If you spend five minutes in the company of a new writer and you’ll hear the word “rule” at least once. This will especially be the case if you happen to be discussing a best selling author’s book. “They broke the head-hopping rule!” “I don’t know why this person sells so many books, they break the rule about not starting with weather all the time!”
This nifty little graph explains the stages people go through when learning something new. When you start writing, you’re unconsciously incompetent. You don’t know what you’re doing because you’re a novice. You start studying–reading craft books, taking workshops, etc–and suddenly you start understanding the rules of the thing. This is the stage where a lot of new writers I run into are stuck, and that’s what I want to talk about today.
When you start learning the rules of writing, you think you’re figuring it out. Aha! As long as I don’t start with weather and don’t head hop and I never use anything but “said” in dialogue tags I’ll be a bestseller!
Sorry, kid. But the way you get from consciously incompetent to consciously competent is to understand the reasons for those rules so you can learn how to break them effectively. It’s not enough to simply have a To Not Do list.
1. You need to understand that writing by the rules leads to formulaic writing. (Hint: This is bad.)
2. You need to understand that the masters are the masters because they learned the ins and outs of the rules and then broke them with conscious intention. There are no happy accidents when it comes to rule breaking. Unconscious incompetent writers break rules because they don’t know them and it shows. Masters break the rules because they know them and it shows.
2. You have to read books with an eye toward learning instead of simple entertainment. Read with a pen in your hand and make notes as you go. Did the author head hop? Why? Was it effective? Why or why not? How did the author handle a tricky POV shift? How do they structure their scenes? Basically, you need to see how professionals make the sausage so you can get to grinding your own meat. (This is the best metaphor [meataphor?] I’ve ever written)
3. You need to write your ass off. Then you need to have a good critique partner tear that shit up. The trick here is finding someone who knows what the hell they’re doing. Someone who understands that a new writer needs different feedback from a pro. Someone who understands that being a comma Nazi ain’t the same as giving helpful feedback. Lots of national writers’ groups have local chapters that offer critique groups. There are lots of great places online, too (if you have favorites, recomend them in comments, please).
4. You need to challenge yourself to truly understand the concepts you’re learning. It’s one thing to read Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat to gather tricks for your toolbox. It’s something else to read it and think it’s some sort of storytelling bible. How tired do you think agents and editors are of seeing formulaic crap from new writers who think shallow plot formulas are the key to bestsellerdom?
Look, I liked Saved the Cat. I read it when I was a younger writer. I made the mistake of thinking I could use it as a shortcut to understanding story structure in a real and nuanced way. In short, I thought I could fudge my way toward knowing how to plot. Wrong. Very wrong. Now, I use techniques from that book in specific instances (“Pope in the Pool” is a favorite), but I’d only recomend it as a craft book to read after lecturing the new writer about how it’s not a panacea for your plot issues. Same goes with The Hero’s Journey. If you’re using a list of steps you printed off the internet without having read Hero with a Thousand Faces or Michael’s Hauge’s excellent writing on the hero’s journey, you’re not really learning it. For that matter, you need to read Jung and Edinger to understand the psychology behind why the Hero’s Journey is effective. This is not to say you shouldn’t read Save the Cat or try out the Hero’s Journey steps, but understand that these short cuts don’t equate to craft mastery.
5. You need to understand that most writers go through the stage where they worship rules like a golden calf. Did you know I can always tell when my reviews are written by insecure new writers? They’re always the ones who point out that I broke rules. “She used ‘I’ too much in her first person story!” SMH. Of COURSE I broke the rules. I’m a mutha effin’ professional.
But, listen, it’s part of the process of becoming a pro. When you’re a novice, you’re insecure. Of course you are. As you gain experience and get some chops, you’ll rely less on knowing the rules. You’ll learn to admire people who break the rules well. But for now, when you sneer at a pro writer for breaking a rule, understand that you’re betraying some insecurity. When you say, “How is this idiot a bestseller? They used a prologue!” What you’re saying is, “I need to feel better about my own lack of experience by tearing down those who have more experience.” It’s fine. We’ve all done it. Just understand that the rest of us know the score. And, when you’re done sneering, don’t forget to learn from those idiots who have the success you crave.
6. You need to know that a lot of writing rules are crap. Sometimes they’re influenced by genre trends and sometimes they’re perpetuated by blowhards who couldn’t write their way out of a wet paper bag.
Also? Accept that you will always have more to learn. Yes, even when you reach the pinnacle of unconscious competence. Literature is a fluid art. It’s constantly evolving and writers who think they know everything often get left behind. Plus, there’s no such thing as a perfect book. Isn’t that a relief? Isn’t it nice to know that you are not and never will be a perfect writer? Consider this your permission to experiment and play with the craft. No, you’ll never be perfect, but you can always get better.