Okay, Listen Here

Okay, Listen Here

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Too Much Knowledge - GASP- May Not Be A Good Thing.

I have recently been conducting a surreptitious and totally unscientific survey among writers. Unbeknownst to them, I have been picking their well-oiled brains for their opinions on writing. You see, I have been having a dry-spell lately, unable to finish something for fear I shall get it wrong. Internal versus External conflict. Point of view. Quotations. Split infinitives. You name it and I have looked at it with fear. Have I done it wrong? Should I change this point of view right now or would it be construed as head-hopping? There are so many rules and regulations about writing that I have completely lost sight of the main theme – writing.

So, I began sneaking amidst my friends and confidants, asking innocuous questions about their styles and how they write. They answer me truthfully and their opinions have, remarkably, coincided with mine. The more we learn the more fear we have of putting the words to paper.

When I was just writing for myself, I had no clue about conflict and head hopping or characterization. I just wrote what made me happy. I had a story to tell and I simply wrote it. Albeit, now, when I look back at those stories, I cringe at some of the things I did. Because, you see, I am now educated in the formula of writing. Yes, the Formula.

I have attended conferences, gone to lectures, read books on writing romances – all in an effort to better my ability and to achieve the Holy Grail of writing: PUBLICATION. I have taken scrupulous notes on conflict and the dos and don’ts of how your character should behave, filing the information away for future editing on my work. What I didn’t realize when I was doing this was that I was hamstringing myself. As is my fellow blogger, Stephanie, I am a rule person. If there is a rule, it is there for a reason and one should never break the rule! I cannot consciously disregard a rule or I will fall apart; the order of the Universe will crumble and I will be left with Chaos.

The rules of writing romance dictate a formula. Every one of us has picked up books of well-known authors, only to be dismayed that, even though this is a brand-new book, the formula of the hero and the heroine are the same as his/her last fifteen books! I am not just saying this is true of the romance genre because I have seen it in others genres as well – horror, suspense, paranormals. Every one of them seems to have attended the same conferences on writing. They have found a formula that works and then have merrily gone about writing it, again and again.

Now, you may say that this is the green-eyed monster talking. She hasn’t been published and these writers have. I agree. But, as a reader, I would like for these very good writers to go back to what they did originally, before they began speaking at lectures and telling us about the proper way to write – write from your heart and quit trying to pigeon-hole your characters and plots to fit the Formula!

I digress. My problem is the same as every one I have spoken to – I have been second-guessing myself. Should I do this; should I do that; or should I just quit and go back to crocheting? No, I cannot quit because I have a lot of stories rolling around in my head and I want to share them, even if no one else wants me to (see I have ended a sentence with a preposition – a definite rule breaking – shudder). Every one of you writers with whom I have spoken, and this is my very unscientific survey, has admitted to me that the more you learn, the harder it is to write. So what is the answer?

I don’t know. What I do know is that there are reasons for those rules – editors and publishers want to sell their books. WE want to sell our books. The rules are there because they give a parameter for what books will sell and what books should be in a dumpster. The rules give us a starting point and from there we should adjust our writing accordingly. Yes, follow the rules or you won’t get published. No one wants to read a harum-scarum book that jumps all over the place. The rules will fix that. And I agree, I like a well-ordered book, just not the same one, over and over. I think sometimes you have to bend the rules, a bit. Step out of the traces and write something a little different or maybe a lot different.

So, what is the point of all this? I still could not write, frozen with fear over doing the wrong thing. I kept asking people about it. Was I rebelling (as I have been known to do) over what I considered arbitrary rules or was I just stuck? Then…I was talking to one of my writer-friends about the problem of too-much knowledge and she agreed, as I have previously stated everyone does, we worry too much about the rules. BUT, she had an answer, given to her by one of our premier writers, Linda Winstead Jones. Linda said, which I found remarkably insightful and painfully obvious once I heard it: Just sit down and write a short story; forget the rules; and forget everything, simply write it. Then look it over and see – you can write without thinking about the Rules. The Rules are there to help you, not hurt you to the point of writer’s block. Wonderful and true!

I did just that. I wrote a short story, not in the romance genre, but in another (how traitorous of me!) and entered it in a contest. The winners will not be named for months and I do not hold out any hope of winning. However, I have already won – I wrote something without thinking! I wrote for pleasure and, if I do say so myself, it turned out pretty good. The dam, I hope, has burst and maybe now I can get back to writing an actual book!

