Everybody and his or her brother has a list of rules for aspiring writers. These lists are written by a variety of folks, including academics, readers, writers, and editors. They give you the steps you need to succeed in writing, and many of them hint–or even say it outright–that if you fail to follow these rules, you will fail as a writer.
I’m not referring to rules pertaining to the craft of writing, like rarely use anything but “said” with dialogue and don’t modify it with an adverb (“he admonished severely”), use adjectives and exclamation points sparingly, write primarily in active voice, and my favorite (from Elmore Leonard), which I try to follow religiously: “Try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.”
I’m referring to lists of arbitrary rules which declare that if you follow them, your success is guaranteed. On arbitrary lists like these, an exception–or two or three–can be found to almost every rule.
For instance, I saw one list that swore that to be a best selling writer, you must write your story quickly, non-stop, and without going back to re-read and revise it until you’ve completed the first draft. There are as many ways to write as there are writers, and certainly, writing quickly works for some writers. In his book On Writing, Stephen King shares that he writes the first drafts of his novels, no matter how long, in three months. But one exception to this rule is Arthur Hailey, who wrote Airport and other best sellers of the sixties and seventies. Hailey worked from a 40-page, single-spaced scene plan and wrote an average of 400 words per day.
Also, consider the source. I saw another list–most likely created by a fan of the genre–about how to write a successful young adult dystopian novel. The list-maker drew comparisons between popular young adult dystopian novels and insisted that to be successful, the writer needed to adhere strictly to those rules. There was even a very specific rule about how to name your main character. The list-maker cited The Hunger Games and other popular novels of the genre as proof that that the list was true. Actually, The Hunger Games is popular because it’s a good story well told. If it had been a crappy story, told poorly, the heroine’s name–or any of the other rules on the list–would not have saved it.
Every writer will develop a method that works for her or him. Going back to the rule about writing the first draft quickly and not looking back until you’re finished–for me this is a disorganized method that may send me down the wrong path and cause me to waste lots of time fixing it in the second draft. In fact, if I go down the wrong rabbit hole early enough in the story, the novel may not be as effective as if I’d put more thought into it and gone back to “fix” things along the way; I would end up with a flawed novel and would have to rewrite the whole thing.
I grow my novels organically, feeling out my characters and my story. For me, that’s the most fun, figuring out who my characters are and discovering their story. I’m a hybrid of a “planner” and a “pantser”–I tend to see my story in chunks, and tend to plan only a few scenes ahead, if that many, and I have only a vague idea of what the scenes will be about before I start writing them. I frequently re-read, revise, and rewrite. Sometimes I cut scenes entirely. Usually, I have the ending in mind before I start writing, but sometimes the ending can change along the way–I had written nearly 25,000 words of my novel-in-progress, a young adult dystopian story (working title Empath), when I changed the planned ending to what I hope will be a better one and will provide a good transition into the second volume of the trilogy.
I have tried some methods on these lists, but I can’t think of one that I’ve been able to adapt successfully. I write the way I write because it works for me. So I’ve developed my own list for writers. It has only two rules:
Ignore lists (except this one); write the way you write.
If you have the urge to follow a list, re-read rule number one again.