Busting Writing Rules: Write What You Know


When I researched this rule, it was surprisingly hard to find much of anything beyond “Write What You Know.”  It’s on most top ten lists.  Writers get lectured in their critique groups to “write what you know” when they try to go outside their comfort zone.   So this result is inevitable:

  1. I can’t write male characters because I’m not a male.
  2. I can’t write science fiction because I’m not a scientist.
  3. My character can only be a Human Resources Specialist because that’s my day job.

It all starts with what you can’t do. So it has the boomerang effect of writers either declaring you have to do it or to ignore it altogether. The reality of the advice is more in the middle.

What it Actually Means

While researching this rule, I found not a single definition.  Writers talked generally about it, some talked about how much they hated it, but no one talked about what it actually meant.  Most of the discussion was surprisingly vague.  So I’m going to boil it down to the following:

The foundation of your story starts with subjects you are familiar and confident with.  Subjects that only you can and want to write.

What the heck does this mean?!

  1. Subjects you’re familiar with and confident with.

    This part is a surprisingly hard concept to understand.   I started writing when I was eight.  When I turned eighteen, I wanted to branch out into professional publishing.  But what should I write?

    That’s where I ran into trouble because all my experience was childhood.  I tried to push at those boundaries—but with what?  If I tried to imitate the books I was reading, the subjects went way outside my comfort zone.  My first book was a crime thriller…but I knew nothing about how the police worked!

    That created the second problem.  I wanted to write science fiction, but I didn’t have a science background.  I wasn’t at all confident I could even pull off a science fiction novel.

    The result ends up being writers who do their research by watching movies (always a bad idea) or picking topics that require more research than the book is worth.  Or, in my case, not writing books that I really wanted to write.

    But I did have three topics that I did know in and out, even with childhood as being my life experience (and no, it wasn’t childhood):

  • The place where I lived, Los Angeles.  I could have confidently written about that because if I wasn’t familiar with a specific place, I could have easily gone out there and experienced it. I knew the history because it was a required class in school.
  • Hollywood.  I grew up reading about how films were made and the history of the industry.  I might have had to do more research once I started writing the story, but it would have been from the position of filling gaps rather than researching everything.
  • Ghosts.   I grew up reading my mother’s subscription to Fate Magazine and other ghosts stories.  I probably would have enjoyed researching hauntings around Los Angeles.

    Could I have done a science fiction novel with one of those topics?  Yes!  I did ghosts in space, and it focused on later life experience I had: the military.

  1. Subjects you can and want to write.

    This is something that often gets left out.  Some writers write what they think will sell, like a writer who comes up with a romance novel and doesn’t read the genre.  This pushes you out of your comfort zone, but in the wrong way.

    Never compromise what you want to write.

    I subscribe to anthology calls to see if there are any topics I want to do.  Lately though, the calls have been for dark stories, or on a politically-related topic.  I used to write dark because of my Desert Storm experiences, and it’s not a place I want to venture back to.  And I’m not one to get up on a soapbox, so even in the anthology topic is something I could write on, I wouldn’t want to do a political story.

    But you really have to know yourself and what boundaries you won’t cross.

Busting the Rule

 This rule originated as a piece of advice for intermediate and advanced writers.  Unfortunately, it got simplified down to one sentence for all these writing lists—and it loses its meaning.  Kind of crazy for people with their stock in trade in words.

What you can do

  1. Identify subjects that you are familiar with that you can use as a foundation for your story.

    If it’s hard to figure out—it was for me—start with the place you live.  Then look at the types of non-fiction books you like to read.  Are they on Ancient Egypt?  Or the Civil War?  How about the medieval era?

  2. Gain new knowledge.

    Visit a local historical site and soak up the information.  It doesn’t matter what kind of story you write.  There might be a germ of something that you can eventually use in your story. I went to a lecture on Civil War maps.  Who knew that over the next ten years, I would use a single piece of information from it in story after story.

    Right now, I’m practicing basic navigation in the local parks.  That’s something I know I can use in pretty much any story.

    But key is that it should be something you’re going to enjoy doing.

