One of the best pieces of writing advice I ever got came at my very first Romance Writers of America local chapter meeting. It was literally my inauguration into writing a novel. I didn’t have a stack of half-finished manuscripts tucked away or even a finished one waiting. I might’ve had a vague story idea, but even that is doubtful. As I sat through the meeting slowly being overwhelmed by lingo and terms I’d never heard of, I started to wonder what in the world I was doing there.
At about the time I was fuzzing out during a presentation on world building and all the things you had to do to create a believable story, the woman sitting next to me leaned over and said,
“Ignore all of that. The best thing you can do is finish your first book.”
Holy cow. The relief that went through was amazing. She went on to say,
“I was cruising along on my first book, got to chapter eight and froze when I started listening to all of the rules I was supposed to follow. Just ignore them and write.”
That doesn’t mean I didn’t learn the basics like character arcs and story structure because I did. But I followed her suggestion, ignored all the “other rules” and just wrote. That said, when I finished that first book five months later, it was one big hunk of doodoo. Seriously. But I learned so much by simply finishing a book.
I was reading through the earlier posts and had to chuckle because I didn’t even know most of the things listed were rules. Either I’d never heard them before or I’d simply chucked them from my memory because they weren’t relevant to me.
Now I don’t advocate throwing out all of the rules. Not even close. But I do think it’s important not to let them stifle you. Like most information, use what is relevant to you and forget the rest. Define for yourself what makes a good book. Identify the stories you love then emulate them. Pick out the bits that draw you in, figure out how the author did it then do it yourself. I’m not saying copy the story, but copy the technique.
I don’t believe anything in fictional writing is hard-set, but I do believe there is a set structure that can make your novel stronger. What you choose to follow or ignore is what defines you as an author.
Personally, I’ve ingrained the basic novel constructs to memory and follow my instincts on the rest. I write what flows in a way that works for that story. If it sounds hokey, it is. If it seems confusing or boring, it is. If a character seems weak or annoying, they are. And I’m not afraid to hack things out or fill them in.
The most important thing I always remember is that this is a business. I can defy the rules all I want, but in the end, if I want to sell my manuscript and make some money, then yeah, I believe there are fundamental constructs or “rules” that make my manuscript more sellable to publishers and readers. Those are the ones I follow. As for the rest, I still listen to that first piece of advice and ignore them.