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?
Karen Wiesner, the award-winning author of ninety books, suggests ways to keep ideas flowing, even when “blocked.”
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.
Anne unpacks the elements of first chapters that keep your reader in mind.
In this post, Anne lays out six first chapter no-nos and explains why she writes the last chapter first.