Hi Readers and Writers!
Today we're talking about the rules of writing and when you should break them. What rules am I talking about? The rules that writers, professional and amateur, seem to think actually exist. Here's the thing about the rules of fiction writing--there are none. Every writer has his or her own way of doing things, and since it works for them, clearly it must the right way of doing things.
Admittedly, I'm a fan of learning from the greats. I've read more books on how to write good fiction than on any other topic. No matter how many books I write and sell, I never stop studying the craft of writing. There is even a craft to reading craft books. You have to learn to take what works for you and discard what doesn't. Here are some rules of writing by great authors I admire that I threw out the window.
"Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To Hell with suspense. Readers should have such a complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages." - Kurt VonnegutI love Kurt Vonnegut. I even eulogized him for a local radio station when he died. And while I adore his rule "Be a sadist," this rule about suspense is less useful to me than the toilet paper it should be printed on. No suspense? Kurt Vonnegut, bite me. Why on earth would anyone read a book if they knew exactly what was going to happen?
I write Gothic erotic thrillers. Suspense is my bread and butter. Without a doubt the most repeated compliment I receive on my books sounds something like, "I love your books! I never know how they're going to end!" Surprise is a positive emotion. If it wasn’t we’d yell "Surprise!" not only at a birthday parties, but also at death announcements and break-ups. “Surprise! I’m sleeping with your boss!” No, you shouldn't give your readers every bit of information as early as possible. That's an info-dump and it ruins the momentum of the story. If Agatha Christie took Kurt Vonnegut's advice every mystery novel would have been two sentences long. "Someone was murdered. The butler did it."
"Plot is, I think, the good writer's last resort and the dullard's first choice. This story which results from it is apt to feel artificial and labored." - Stephen KingToday while driving home from the gym, my boyfriend (author Andrew Shaffer) said he'd almost finished his new novel. "Having an outline," he said, "helped me actually finish a book." I get what King is trying to say with this advice--if the plot is the only part of your book that you focus on, the book will seem artificial or stilted. But it's nonsense to say outlining can stifle a book. After all, one of the most common criticisms leveled at King is that his books are bloated and meandering. Maybe if he outlined in advance he would write a sharper, tighter story.
Plot is vital to good genre fiction. Something has to happen. Every book I ever put down and never picked up again suffered from a listless or non-existent plot. When two star-crossed lovers meet and fall in love, what do we the readers want to see them do? Long for each other from a distance while they wait for fate to intervene and make it okay for them to get together without any negative consequences? Or do we want to see them run away together and/or fight the status quo that keeps them apart?
Some writers fear that by outlining they'll ruin the surprise inherent in writing. I always know how every single book will end before I write the first sentence. I know the last scene, the last line, the last emotional punch to the gut. Every book still kept me on my toes as a writer. I never knew what wicked words would come out of my leading lady Nora’s dirty mouth or what new secret about her past I'd uncover that would color in the outlines of her character and the story. Outlining a novel before you write is as wise as building your new house before you decorate it. The outline gives you a frame to work with, but the possibilities for artistic expression are still endless. You don’t have to outline your book before writing, but if you don’t, you better be prepare to revise. Which leads us to…
"You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order." - Robert A. HeinleinNow this piece of advice isn't only bullshit, it's dangerous bullshit. First of all, it contradicts that legendary maxim "writing is rewriting." Perhaps Heinlein only meant to say, "Don't edit a story until the end of time." But cautioning writers to refrain from rewriting is like telling us that we're gods who can do no wrong. A lot of writers already think that so let's not add any fuel to the fire. The simple fact is that your first draft is not your book any more than the beans and onion on my kitchen counter constitute chili. They're ingredients that I need to cook dinner. The first draft is nothing but your ingredients. Once you have them in front of you--a beginning, a middle, an end, and all your characters--then and only then can you write your novel.
My debut novel The Siren went through six drafts, and it was only in the sixth draft that the best scenes came out. Whenever a reader quotes a line from the book at me as their favorite or shows me their Siren-inspired tattoo, it's invariably from a passage or scene that didn't exist until I gutted 70% of the book and rewrote from the ground up after an agent I queried told me, “I love your book but it has no plot.” My agent said that when she sees a book with potential, she'll often suggest the author do a re-write and resubmit it. She said what shocked her with my book was that I had made substantial changes, not merely "changing the color of the guy's sweater on page 43." All the best ideas in my books didn't emerge until the second, third, and final draft stages. No, don't play with your story forever. Eventually you have to cut the cord and let your baby go. But if you send a first draft out into the world, you're serving a can of beans and an onion in a bowl and calling it chili.
Stephen King, Kurt Vonnegut, and Robert Heinlein have all written books I love and admire. They've also given great advice to aspiring writers, great encouragement. They're only writers, however, not gods. They are not infallible. There are no commandments of writing on stone tablets. The only rules of writing are what works for you to get your book finished and in the best shape possible. (And yes, even this blog post will be edited, revised, beta-read and proofread before it’s published.)
Okay, I lied. There is one commandment of writing that is carved in stone and cannot be ignored by any writer wishing to succeed.
A writer writes. - Every Published Author EverTiffany Reisz’s books inhabit a sexy shadowy world where romance, erotica, and literature meet and do immoral and possibly illegal things to each other. She describes her genre as “literary friction,” a term she stole from her main character who gets in trouble almost as often as the author herself. Reisz’s debut novel, The Siren, was published by Mira in 2012. It is the first book in her The Original Sinners series. Reisz describes it as “not your momma’s Thorn Birds,” and she means it. Visit Tiffany on her blog www.tiffanyreisz.com/storytime or on Twitter @tiffanyreisz Reisz lives in Lexington, Kentucky.