Monday, June 12, 2017

Why Writing Rules (Usually) Don’t Work, But Writing Guidelines Do

 Writing guidelines can help us climb that “book mountain” 
A breath-taking article about a Polish team of mountaineers planning to climb K2 in the winter—a risky-to-the-max feat that has never been accomplished—reminded me that every book is K2, a mountain that has never been climbed. Like expert climbers, writers make progress step by step, or, to be precise, word by word.

Writing guidelines for climbing Book Mountain

We start at base camp, familiarize ourselves with the terrain and altitude, thread our way through ice falls and high mountain passes, we set our own ropes and carry our own gear. We drag ourselves through the middle, crawl to the summit, enjoy the view from the top, then do our best to survive the perilous descent (aka write the ending).
Struggling and suffering, we endure setbacks and doubts, make mistakes and mis-steps. We depend on our equipment and our team, but, in the end, we (usually) climb our mountains alone. The good news is that (usually) climbing the book mountain won’t kill us (although sometimes it feels that way) and we will live to climb again. 😉
Between us, Anne and I have been climbing book mountains for decades. We've written under pen names and our own names. We’ve had successes and failures and, along the way, we have made every mistake (and then some).
We are too old (and too experienced) to think that rules, which tend to be rigid, work when it comes to something as risky and unpredictable as writing a book (or climbing a mountain).
Much as we are wary of rules, especially stupid rules, we have learned (the hard way) that certain general writing guidelines apply. Rules (with a few important exceptions) are rigid and come with a my-way-or-the-highway attitude. Guidelines, however, have the advantage of being flexible and customizable.
Here are our own thoughts and those of our favorite gurus and bloggers on guidelines that work:

Start with the first step. Preparing for the ascent.

The writer’s consciousness is a library of memories, observations, emotions, all residing in our subconscious waiting for us to use.
  • An idea, a character, a theme, that won’t let go.
  • It can be sad, funny, tragic, epic, super brilliant or dumber-than-dumb, but it works its way into our mind and sticks like a burr.
  • It can be triggered by an overheard snatch of dialogue on the street, in a restaurant, at the supermarket.
  • Perhaps a phrase in the newspaper, in a book, in a meeting at work will be the trigger.
  • Or a random memory that springs up unexpectedly while we’re driving, folding laundry, listening to music, exercising, chatting with a friend, fighting with a roommate.
The writer’s job is to take the necessary steps turn this roiling stew into a story that will engage readers. From brainstorming to writing the first sentence and polishing the final draft, there are techniques and guidelines that will help on the way.

Turning a vague idea into a usable story idea.

Starting with a fuzzy notion but no clue where to go from there?

Pants? Plot? Or something in between?

One size does not fit all.
  • Our guest blogger, top freelance editor M. J. Bush contributed an invaluable post on the subject: 25 must-read tips on plotting from top authors and editors.
  • Then there is Libby Hawker’s popular guide to plotting, Take Off Your Pants.
  • In Writing Into The Dark, prolific author and USAT bestseller Dean Wesley Smith guides you through the joy of writing a book without an outline and explains the value of cycling.
  • Chuck Wendig zeroes in plotting and prepping with index cards, the zero draft, beat sheets and tentpole moments.
  • NYT and USAT bestseller, Russell Blake, uses a spreadsheet to plot his action/adventure/mystery thrillers and explains why he doesn’t for his NA stories.
  • From story discovery to knowing your characters, author and writing coach, Jennifer Blanchard explores the value of pantsing.

Begin at the beginning. Or not.

“An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story,” said Stephen King. “It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.” Plus a list of 50 best first sentences to inspire you.

That &$%# first draft.

Hemingway said, “All first drafts are shit.” However, you can’t fix, revise, rewrite, edit something that doesn’t exist.
Bottom line: no first draft, no book.
Hold your nose and type: getting the first draft done. Speed kills, or does it?
More thoughts on the maze of the first draft.
“I don’t fiddle or edit or change while I’m going through that first draft,” says Nora Roberts. She explains her process, says character is everything, and writes three or four drafts.

Editors, editing, revising.

From Trimalchio to The Great Gatsby. How to choose a title.

Sometimes the perfect title for your book is there from the beginning. Sometimes you have to name the baby. Here’s help:

Rules that DO work.

Mistakes, Misery and Surviving The Enemy:

This post was originally published at Anne R. Allen's indispensable blog on  May 28th, 2017. It was Anne who chose the marvellous goat that illustrates my point!  —Ruth


  1. I love this way of looking at rules. I actually posted a vlog post about it last week, because there are so many "rules" that contradict each other that if one thinks of rules as hard-and-fast, writing stops making sense.

    So I think in terms of guidelines too.

  2. Misha—Thanks so much for the kind words! "Rules" which tend to be rigid and writing which demands flexibility are natural-born enemies. :-( Guidelines, however, offer necessary structure which we all require. :-)