Publetariat’s series on the psychology of writing continues with a deconstruction of The Rules.
Many aspiring authors believe there’s a collection of both written and unwritten rules to follow in writing and trying to get published, a sort of catechism for success.
From: The Top Ten Myths About Writing And Why They’re Mostly Wrong – John Erianne
I’ve been in the writing game for most of my life and one of the things that never ceases to summon an “Oh, Please . . .” reaction are those incessant misperceptions and myths about writing that I encounter from time-to-time. We’ve all heard them and some of us buy into them. There’s a whole self-help industry built around many of these myths. Others are put out there as road blocks to discourage aspiring writers from realizing their goals. Among the ones I see most often are:
6. Writing can’t be taught
People who say this seem to think that writers spring fully formed like Athena from the head of almighty Zeus. All writers learn to be writers. Whether a writer is self-taught or goes through some writing program somewhere, there is a process of learning going on and therefore a process of being taught. Whether you are being taught with a lot of trial and error and a library card or being workshopped to death in a word factory, writing is being taught to you in one form or another. What you choose to do with that knowledge is another matter.
7. You have to have talent to write
Well . . . having talent doesn’t hurt, but honestly, let’s not overestimate it’s importance. You’ve got a writer who’s the most talented genius since Willie Shakespeare penned Hamlet, but he can’t be bothered to get out of bed in the morning and dress himself much less share any of that talent with the world. On the other end of the spectrum, you have a guy who’s not very talented, but competent, dependable and workmanlike who writes and submits constantly. Writer #2 has dozens of publication credits as a result while Writer #1 still hasn’t gotten out of bed. Listen. A really talented writer who works really, really hard is probably going to go farther than a no-talent hack who works equally as hard, but the no-talent hack will still go farther than a lazy genius.
8. You have to go to a writing school to be a writer
Okay, sure, I’ve been to college and I know a lot of writers who’ve been to college, gone through writing programs and now teach in writing programs, but let’s be real here: If becoming a writer depended on getting accepted to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop or the like, there would be relatively few writers out there, now wouldn’t there? College writing programs typically don’t accept that many candidates each semester and even fewer people actually make it through the really tough programs. Some of the best-known writers throughout history didn’t have a degree in writing or much of formal education whatsoever. That’s not to say you can be a functional illiterate and write well, if at all, but you get my point, don’t you?
9. You have to have a literary agent
While it’s probably true that if you are a novelist or screenwriter you are not likely to break into a major market without an agent, you don’t absolutely need one. If you write non-fiction, an interesting, well-written book proposal is often enough and even with fiction, independant publishers often (and sometimes especially) don’t require agency representation.
10. Writers have to pay people to publish their work
That’s a big, “Hell, no!” Sure, there are publishers and agents (so-called) who will demand the payment of fees, but understand this: no legitimate royalty-paying publisher or literary agency ever requires a writer to pay a fee for the service. There are legitimate printing services that offer to print books for self-publishers, however this is different from vanity presses that masquerade as a traditional royalty publisher that charge fees upfront to publish your work.
From: There’s No Such Thing As A Cliche – J. Robert Lennon
The entire concept of the cliché…is a matter of how experience is framed–there is no human reality, however culturally overexposed, that can’t be made into a successful work of art. Shakespeare was an early adopter of this way of thinking; Andy Warhol a more recent one. A good artist can take the wilted castoffs of a culture and make them into something great.
I’ve heard a lot of stories about teachers who try to outlaw things–things they think are hackneyed and deflated. One writing prof we know once issued an anti-mermaid edict, and one student, a friend of ours, responded by handing in a mermaid story. A good one, apparently. The edict was rescinded.
One possible definition of a cliché is: something that’s important to people, and which they can’t stop talking about (like, you know, um…mermaids). We’re sick of it for the latter reason; but we can’t ignore it because of the former. A good writer can crack open the nut of a cliché and fork out the meat, leaving the old familiar shell behind. Indeed, that’s a writer’s job description–forking out the meat. A writer who ignores cliché has failed, a writer who succumbs to it has also failed. Success is framing the cliché as revalation.
From: An Interesting Thought On Rules – Jessica Faust
A lot of comments lately have blasted agents and editors for all of our rules. We stifle authors, we cause nothing but problems, and we’re rude to boot. I debated a discussion on rules because I have a feeling I’m going to get blasted for it, but a client of mine pointed out that what makes my blog work are my honest answers and the honest comments I get from my readers. So here goes . . .
There are seemingly a lot of rules in publishing, but if you’ve ever heard me speak or read enough of my blog posts I think you’ll know that I’ve repeated again and again that those rules are not rules and should not be seen as such, but should be looked upon as guidelines. One of the most frustrating things for me about being blasted for all of our rules is that so many of them are created because authors ask for them, and so many more are not rules I’ve put out but rules authors impose themselves.
I am constantly asked for more clarification, for more rules. Authors want to know a secret to getting in the door. How do you write the perfect query letter, how do you write the perfect synopsis, and how do you write the perfect book? I cannot tell you that. I can give you hints, clues, examples, and critiques. I can do my best to help you along the way, but there are absolutely no rules. You’ve said it yourself, agents impose rules but then sell books that break them.
When asked how to write a query letter or a pitch I can give you tips on what I’ve seen that’s worked for me. Does that mean it will work in the same way for another agent? Not necessarily, because it’s all subjective. This is the same for resumes and resume cover letters. You can read a resume book and see hundreds of examples. They might all work for you or they might not. Ultimately, when reading the advice of agents you need to pick and choose what resonates with you.
Reading our blogs should be done in the same manner you read revision letters from critique partners, agents, or your own editor. You need to see what worked and didn’t work for other people and see how it resonates with you. Then you need to make your own decisions. Making smart, professional, and personal decisions are in the end what the only rule should be.