This might sound odd on a blog that is dedicated to ways to improve your writing, but if you're more concerned with the technical rules of writing than the story itself, you're hurting your chances of ever getting published.
Radical, isn't it?
To write well, stop trying so hard to write well.
What I mean by this crazy statement, is that we can ruin our writing by trying too hard to adhere to a lot of rules that aren't rules at all. Rules like:
- Never use adverbs
- Never start a story with dialog
- Never use backstory in the first fifty pages
- Show, never tell
Would it shock you to hear there are over 600 adverbs in The Shifter? That thousands of best-selling novels have opened with dialog? That my "Big Six Publishing House" editor asked me to include more backstory in the opening of The Shifter? That sometimes it's better to tell and not show?
I can't say for sure why these rules became so carved in stone, but I suspect it's because it's easier to tell new writers to never use adverbs rather than explain point of view, showing and dramatizing a scene, and how to develop strong characterization. Adverbs are also something that are easily spotted and yes, if you cut them out, it will usually improve the writing. But if the writer just follows these rules and never truly learns why the sentence is better without that adverb, they never fully develop the tools they'll need to be a strong writer.
These common rules are guidelines, reminders of areas that are typically problematic to a story. They're not step-by-step instructions, and sometimes what you hear spouted as gospel is just plain wrong. It can hurt you if you follow them to the letter and forget why you're writing that book in the first place.
To tell readers a great story.
How many "crappy books" are there on the best-seller lists? Do readers care? Nope, because those books resonate with them and entertain them for as long as they turned the pages. Better, they often stick with them after the story is over. No matter what you think of a particular author's talent, they did what they were supposed to do--tell a reader a great story.
I'm not saying chuck the rules and do whatever you want. There is a certain level of professionalism required for the publishing industry. If you don't have a solid understanding and firm control of the English language, your odds are not good. You do need to revise and polish a novel to the best of your ability. Most of the "rules" flying around out there can help you if you use them well and understated what they can do for your writing.
But if you're spending hours upon hours taking out every single adverb, or never using dialog tags, or changing every bland noun and verb to something spectacular, following all the "rules" of writing and spending no time at all on the story itself, there's a good chance you're ruining your voice and killing the book.
Because your focus isn't on telling a great story to an eager reader. It's on following cookie-cutter rules.
Story is what matters. I can't stress this enough. I can (and do) offer advice on how to be a better writer and things to consider as you write, tips to try, processes to experiment with, ways to kick your writing up a notch. But in the end, your book is your book. What you do with the advice, what pieces inspire you or what tricks and techniques work for you are as varied as the stories we tell. Your novel can be as "perfect" as possible, but if the story isn't one a reader wants to read, it will go nowhere.
Yeah, I know, it's harsh.
I understand the need for those rules. The desire for a set of instructions that will help us achieve of writing dreams and improve our chances at publication. I did too when I was starting out. (Heck, I still want that. What's the key to a bestseller, huh?) We fool ourselves into thinking if we edit just right we'll get an agent. If we follow the rules and don't do any of the newbie mistakes we'll get that full manuscript request. And then it breaks our hearts when we don't, and we wonder what we did wrong. For many of us, what we did wrong was focus on the technical and didn't think enough about the story.
The reasons my first three novels got rejected were not because I had too many adverbs or used the wrong dialog tags. My stories sucked, plain and simple. I worked so hard on making them sound "like a fantasy novel" that my voice vanished and everything unique about my story and my writing went poofty.
Don't do that to yourself.
Instead of focusing only on the rules, try looking at your novel and asking questions that will delve deeper into the story you're trying to tell:
- Does my story offer an interesting character and a problem readers will want to see solved?
- Does my plot illustrate that story in unpredictable and original ways?
- Will readers care about the ending of this story?
- Are my characters likable and will readers want to spend time with them?
- Do my characters grow between page one and the end?
- Is there an emotional connection between readers and my characters?
- Do my characters make surprising choices and act in ways readers won't expect?
- Is there something larger about this story that will resonate with readers?
How do you feel about the rules of writing?