  3. Know what your boundaries are.

That one’s a bit tougher and will probably be developed with more writing over time.  Sometimes you’ll want to push a boundary and get out of your comfort zone, which is always a good thing.  But that internal compass is going to tell you what’s right for you, and there may be a wide variety of reasons.

I saw one political topic and thought, “Yeah, I could do a science fiction story on that.”  I knew I could keep the soapbox out and do a pretty good story.

But I was also pretty sure the editor had a certain image of what they wanted for the anthology and my story would not have fit in.  So then, my boundary was that I didn’t want to write a story that had no chance of getting published.

Sure, I could have indie-published it, but the fact that I didn’t exposed that it was a boundary I needed to stay away from.

If you want to read up on this topic, the non-fiction writing books will be a good place to start.  Non-fiction writers have to have an expertise before writing non-fiction.  Try this book as a start:

  • Write Faster, Write Better, by David A.Fryxell.

Busting Writing Rules: You Must Outline


When I first started writing, I just put a pencil to a sheet of notebook paper and wrote.  Didn’t think anything about it other than having fun figuring out what was going to happen next as I wrote.

People around me noticed how I was writing.  Family and friends informed I needed to outline.

Beginning and intermediate writers scratched their heads and told me that I’d learn soon enough that I was supposed to outline.

In writing circles, this divides the writers up into outliners or plotters versus pantsers (the term coming from “writing by the seat of the pants.”).

What it Actually Means

Unlike other rules, this isn’t one that was misinterpreted by time or repetition.  I think there are two reasons it exists:

  1. Outlining is easy to teach.

    The instructor provides a system, forms, and off the writer goes to write the story,  It tells the writer what’s going to happen next, so when you get a free moment, you consult the outline and can figure out where to start.  You can also use it to figure out if you any plot holes.

    Pantsing….pretty much just start writing.  You discover the story as you write and get surprised a lot (sometimes for the better, and sometimes not).  You’re Christopher Columbus with his three ships, sailing across the ocean.  You don’t know what’s at the end of the journey until you get there.  That’s writing that has to be experienced, rather than taught.

    Some people want—or even need—more than “just start writing and figure it out.”  It’s just hard to figure out how to get started on a big project like a novel.  Because it is so big, it can also be overwhelming.

  2. Outlining is what we know.

    In school, teachers give writing assignments that include an outline.  I think that’s why so many adults kept trying to push me into outlining short stories.  In college, they had to outline term papers as part of the assignment.  It seemed like a logical thing to do, even for a short story.

Yet, everyone also says that it doesn’t matter how you get to the story.  Then why does pantsing get such a bad rap?

Busting the Rule

The problem is three separate issues.

  1. Pantsing is a messy process, especially for new writers.

    You start writing the story and somewhere along the line you go off track and run aground.  Then it’s hard troubleshooting what happened.  It can be extremely frustrating, especially with the amount of revision that you might end up having to do to fix the story.  It then easy to think you’ll never learn how to finish a story unless you outline.

  2. How craft is taught.

    For an outliner, learning the craft is wrapped up in doing an outline.  So if you’re learning about structure, it’s built into the outline by doing tasks like identifying where plot points go.

    Craft is taught as process-to-craft.  That is, the outliner uses the outlining process to learn the craft skill.

    But there’s no outlining for a pantser…now what?

    This is how pantsers get told over and over again they have to outline.  An instructor who outlines can’t figure out how to teach writers to get from Point A to Point B without using an outline as an explanation.

    Teaching craft for a pantser is craft-to-process.  That is, the pantsers learns the craft skill and incorporates it into their process.

So you can see this rule’s conflict.

What you can do

First, it doesn’t matter what process is used to create the story. If you give the reader a good story, they’re not going to care.

  1. Never put down another writer’s writing process, even if you don’t understand or don’t agree with it. It’s theirs. Let them own it. 

    Also, if you’ve never tried that writing process and finished a book successfully using it, don’t explain how to do it. All you need to do is search for Pantsers vs. Plotters on the internet and you’ll find a lot of writers explaining something they’ve never done. It just adds to this rule’s clutter of misinformation.

  2. Own your process.

    Too often, we allow the group-think to steer us wrong. “So many people are saying this, so they must be right” instead of asking, “What’s right for me?”

