Friday, May 28, 2010

Things I No Longer Believe

  • You must have tension on every page.
  • You must cut every word that is not absolutely necessary.
  • You must write as if there is such as thing as "not absolutely necessary."
  • You must strive for clarity.
  • You must get to the point.
  • You must have an opinion about the morals of your characters.
  • You must maintain a consistent verb tense.
  • You must tie up your loose ends.
  • You must satisfy your reader with your ending.
  • You must grab the reader from the first sentence.
  • You must know your genre.
  • You must know what the theme(s) of your story is/are.
  • You must believe that theme can be stated as a single sentence.
  • You must write stories that add up to some identifiable truth.


  1. Have you decided to become an experimental writer, Scott? I worry about you sometimes....

    Okay, I don't. And I agree with what I think you're saying here, which is that the art and craft of writing cannot be contained in maxims and lists of rules.

    Sometimes we make our own rules.

  2. I don't believe in rules, period. At least when it comes to creativity. What's the point of creativity if it's governed by things like this? It's not creative, that's what. So what brought this on?

  3. Obviously you have no intention of submitting to the Maass Agency. O_o

  4. If all that weren't true or necessary, I think I might actually enjoy writing again...

  5. Bridget: Have you tried throwing it all out for awhile to see what happens? I'm all for experimentation to see if I can break out of the box. I think walls/rules are necessary to a point, but we should never limit ourselves to them. We should know about them and then be able to break them, bend them, or ignore them entirely.

  6. Michelle: Actually I have, then I got chicken, but suddenly I feel brave again...
    ...Thanks Literary Lab!

  7. I will admit to a certain amount of crankiness leading to this post. It occurs to me that if writers listened to all the industry advice available, we'd write nothing but lowest-common-denominator, one-dimensional, easily-digestable bits of pabulum.

    All of my favorite books violate some, most, or all of these guidelines. Almost every bestselling literary fiction book I've read in the last two years violates most of these rules. I cannot, in fact, think of a good book that doesn't violate at least half of them.

    Miss Sharp: I already have an agent, and he's not Don Maass, no. My agent's website doesn't have a shopping list of "premises I'm looking for this month."

  8. Bridget: You should try reading Italo Calvino and see what you think. Very experimental, but it works on a lot of levels. Some levels, not so much, from what I've read on a few reviews lately. Still, I think when we hear agents and publishers speak of what works, it is like critics for movies - the critics are always looking at things from the creative standpoint and the professional standpoint. That's great and all, but I think many times it's the reader that knows best in the end. Many times it's the works that are written entirely without regard to rules that make it big.

    I think there's a huge difference between ignorance and newbie writing and knowing what you're doing with the craft. I happen to think some of the "rules" on Scott's list are great things to abide. For me. For others, though, it's not always the case.

  9. Yes I like it. I like it a lot.

    Knowing the rules and when to break them is perhaps the biggest secret to attaining the ephemeral writer's voice.

  10. yes, yes.
    thank you very much :)

  11. AMEN!

    I wish there was a way to yell louder than caps lock on the internet.

  12. You still have to write well, and craft compelling stories, though. This is not an argument in favor of poor technique or intellectual laziness or willful ignorance!

  13. Great writers can break the rules. But getting published means you first have to have someone acknowledge you are great. I hope you are lucky enough to be one of the few who can soar beyond the rules! Please wave to me as you pass! :0 (I'll be the one cowering in the corner.)


  14. Scott, I think that's true. I write better now that I have followed many of these rules and figured out if they work for me or not. Everyone's different, and even though one rule might work for me, it may not work for another. It's the mentality out there that we have to follow ALL of the rules or we're terrible writers that frustrates the heck out of me.

  15. Oh, and that's why I hate that they are called RULES. They are not rules unless you make them a rule for your own writing. We need to come up with a better term. Or something. I have a headache now.

  16. Michelle: Yes, there's a sort of beginning level writing where it's likely best to follow these rules as best as we can until we've learned what basic storytelling and narrative craft is. But after that, writing becomes a sort of integrated system instead of a list of rules, and more and more often of late I find that the idea of a sort of paint-by-numbers writing irritates me no end. The longer I'm at this, the more difficult writing becomes because I try more difficult things all the time, and work without a net more often. I'm exploring territory where either the writing works or it doesn't, and the rules that get flung at us seem more-or-less irrelevant. I don't think in terms of "show versus tell" or "passive versus active verbs" or "head-hopping" or any of that. It's either writing that works--that does what I think I want it to do--or it doesn't work.

    I also am aware that, you know, I might not know what I'm talking about at all. I might be completely deluded about all of this but lack critical distance to see it. Anything's possible.

  17. I feel you've got to know these guidelines (if this term works better) before you can go about breaking them. They should still be in your consciousness, like an operating system. From there you hack it, as you advance, and hopefully move past them. But I have to agree with Scott's frustration: so many of the great books I love ignore these rules and others. I worry that when I submit a manuscript for publication that the person on the other end of the query is going down the sample pages with a checklist like this one. I've certainly heard a lot of negative feedback about critique groups doing the same thing: standardizing the work until it all sounds the same.

    As an unpublished writer it's easy to seize on a list like this and go through my work, hoping that following these rules will bring me closer to publication, but I simultaneously dread that following them will cut all of the life from my work. It’s a catch-22 that I have no solution for. Trust the industry to let me in if I follow the guidelines? Or just write what I’m going to write knowing that I may never get in the door?

  18. Never deal in absolutes.

    It's an oxymoron, of course, since the above axiom is itself an absolute, so by its own virtue should never be dealt with. Perhaps we can change it to:

    Never deal in absolutes other than this one.

  19. great blog,though i have no idea of how i reached it...

    the only three rules i got out of my m.f.a.

    rule #1: know the rules before you break them.

    rule #2: don't listen to rules that mandate.

    rule #3: don't be afraid to suck.

  20. Bookfraud just said what I was going to say in rule #1: learn the rules before you break them.

    But you're right that it's as important to break rules as learn them in the first place.

    Scott, I'm glad somebody spoke up about the cringe-making "wish list" on the Maass website. It seems to say, "If you want to work with us, write something soulless and derivative, really, really fast: Hacks 'R' Us."

  21. Everyone has responded with something insightful. I like the comment that what works for one person might not work for another. Needless to say, this is not a call to lose the rules of craft, but to adhere to them in our own unique way. No two fingerprints are equal, right?

  22. Anne: I know people who've taken Maass' seminars and come away energized and full of the spirit, so to speak. So his way is the right way for some; it's not the right way for me.

  23. Scott, I wasn't talking about Maass's books or seminars--which are a great way of learning those rules we're talking about before we break them.

    What I object to is what you mentioned in your comment: that prescriptive "what we're looking for this month" on the website--which is always something Publisher's Lunch has recently announced somebody else has just sold. Doesn't show a very creative mind (or spirit.)

  24. This blog and comments are always good for highlighting ambiguity. Rules are important to know well so they can be broken intentionally, with purpose and flair. That's when things get interesting.

  25. Anne: Yeah, the website thing is just...well. Sad.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.