Friday, September 28, 2012

The Writing Rules (Or Why I'm A Fake)

After my husband and I bought our first house, I remember moving all of our crappy furniture inside. You know, the hand-me-downs we’d collected from friends over the years, the cheap plywood stuff from IKEA that we’d (incompetently) put together, our yard sale finds—all of which, sadly, ended up in our shiny new home.  Suddenly, none of our stuff seemed to belong anymore. But worse, I remember looking around this fancy new neighborhood and realizing I didn’t really belong either.  These new neighbors of ours were old pros. I mean they knew things like how to fertilize their lawns and when to wrap their pipes for the winter (and what did “wrapping your pipes for the winter” even mean, anyway?).  I was very aware that I was the newbie at all this, and I was intimidated knowing that I would eventually have to meet these people and then they would know the truth: That I was a big fat faker who didn’t really belong in a place like this. I was clearly out of my league.

So what does buying our house have to do with writing? Well, that moment was exactly how I felt when I first became a published author. I was convinced that sooner or later someone would realize I didn’t belong because I clearly didn’t know the rules of the game.  I was sure that I, unlike every other author out there, was the only one who doesn’t know exactly what I was doing. Once again, I felt like a total and utter and complete fake!

Because the truth is, I just make this writing stuff up as I go!

And not only that, but I do it differently with each and every book. I still haven’t figured out the right way to do it. The formula.

The rules for writing a book.

Flash back to two years ago, when I was on the San Francisco leg of the first Smart Chicks Tour with some of the most megastar authors I’d ever met...and, yes worshipped like a lovestruck fangirl. We were in a library, with about 300 people crammed in it, and we started taking questions from the audience when someone singled me out.  ME!  With a question...just for me!!! I was so excited to be recognized among these super-fantastic rockstar authors, that I almost didn’t realize that the person asking the question had finally figured out my deep, dark secret: I had no idea what I was doing!

Him (or at least in my memory it was a “him”): I’ve always heard you should never start a book with an alarm clock going off or a prologue. And you do both. How did you get away with that? (Or something to that effect.)

Me:  Ummmm.... (And then) Ummmmm....

Thankfully, one of the other authors, who was more experienced and witty and, well, NOT shell-shocked, spoke up and said something charming and hilarious and saved me from utter humiliation. But it made me question: What are these rules, and why do I not know them?

Well, here’s the hard truth. There are no rules. None.  And anyone who says differently is full of total horse shit (sorry to be so blunt about it). But it’s true. There are guidelines, sure, and you may (or may not, if you want to be truly avant-garde) adhere to them, but there’s really no right way to write a book.

Let me repeat that last bit: THERE IS NO RIGHT WAY TO WRITE A BOOK!!!

I mean this from the bottom of my writerly writer’s heart. I know authors who outline heavily. Seriously, outlines that could be considered novellas! And I know others who sit down and start typing away with absolutely no idea where each scene will take them, like an adventure. There are those of us who use commas like confetti and others who abhor them. I know people with aversions to certain words like “that” or “to” or...“moist.”  And I know others, still, who write only on every other Sunday while wearing purple velvet pirate hats and nibbling on chocolate-covered croissants. (Fine, I don’t know anyone who does that last thing, but you get my point, right?).

I write every manuscript in whichever way allows me to simply get that story out of my head and onto the paper. It’s different for each book, and sometimes it’s different for each chapter.  I continue to try different things to see if they’ll work for me, and I continue to throw out those things that don’t work.   

And for what’s it’s worth, we bought our first (and only) house fifteen years ago. Since then we brought home our youngest baby daughter to that house and have raised our family there. We’ve had graduations and birthdays and celebrated holidays year after year. Those neighbors who I was so nervous about meeting all those years ago, are now some of my best friends in the world, and I hope to grow old with them as we wrap our pipes for the winter, fertilize our lawns, and watch our babies leave the nests. 


Leigh said...

Reading posts like this makes me feel able to breathe easy once again. <3 Thank you.

Tamako said...

I love reading you blogs! And I must say that your style of writing definitely pays off because you are one of my favorite authors out there!

Audrey/Ink and Page said...

Wow. I am at the beginnings on my writing journey, and this hit the nail on the head. I have felt like this in the past, which is why I always thought I'd be a Broadway star if only I were discovered by someone who knew raw talent when they saw it. That way, if I didn't pan out, it was on them, not me! Now, many years later, I have come to find that that is not the way to get ahead in life. But I digress...

I wonder who told that guy the "you should never?" Never covers a long time, and you'd think that if everyone stopped doing something for a while, it would become cool again anyway.

Cool blog!

Frankie Diane Mallis said...

Ha! It's so funny that I blogged today about this new way I'm writing which is basically an outline that is so in depth it IS a novella.

But I agree, there is never one right way, and not even one way per person, you can do it differently with each book.

Molly Lee said...

Beautifully said! There is a quote from Strunk & White's ELEMENTS OF STYLE that I try and apply when writing that beloved (and most often terrible) first draft.

"Your whole duty as a writer is to please and satisfy yourself, and the true writer always plays to an audience of one."

Of course in later drafts I start to read my story with a wider audience in mind and make adjustments accordingly, but that first draft is always for me and my characters alone. It helps me forget about all those guidelines and simply write the story in my head.

Great post as usual! :)

Kimberly Derting said...

Leigh - Glad to be of get back to work ;)

Tamako - You're so sweet--thank you!

Audrey - I really despise the word "never". It always makes me want to prove someone wrong ;)

Frankie - I'm actually jealous that you can do that. I'm the exact opposite--outlines freak me out. I hope that works for you!

Molly Lee - I want to marry that quote! That's *exactly* how a first draft should be (if only I could take that inner-critic out of my head while I was writing!).

Diane J. said...

This is the advice we all need to hear. I have a hard time shaking mini editors off my shoulders and closing the door on all the "shoulds" and "should nots" I've picked up on my writing path. Thanks for sharing this...although I still you see you as "Oh my gosh, author, super cool author." Which means not being able to form coherent thoughts and sentences in your presence. Glad you broke the rules!

Marsha Sigman said...

I want to print this out and carry it around for a while.ha

Thank you.

Kimberly Derting said...

You crack me up, Diane...I thought we were past all that :)

Marsha - Glad it helped!

Laura BurgandyIce said...

*sigh* This is so great. This is why I listen to "shoulds" a little, but not too much... just enough to WRITE something and not enough to get lost in the rules. There are so very many rules.

You're coming to Wordstock this coming weekend and I am very excited. I hope you don't mind if I act like you're a megastar.

Kimberly Derting said...

YAY, Laura, glad you'll be at Wordstock! And I agree, I listen to everyone's "shoulds" and take from them what seems like it'll work *for me*.