When I first started writing, I spent a lot of time online researching what writers should and should not do. There are many rules floating around out there dictating what supposedly makes for a good writing process and a bad writing process, a good writer and a bad writer, a book that will sell and a book that won’t.
Some I have encountered are:
- You must write every day.
- You should NOT write every day.
- You should write [insert number of choice] words per day.
- You should make a writing schedule and stick to it, absolutely no excuses.
- You should be writing [insert number of choice] books per year if you ever hope to make a living in this business.
- You must write at this pace.
- No, this pace.
- No way, THIS pace. Slackers.
- You should write at least one million words before even thinking of querying an agent with a manuscript; before then, you’re not ready.
- You should create an account for THIS social media service, and THIS one, and THIS one too, and post THIS many times a week.
- You should blog regularly, on a set schedule, and stick to it. If you blog irregularly, you’re a bad blogger/writer/human being.
- You should use Scrivener.
- No, you shouldn’t.
- You MUST outline, in detail.
- You MUST outline, but only the main plot points.
- Eh, you don’t need to outline.
- You should plan your book around this method of story structure.
- No, this one.
- No, those suck, THIS one.
- You should query one agent at a time.
- You should query five agents at a time.
- You should query ten agents at a time.
- Your book should be between [number] and [number] words long, and anything else won’t fly.
- You must use critique partners.
- Your first drafts should look like this.
- You should only have to do [insert number] rounds of revisions; anything more, and something’s wrong with you/your book/your soul.
Frankly, these shoulds and shouldn’ts start contradicting each other pretty quickly, and it can make a fledgling writer feel pretty lost. Heck, I’m all fancy and published now (and I say that tongue-in-cheek because there’s not much that’s fancy about it, and also, I still don’t feel like I know what I’m doing), and reading these kinds of statements STILL makes me feel pretty lost. They also, if I focus too hard on them, make me feel like I’m doing everything wrong when I can look at what I’m producing and rationally know that I’m not.
Rules can be a good thing. As Victoria Wright might say, rules help the world run just so.
But writing is not always a quantifiable activity. Much of it is instinct, luck, and plain old dogged persistence, whether that’s rigidly scheduled in a spreadsheet or just crammed into whatever spare thirty minutes you can find as your day allows it. And much of what works and what doesn’t for one person’s writing doesn’t translate to the next person. Therefore, I would say that many of the so-called universal writing rules we might see in blog posts, online articles, and tweets are really just what the author has found to work for herself, or for her friends, or for the majority of people within her peer group.
But that doesn’t mean it has to–or will–work for you (or for your book).
Such a statement seems elementary enough (everyone’s different! we’re all unique snowflakes!), but I still have a hard time accepting it. I’m a person very influenced by others, for good or for ill. This means some of my most productive writing days are when I’m “sprinting” online in the company of friends; this also means that other’s successes, failures, methods, and “musts” all have a way of affecting me deeply. I start to think I’m not doing enough or that I’m not doing it right, and then I lose confidence, and then I sit there staring at a blank Word document while scarfing down a box of Cheezits.
The thing is, I don’t do half the things on that list up there above.
I don’t use Scrivener; I have a notebook in which I scribble random thoughts. The rest is done in plain old Microsoft Word, with a lot of world-building and character notes jotted down in Notepad.
I don’t use critique partners. There is one good writer friend whom I trust to look at my unpolished work, but beyond that, no one looks at my books before my editor except for me and my agent.
I outline in detail, but I don’t have a set writing schedule every day, nor do I log my word counts or have micro-goals of any kind. I tried doing that, but it didn’t work for me because if I didn’t meet a goal for the day (or the week) I felt like a failure, and my work suffered for it. Instead, I shoot for big goals (finishing the book by this date) and as long as I meet that big goal, what happens until then doesn’t matter.
I write long what I call “zero drafts” (that is, the first ever draft of the book, before I make preliminary cuts, before I send to abovementioned good writer friend, before I send to agent). And when I say long, I mean long. And even beyond that, once a book has gone through revisions, it’s still on the longer side. I’m just plain wordy (as you can tell by reading this post and really my blog in general). Take a look at this picture:
This is my second book, The Year of Shadows (on the bottom), which is in copy edits stage. That means, it’s been through revisions with my editor and the content is largely set. Changes from here on out will be technical and minor. On the top is the zero draft of my third book, Winterspell.
Looks innocent enough, but what you can’t tell by looking at this photo is that this draft of The Year of Shadows is approximately 26K words shorter than it was in zero draft stage. And Winterspell? It’s way way long, and I will probably end up cutting about 20K during revisions.
What does this say about me and my writing?
Absolutely nothing. Except that I write long and then cut back during revisions. It does not reflect on the quality of my writing, the effectiveness of my methods, or how I measure up against the writing and methods of others.
Likewise, my method of outlining, my writing schedules, the fact that I only have one beta reader, etc. etc., means nothing except that this system is what works for me and my books. End of story.
You hear that, brain??
So I’m going to tell you this, in hopes that myself, through writing it, will soak in the reminder (and because I know there are others out there who, like me, doubt and compare and wonder if they’re nuts or stupid or somehow wrong for writing like they do):
The way you write is not necessarily how others write.
Your books are not going to be as [insert adjective of choice] as others’ are.
Your writing will be just that: how you write.
Your books will be just that: your books (and no one else’s.)
Know this, accept this. The sooner you do, the sooner you will come to terms with your writing. And the sooner you do that, the sooner you can get to writing that next book (and the next one, and the next . . . ), no matter how long/short/bracketed/messy/outlined/pantsed/critiqued/Scrivenered/Worded/slowly written/quickly written/ it ends up being.