The internet is full of rules for writing. As a recovering writing-book addict, I can say that at one time I would have read them all and swallowed them whole. But, stick around anywhere for a decade and you realize that most of the advice is for the kid you were ten years ago, who didn’t know shit about shit but was keen to learn. So, while it keeps ringing true to the next crop, they tend to bounce off me.
I’ve committed “writing advice” on more than one occasion. I’ve published articles on lessons from the pulps, on my own experiences with trying to push myself to do better, about workshops and cool writing experiments to try.
But I’m a tired of the advice barrage. It’s usually same dance, different tune. Riffs on Heinlein’s rules, or Bradbury’s, etc. Again, all fine, but I’ve read that stuff to death for shit and giggles and usually hunger for something more.
Nick Mamatas’s article is the best antidote to many assumed truisms that get bandied about these days. And it reminded me about military doctrine. Because rules for writing can be seen that way: a body of knowledge about best practices to achieve certain goals with certain tools.
The problem and benefit of doctrine, of course, is that it’s usually rooted in experience. That is, rooted in place and time. As we march further away from the “how and why” of experience that validates the doctrine, the experience tends to vanish, and all we are left with is the doctrine and the assumption that it was vetted. The result? Not doctrine, but dogma.
But the conditions, or experience, that once validated the doctrine will change. It always does. You don’t win the next war by fighting like the last war. If you try, the butcher bill of experience, paid for with blood and treasure, will be high.
So, instead of tossing a list of writing advice or counter advice at you (Nick’s is a good place to start), I propose instead the following.
If you read writing advice, ask if it’s based on assertion or argument, dogma or vetted doctrine. Is there a legit reason for any of it? A lot of writing advice is designed to push young writers away from bad habits or towards established norms but don’t do as good a job explaining the value of doing so. Whenever you see writing advice, ask yourself, “did they actually explain why first person was evil?”, “why fantasy taverns are box office poison”, “or why must I show when I think telling might work”?
Also, if you don’t like a rule, remember, they were made to be broken. Go find what those exceptions are. Study how they broke the rules. See if you can find a way to apply it to your own work.
In all this dialog of do’s and don’ts, rules and regulations, mantras and marquee ideas, my favorite came from Jeffrey Ford and and old quip from Alice Munro
“Write whatever the fuck you want.” Ford.
“Do what you want, and live with the consequences.” Munro.