    There are a lot of writers who have adopted an authoritative tone as to what everyone should do—and haven’t even finished their first book. Remember Point #1 above—there are writers stating “This is a fact” and they’ve never tried the process.

    Always be the skeptic. I learned pretty fast that if I asked “Is this workshop pantser-friendly?” and got “Sure. We work with pantsers and outliners,” it was code for, “We expect you to outline.” I was very shocked when I asked one writer that same question about his class and he said, “Sure. That’s how I write.”

  3. Have fun!

    Everyone tends to focus on following the rules instead of just having fun. Fun is never going to steer you wrong, and it’ll show up in the story.

References for Pantsers

  • Story Trumps Structure by Steven James
  • Writing into the Dark by Dean Wesley Smith
  • Pantser’s Guide to Writing by Linda Maye Adams
  • Storytelling for Pantsers by Annalisa Parent

There aren’t any actual instructions on how to write novels for pantsers. Read all of the books. Take what you need from them.

Busting Writing Rules: Give Yourself Permission to Write Crap


Introduction

This book was inspired by a writing course I took in 2015.  As part of one of the assignments, I had to write down every writing rule I’d run across over the nearly fifty years of reading about the craft of writing.

The list was shocking.

Much of the advice actually probably started out with good intentions.

Too often though writers want rules to tell them what they need to do to get published.  The result is that a lot of advice got simplified into lists in magazines and online, often as “Don’t” or “Do.”

As a result, the original meaning is lost and writers fill in what they think it is.

At the point where I was when I took that class, I was overwhelmed by all the writing advice.  Instead of helping, it twisted up my writing and kept me from getting published.

Yeah.  That’s hard to believe from the way experts talk about the rules.

But there is a point where the advice needs to be questioned.  Writing is anything but set rules that you can follow and have success.  The creative part of writing changes the dynamic where rules don’t matter as long as the story’s good.

So off to bust some writing rules.

Give Yourself Permission to Write Crap

I’m starting with this one because I think it’s a truly destructive rule.  You’re probably going, “Wait a minute!  How is it destructive?”

It’s a piece of advice that started with good and admirable intentions.  What it evolved into is less admirable.

What it actually means

Don’t strive for perfection.

Perfection is the enemy of creativity.  It triggers the inner critic, who picks apart every word, every sentence, every paragraph.  Nothing will ever suit the inner critic.

When I watch the baking competitions on TV, there is always one baker who declares she is a perfectionist.  It’s often said with quite a bit of pride.

Then she makes first contact with the time limitations of the competition.  Things get ugly

Perfection keeps her from changing course when something doesn’t work or is too ambitious.  Suddenly everything starts falling apart.  She scrambles just to finish the cake.  It’s not her best work.

For the writer, the inner critic can be a constant nag.  There’s something wrong with the first chapter!  That sentence is terrible!  What were you thinking when you wrote this?

So the rule’s intent is to shut off that really destructive thinking that keeps you from writing.

National Novel Writing Month, which is in November, was meant to break through the perfectionist tendencies.  If you write 50K in a month, you don’t have time to let the inner critic take control.  It’s a very exhilarating experience because the writing is downright fun!

But then what’s so destructive about the rule?

Busting the Rule

The problem  is the word “crap.”

As writers, our stock and trade are the words.  This one has a huge emotional impact.  It’s usually said when we’re angry or frustrated.

A lot of people come into writing with impostor syndrome.  They expect at any moment someone is going to call them out as an impostor.  That they’re not really writers.

So when they hear “Give yourself permission to write crap,” they hear something else completely different:

  • “My writing is crap.”
  • “All first drafts are crap.”

That turns the inner critic on full force.  The writer goes into the story not thinking about how bad a writer they are.  Then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Because if the writer thinks the story is crap, they start writing sloppy and get stuck a lot.

The result is that writing the first draft, which should be a fun exploration of the story, becomes a torturous, painful process.

Even the editing process is affected because the story is still not good enough.

Maybe you don’t send it out to a publisher because it’s never going to be good enough.

Or when you get a form rejection, your first reaction is that it must be that comma mistake on page ten.

