The headline of this post may surprise those who know that I have published two books that have a total of ninety “rules” about writing and publishing. But trust me, I called them “rules” with my tongue firmly planted in my cheek.
There are no rules in publishing.
Come up with any supposedly ironclad “rule” about writing and it’s perfectly easy to come up with dozens of counterexamples where someone successfully broke them. Sticking to a consistent perspective is currently the vogue, but pick up one of your beloved science fiction or fantasy novels from the 1980s or earlier and you’ll find writers head jumping all over the place.
So, uh, what’s the point of writing advice then?
Believe me, I ask myself this quite a bit. And every few months a debate will erupt online about whether writing advice has any usefulness at all.
I still think writing advice is useful. Because there may not be writing rules, but I do believe there are principles of storytelling.
Some of these principles are universal, such as character arcs and the hero’s journey, which you can find in even the oldest stories all around the world. And some of these storytelling principles (particularly around structure) are cultural and thus may be inflected with the attendant power structures and blindspots that go along with that.
When I dispense and consume writing advice, I try to move past pat do’s and don’ts and see the frameworks that undergird novels of all types. And whatever its origins, the dominant mode of storytelling in the United States can be boiled down to some essential elements that circle around character(s) trying to get things they want and encountering obstacles, and that goes both for potboilers and literary fiction.
Some writers are instinctual and they naturally intuit the elements that make a good story. (They also tend to be the most skeptical of writing advice).
That’s not me. I don’t think of myself as a naturally gifted writer. I need to know these storytelling principles so I can follow them and, hopefully, write well.
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For my best advice, check out my guide to writing a novel and my guide to publishing a book.
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Art: Athena appearing to Odysseus to reveal the Island of Ithaca by Giuseppe Bottani