Thursday, March 14, 2013

Of Writers, Rules and Insanity

[I posted this on an email loop the other day and got a lot of good responses. One person even created a meme out of one of the quotes I included here. I hope you enjoy it.]

Kristen Stieffel surprised me with this on Facebook
Someone mentioned in a post here the old saying about insanity as being defined as doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. They also noted that when they tried something different, that was more in line with their own life situation, it worked for them. 

As writers, we are inundated by suggestions masquerading as "rules." A writer finds something that works for them and suddenly it's the "one and only" way to do things. I remember reading a book by a woman pontificating about the way to create a plot outline. It had to be detailed. Each scene worked out in advance and following a certain pattern. The irony of that was that the only book I could find written by this woman was the book on writing novels. She had never actually written one herself. In fact, aside from a couple of articles in literary magazines and the book on novel writing, she had published almost nothing. 

Nevertheless, she, like many other writers and teachers, stood ready to tell you that she had the exclusive insight on how to write a novel. The fact that many successful professional novelists did not follow her approach was irrelevant. They broke her "rules" for novel writing. 

These "rules" multiply like toadstools after a rain storm (and can be just as poisonous to the writer's creativity.) One writer will tell you that you must write in the morning. Another knows for a fact that night time is correct. One says you must file everything neatly and clean your desk because a clean and orderly desk is a clean and orderly mind. Another will tell you that constant cleaning is just a way to avoid writing and that a cluttered desk shows you are really working. 

You must use Scrivener. No, you need to do everything on a plain text word processor. No, MS-Word is the industry standard so you should compose on that program. 

When it comes to plotting, there is no end to the ideas - snowflakes, wagon wheels, heroes journey, scale the mountain, three-act and five-act designs. Seat of the pants vs. Detailed plotting. Each have their champions and success stories. 

So, who's right? They all are. Then who's wrong? They all are. 

The creative process is different for each of us. Some of us work well in the morning. Others do better at night. I don't know if I'm a morning person or a night person since my best time is from about 1 - 4 a.m. That's technically morning, but, since I hadn't gone to bed, I guess it is still night. However for me to tell you that you should work those hours would be ridiculous. 

Ask yourself, when are you at your peak during the day. Not when should you be at your peak. Set aside what "normal" is for the rest of the world. You're a writer. The "normal" ship sailed without you long ago. Listen to your own biological clock. 

Some people need absolute quiet. Others work well with music. Others can plop themselves down in the middle of chaos. Which are you? I like either quiet or "white noise" like in a library, coffee shop, or someplace like that. With music light classical, Baroque or "ambient" sounds work best for me. Singing makes me want to sing along. 

Some will tell you to disable all the social networking alerts. If they distract you so much that you can't work, that's a good idea. For me, being alone most of the time, it's kind of nice to know there are other people out there online at the same time as me. I glance up, smile and get back to work. 

Some writers will tell you that you need to set aside at least an hour a day or write "X" number of words. They will tell you that this must be at the same time each day. This is good advice if it works for you. There is value to a routine. There's a good deal of evidence to support that idea for most people, but "most" people is not the same as "all" people. 

Also, for some of us, writing an hour straight through is just not practical either because of health issues (like my aching back telling me right now to finish this missive and go lay down) or time constraints. 

Think about your own schedule. What will work for you? When you write for a long time do you keep your energy all the way through or do you find yourself dragging during the last 30 minutes or so. If the latter, then maybe two 30 minute writing sessions may work better for you than a full hour all at once. Or not. 

The point is. Listen to everyone, but make your decisions based on how God designed you. 


  1. Fabulous. I loved your post. It's so very true. everyone writes differently and have books, charts etc that help them. Over the years I've shared by 'helpful hints' with several different writer friends only to discover what I thought was so insightful they found totally useless. The rules can stifle your work, so I'm slowly letting go of a few. I'll be aware of them but I'm not going to rewrite an entire scene to keep from having a adverb. :)

  2. Very helpful--thank you, Terri!