The worst part of perfectionism is that it’s vague.  There’s no checklist or standard you can follow.  So you ending up feeling like a failure.  The story can never live up to the vague ideal of perfection.

What can I do?

  1. Never use any negative words like crap or garbage to refer to your writing. 

    Some are so common that most writers don’t think twice about referring to them.  But your stock and trade are those words.  Listen for the negativity and kick it to the curb.

  2. Turn off the perfection voice. 

    One of the things that I’ve found very useful is writing down what I’m grateful for at the start of the day.  It’s a simple thing, and often only one thing, but it does change my mindset.  Perfection is never glad for anything.

  3. Be alert for things that triggers calls for perfection. 

    Everyone’s going to be different.  The inner critic is also likely to change tactics once something no longer works, so keep your eyes peeled.

But this is also a common enough issue that there are plenty of books on the topic.  Browse through the library not just in the self-help section but also the business section.

Sometimes being aware of the problem in the first place is enough to get started.

Other “rules” I’m going to bust in August:

  • Make Your Character Suffer
  • You Must Outline (well, yeah, you knew I have to hit this one)
  • Write What You Know

 

 

 

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Busting Writing Rules Cover


White cat with gray points and wearing glasses staring straight at you

 

Here’s the cover from Busting Writing Rules: 12 Rules That Hurt Writers.  Chapters of the book are going to appear on the blog starting the first week in August.  These are all the topics:

  1. Give Yourself Permission to Write Crap
  2. You Must Outline
  3. Make the Character Suffer
  4. Write What You Know
  5. Keep Description to a Minimum
  6. Write Straight Through
  7. Best Sellers Don’t Know What They’re Doing
  8. Only Use Said for Dialogue Tags
  9. Show Not Tell
  10. Avoid Passive Voice
  11. No Dream Sequences
  12. No Adverbs

Now I get to do the behind the scenes for the cover.

Covers for writing books are hard.

It’s just a hard topic to illustrate.  What represents writing?

  • Pencil, fountain pen, quill
  • Typewriter (usually an old Royal), typewriter keys, computer
  • Light bulb, or some other sign of creativity

For me, just a “Meh.”

But cats, books, and writing are linked together.  Cats sitting on books…usually the one you want to read…cats sitting on keyboards when you want to write…

Plus, cats are rule breakers anyway.

So I went looking for cats and books.  Wasn’t generally what I was looking for.  Too busy, not quite right.

Maybe…cats and glasses?

And I found this image right away.  All the colors are sampled from the cat’s fur.

Cover Refresh #9


Devil Winds is one of the last dark stories I wrote.   The story was inspired by a 911 ceremony I went to at work.   They had a table up on the stage with two candles.  That reminded me of spies, and the story was born.

First Cover

Cover for Devil Lands showing a desert planet

 

Unlike some of the older covers, I still like this image.  I started out looking for images of characters, but I couldn’t find anything that made me happy, so I went for setting.  However, I think now that it looks too generic and doesn’t tell enough about the story.

Second Cover

Woman conjuring up fiery skull

 

This is the one I decided on because it’s not quite as dark as some of the other choices, but has dark elements.  I wanted to make sure the reader knew this was a dark story while fitting it into with what my covers are today.

There’s actually a cauldron in the image, which I covered up with my name.  The character has fire magic, so that’s what I wanted to everyone to focus on.  The original image was centered, so I slid it over to the right a bit.

Both colors in the title come from the fire magic.

The book is available here.

 

Degrees of Influence


This week I went to a conference for women, which included a reminder that even us just being present was an influence on other people.  While I was there, actor David Hedison passed away.

Who’s David Hedison?

If the name sounds familiar, he starred on the TV series Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and the original movie The Fly.  He’s the guy screaming, “Help me! Help me!” as the spider moves in for lunch.

He was also my favorite actor growing up.

KTLA TV showed a science fiction afternoon with Tom Hatten hosting (who also passed away recently).  There were films from the 1950s and 1960s.  At 4:00, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea came on, followed by Star Trek.  I liked both shows even though they were quite different.

Star Trek was like a Western in space with more cerebral content.  It took modern-day politics and built futuristic stories about them.

