effectively.

On the other hand, if reading just doesn’t do it for you, you may do just fine telling your story without reading everyone else’s. Nothing is set in stone.

“What point of view should I use? Does it need a prologue? Which style is the most popular?”

The point of view you should use is the one that tells the story the best. (Get used to this phrase; you will see it a lot.) You can find books written in every point of view there is — sometimes in more than one. There are books with prologues to help the reader get situated within the story. Many do not. Would readers understand your story without one? Yes? Then don’t write one. You know, unless you just want to.

There are plenty books that are written in an atypical style, without proper English or standard story structure. Alice Walker wrote The Color Purple in what she, herself, described as “Black Folks English.”

“By time I git all the children ready for school it be dinner time.”

Mark Twain uses flowery yet down-to-earth words and has characters speak the way he heard them in Missouri.

“The Widow Douglas, she took me for her son, and allowed she would sivilize me; but it was rough living in the house all the time.”

Numerous books have been written in the style of diaries or journals.

Bridget Jones’s Diary, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Belzhar.

I’ve even seen stories that didn’t follow any of the established rules of structure, grammar, punctuation, or capitalization.

House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski.

Present the story in a way that complements it. Don’t worry so much about whether the reader will understand. Ask friends and family to read what you wrote, and tell you if it needs to be changed. But don’t keep yourself from trying it because you think it’s against “Da Rules”.

“Is an outline required?”

Do what works for you and your current project. Give yourself the freedom to outline the way that helps you. Your outline doesn’t have to be the rigid type you learned in high school composition class.

Outlines can be great tools if they make it easier for you to keep the details of your story organized. Have you seen the documentation J.K. Rowling kept for her Harry Potter series? That was probably necessary for staying sane.

But…if you absolutely hate outlining, don’t do it. You’ll just waste time on something you dislike and that stops you from writing.

Here’s a big one – “Do I need a college degree to be a writer? “

Prepare for heresy.

No. A college degree is not necessary to become a writer. If it were, there would be far fewer books in the world. That’s not to say that taking a few classes won’t help you learn to tell your story the best way you can.

In writing classes, you learn about story structure, and when to use those points of view you’re worried about. Besides, knowing Da Rules makes it easier to break them successfully.

College may help you make important connections and perhaps get the motivation you need not only to start your book, but also to finish it. If you intend to write highly technical nonfiction, a degree in your field will lend you authority and gravitas, but you don’t need to add an MFA in Creative Writing or Nonfiction Writing.

With the logarithmic increase in tuition over the past few years, you need a lot of justification to go for a MFA. A post-graduate education doesn’t necessarily guarantee great writing. You can learn without seeking a degree by reading and engaging with others in writing groups, workshops, and other gatherings, on and off-line.

Besides, aren’t you writing now? Haven’t you written in the past? Did the lack of a college degree stop you? How would a degree change the way you write?

What I’m trying to say is that there are no hard and fast rules. As long as your story speaks to the reader, it doesn’t matter how it’s presented. As long as the reader understands what you have written and can sink into your prose to experience the story, you’ve done your job.

You can break any rule you want to tell your story. If you have written a compelling tale that keeps the reader awake past bedtime or piques the interest of an editor, then the rules never mattered. Don’t let the inherent issues of using an atypical style or structure keep you from trying it. You may have to work harder to get it out to the world, but don’t let that stop you.

Don’t let your fear of “Doing It Wrong” hold you back from telling your story and saying what you need to say. Kick Da Rules to the curb, and write!

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