Saturday, February 27, 2010

Are there rules for writing fiction?

"You never learn how to write a novel. You just learn how to write the novel that you're writing." --Gene Wolfe (via Neil Gaiman)
Quick rules for tightly plotted fiction --S. Andrew Swann

It can be confusing. According to some, there are no rules for writing fiction. Many of these folks feel that following a set of rules will make writing something mechanical. Others are only too willing to share rules and advice about writing, via books, web posts, and classes. And herds of us spend an inordinate amount of time reading their advice.

What's a new writer to do? Should they dive right in, assured that there are no rules and no matter what they do, it's right for them? Or should they study, study, study the subject of fiction until they've somehow absorbed the available wisdom and then tentatively wade in?

“Writers write. Everyone else makes excuses.” --Jack Bickham

My best understanding, from trying to do my own writing and reading several books and countless web posts on the topic, is that (as in most things) there is a happy middle ground. Indeed, the most repeated common wisdom on the subject is that writers should write (and read). But that doesn't mean one shouldn't seek help and wisdom from those who have already written.

I find it quite helpful to read about what others have done and are doing. Does that mean I'm going to blindly follow someone else's process? Obviously not. Everyone has to approach it their own way. And not every piece of advice covers every situation.

Take, for example, the excellent post from Mr. Swan I linked to above. I think what he has to say on plotting, based on obvious success and positive feedback, will definitely help me when I'm writing my plot-driven work ("Every scene... Introduces a problem. Makes an existing problem worse. [or] Resolves a problem."). It gives me one more ingredient to think about; another lens for viewing and reviewing. But his one-page post barely touches upon characters and character-development. He doesn't even try to discuss setting. He doesn't say whether he's an outliner or a panster. He's only addressing one piece of the puzzle, and only from his own perspective.

So, I will read the advice of others. And I may even try to heed it, depending on whether it seems to make sense and works for the book I'm writing right now. But most of all, I am going to try to do more writing than reading about writing. For that is the trick to getting things written.

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