In its later years, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea was a hark to those science fiction movies I also watched.  We had monster and aliens and even a mermaid.   David Hedison was one of the starring actors and he played the action hero.

Some of the memorable episodes included him walking through the inside of the whale to save lives and turning into a werewolf because of a scientific experiment gone wrong.

Suddenly the show disappeared from the air.

The first season was in black and white, so stations discontinued running the entire show.  The fans were left to meet at cons and correspond through mail and writing fan fiction. I collected photos and joined his fan club.  None of us had access to him.

Except on film and TV.  When there were fewer channels, TV Guide would include a short summary of the shows and the guest stars.  So when it came in the mail, I went cover to cover and found David Hedison in other shows.  Variety was at the local library, so I looked at the casting announcements and found more.

Because of this influence from a person I never met, I read books about Hollywood.  There was the book Making a Monster that described how David Hedison was made up for The Fly.  I looked for behind the scenes photos because that was more interesting to me than posed photos of characters holding ray guns.

I’m ALSO writing a mystery set in Hollywood after World War II.

Enter the Internet

Then the internet changed everything.  In 1997, I started David Hedison’s official website, which I ran with another person until 2007.  After that, it became too much work because it was competing with my writing, so the other person and her son took it over.

This was in the Gold Rush days of the internet.  No one knew what they were doing.

But we knew one thing: It was the public face of this actor.  Agents or producers might see the site.  So we had to represent him professionally.

Drove the new base of fans crazy.  They wanted dirt.  They wanted personal.  They wanted intimate.

The site always amazed David Hedison, I think.  He didn’t really understand why people would visit.  We provided a nearly complete credit list vetted by him, as well as frequently asked questions and upcoming appearances.  This was a very different experience then hunting through TV Guide and Variety.

The fan base also changed with the internet, and not for the better.

In print, we were a bunch of fans who wanted more adventures from our favorite TV show.  It was hard work and it scared a lot of people off.

On the internet, the fans were far less friendly (an early sign of what we see today).

One time, a fan sent a note on the mailing list asking how to learn to be better.  In hindsight, she was probably fishing for praise.  Then, I thought if you wanted to write–because it is something that takes a lot of time to do–you wanted to learn.  I got verbally smacked when the fan sneered and said, “Not everyone can afford editors to fix their writing.”

Uh, I use a copy editor to catch the dumb stuff.  I don’t use a developmental editor to tell me how to write.

Between the website and the fan behavior, it started to very apparent that I needed to stay away from the fan politics.  Eventually, I dropped off the list.  It was no longer fun if we couldn’t have a conversation without people melting down.

It was a lesson I learned again when I was on the writing message boards.  About ninety-five percent of the writing community fits into two categories.  They pass around advice that’s plainly wrong and say the best sellers (who are in the other two categories) don’t know anything because the wrong advice is so common.

When someone on the writing message boards asked for advice, I always felt like I had to not say what I knew was true, or be very careful about what I did say.  One time I got my hand smacked by another writer because I “you don’t understand a thing about outlining”–this after I said “This is my experience with outlining” and said why it didn’t work for me.

I’ve ended up doing some of the same things for Facebook.

Meeting David Hedison

The first time I met David Hedison, two other core fans and I drove to Massachusetts to see him in a play.  I was so nervous!  I was convinced I was breaking out in wrinkles all over.

We told the theater we were friends of his and they sat us in the second row the first night and the first row the next night.  The stage was so close to us we could have reached out and touched the actors.

And then David Hedison walked out on stage.

My first thought?

Holy cow!  He’s three-dimensional!

I hadn’t realized how flat film made actors look.

After the performance, we got to meet him.  He was bouncing around–lots of energy–and got us sodas and chatted with us.  He was very nice and friendly.  The next night we got to see a photo session with all the actors.  They goofed around and mugged for us.

I met him numerous times after that. He knew he could trust the core group of fans.  We saw him in more plays and at conventions.

Because of this influence, I started to see actors as people as not celebrities.  I’d see actors who were professional and ones weren’t.

I’d get that lesson in professionalism over and over.

