Every writer, after a certain amount of time, will come up with their own set of Writing Rules. Some people keep it in their heads, repeating their rules mentally like Hail Marys when they run across prose that violates one of their sacred beliefs; some people write them out and post them in forums for the masses to argue over.
This is part of being a writer and being surrounded by other writers. It’s a natural rite of passage that comes along once you’ve found a style and once you finally think you’re better than everyone else.
Hey, I’ll admit that I’ve thought I was the best writer ever. I’ve had some reality slapped into me now and know this is nonsense. But whatever the level of better-than-thou-ness, and however it’s manifested, these writing rules wiggle themselves out and into the public and start ruining everyone else’s writing lives.
Kurt Vonnegut has two major lists of writing advice out: one with seven points, and one with eight. His advice is good, if you want to write like him, but in the eight-point list lies the Holy Grail of Writing Rules.
Guess which one it is,
1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
4. Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.
5. Start as close to the end as possible.
6. Be a sadist. Now matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them — in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.
— Vonnegut, Kurt Vonnegut, Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons 1999), 9-10
Alright, guesses ready?
If you guessed number seven, you’re right! Write to please just one person. Don’t whore around. Don’t prostitute yourself to the Bitch-Goddess Success.
It’s one of those things that’s so simple it seems stupid — listen to yourself. Remember, you have the big picture. Reader input is valuable, but don’t try to write a novel that your pastor and grandmother and lover and poodle and dry cleaner will all love and approve of.
But what does listening to yourself mean? It means throwing away all the writing advice you’ve ever heard. You’ve learned the rules, weighed them for what they’re worth (I don’t want to write like Vonnegut, so he’s gone) and cram it down the garbage disposal.
The sound of rules being ground up with potato peels and stinking cabbage is a glorious gurgling sound no one should ever miss out on.
Remember, you can edit and worry later. For right now, just write. If all you do is worry about the rules, you’ll never get anything done.
(as a post script, I think that last rule is utter bollox and that two and three are actually pretty good)