David Hedison was at one con where they did a Q&A on stage.  The interviewer wandered off-topic, asking about other actors (sort of like if you write a mystery and the interviewer starts talking about Michael Connelly and not you or your book).  He diplomatically found a way to end the session and had the audience laughing.

If I picked up a magazine with an interview, I knew what I was going to get.  He never dished gossip on anyone.

When I started focusing more on my writing and my personal website, all those things I learned from the degrees of influence filtered in.

One of the classes I attended at the conference brought up the degrees of influence.  But at the end of her second workshop, the instructor did something she didn’t intend to.  She brought up politics on one of her slides.

Politics was part of the conference because you have them at work and even within your family or the church.  The other speakers kept it at that level.

She inserted personal opinion.

I’m sure she thought everyone agreed with her (I didn’t).  But it had an unintended influence.  If I see her name on an agenda, I won’t take a class from her again because I can’t trust her.

We all influence someone else, every day, all day.  I doubt if David Hedison knew he influenced me, but I knew.

 

Smiling David Hedison

 

 

Cover Refresh #8


Since my last refresh was for a dark story, I thought I’d hit my first attempt at veering away from dark stories.  When I came back from Desert Storm, it affected my writing in ways I didn’t expect.  Everything was dark.  Worse, I couldn’t see it.  When I consciously tried to steer away, I found myself dropping ideas because they were going to skew dark.

The story itself was conceived at a swimming pool with the sun sparkling off it.  I set it locally and used some of the local landmarks.

First Cover

Cover for Dance of the Wind Chimes

 

I look at this one now, and it gets a “Meh.”  It was where I was at with covers at the time, but isn’t me, now.

A friend purchased this story to support the writer.  Unfortunately, he told me the reason why.  Because it was short.  Sigh.  Support your writer friends by buying books that you want to read.

But it was, indeed, my “not-dark” story.

Second Cover

Fairy against a full moon and sparkling water

 

I like the brighter colors here, and in fact, it better conveys the “not-dark” I want for this story.  Plus the fairies in the story are water fairies, so this shows the water.  This was pretty simple to put together.  Title color comes from her pupils.  I played with the title font a little.

You can find the story here.

 

Cover Refresh #7


This short story was the first one I published, so it’s actually my oldest cover.  The story itself won a contest, which required the use of a photo of two rock pillars at sea and a wooden door.  Pretty cool.

Original Version

Woman in water reaching for glow

I saw this image and it was “That’s the story.”  I actually still like the image, but it also feels a little out of date for me now.  Hurts nothing either to shake things up and see if I can get sales by changing it.

You’ll also see here–and you can compare with the new one–on the placement on the text.  I’m pretty close to the top and bottom, as well as the sides.  When Draft2Digital gets out of beta for print books, I’d have to redo this alone for that reason.  There needs to be space for some bleed.  At the time, I didn’t know I was supposed to leave that space.

Also with my newer cover knowledge, I probably would have flipped the image and maybe adjusted it down so her hand is pointing to the lower right corner.

New Version

Woman stands on shore with a lantern

It’s a lot of fun looking for images, especially when I find one that makes me go “Wow!”  This is a wonderful image.

The text is actually from the dress, which looks white, but has shades of gray.  It was tough right around the title, so I duplicated the layer and pulled a dark blue from the sea background.  I shifted that behind the title text and adjusted it slightly to the left.  You can see the shadow of it on the T, but it makes it more readable.

Also complete the two images and where I have the text placed.

You can find the story here.

5 Fiction Writing Links


This week, I have some interesting links for you:

Dave Farland on Avoiding terrible advice.  He has a weekly newsletter, and when he’s judging Writers of the Future, you’ll get a lot of insight into the slush pile.

10 Rules for Writing Fiction: This is not as bad as the title implies.   It’s got lists from many different writers, including some recognizable names.  But scroll down first and look at Roddy Dowell’s, and then Neil Gaiman.  Take it all with a heaping of salt and a laugh.

How to Write a Novel in One Draft:  A writer breaks down Dean Wesley’s Smith’s methods for producing a novel in one draft.

Are you making your writing harder than it is? I’ve heard plenty of writers talk about writing as if it were tortorous.  They’re making it harde than it is.

And to finish up with a smile, The Writer’s Dog.