Pfftt… English?
Who needs that?
I’m never going to England.

-Homer Simpson

To continue my survey: What do you think about the Rules? Does trying to follow every little rule prevent you from writing or does it give you comfort and a blueprint to adhere to? Tell me your stories of writer’s block and how you overcame it. Or, if you are not a writer, tell me your thoughts about all the formulaic books out there on the market – Do you read the blurb on the back cover, realize it’s the same story in a different setting and put the book down? Or do you buy the book because you just simply love the author?


  1. Cheryl,
    I don't really experience what you speak of here with writing and the rules. I do that Jean has said to me before that often workshops on the techniques and rules of writing hinder and not help her. I am sure she will speak to this. :-)

    As far as realizing that a favorite author has produced the same basic story over and over, I don't really have a problem with that. I read the same books more than once so I guess I see it as sorta the same thing. There is always something different or some secondary character that amuses me.

    Thought provoking post!

  2. Forget the rules! The only rules you need follow, IMO, are these: do not bore the reader and do not dump pages of backstory into the first chapter (because that bores the reader).

    I am a single POV per scene writer. I think it gives me more control and I think it's a neater, tighter way of writing. But there are plenty of authors who change POV frequently in a scene -- and many of them write in the same line I write for. Editors do not care, so long as the story is compelling.

    Stop hamstringing yourself with rules. :)

  3. I had a lovely post, full of wisdom and confusion, and my Internet blinked out. I am going to try and reconstruct it—without the confusion. Okay. I know better.

    I have never had writer's block and I don't believe in a muse. I believe in putting your bottom in the chair and your hands on the keyboard. I also believe there are days when you aren't ready to do that because you have to play the characters in your head. That's still working as long as you aren't fooling yourself. That's my rule--pretty much the only one I've got.

    Odd, since I am a rule follower. I want to be a good girl—church on Sunday, whole wheat bread, and a mammogram every year. Horatio Alger in alive and flowing in my bloodstream--except it's not that simple. The rules are a quandary. As Stephanie mentioned in her post, a workshop can make things difficult for me but they can also give me some ah ha moments. I certainly wouldn't throw the baby out with the bath water but I am getting better at taking what I need and forgetting the rest. It's like shopping. Just because I don't want to need five-inch tall shoes doesn't make them bad or unneeded.

    You see, when I read, I love the things we've been told not to do—back story all in one chunk, flashbacks, and details—glorious wonderful details about everything from the color of the sofa in a secondary character's house to how the hero takes his coffee. Yet, I don’t want to be that person who will not be taught. That person does not succeed. ("You can't tell her anything! She is bent on doing it her way!")

    It’s a subjective business. Last year at conference, we attended a cold read workshop where we turned in 3 pages. The panel of editors and agents immediately disregarded about 10 samples because they started with a name. (Ours among them. First sentence: "Rita May Sanderson dumped me because she said I didn't know what a relationship was") One of the panel said, "When I see a name, my eyes have already glazed over." Later, when we were in our room, we looked at the books we'd collected so far—about 30. Over half of them started with a name. I am not saying, "See! See! She was wrong." She was, in fact, right for herself. Evidently other industry professionals have no trouble with it. And we did change the first sentence. I don't know if the name mattered but we did come away with a stronger beginning I think.

    So I guess the answer is, we shouldn't disregard advice but we should decide what is right for us—at least at this stage. I think there are different rules after attracting an editor's attention. Believe me, if an editor we trust and respect tells Stephanie and me to change our rich boy circuit judge to a coal miner, we are gong to try to do it. That's not selling out. That’s taking advantage of experience. Or maybe it's just plain selling. And I'm all right with that.

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  8. Oh, my word. I have all these post because it kept telling me it wasn't posting because it was too long and I kept cutting it down. I am so embarrassed.

  9. Stephanie, I also read books over again if the author has captured my imagination and the words touch me. I enjoy learning from things I like to read and authors I admire. You make me jealous about never experiencing the fear of writing! I am getting better though...

    Thank you Lynn! You made my day with your comment. I agree with your rules because they are true. Don't bore the reader. You also made me feel better about the POV. What you said about the story being compelling is the most important! I am one of the nefarious writers who likes to change point of view. I noticed recently in Sherrilyn Kenyon's second book in the Dark Hunter series (I am re-reading them - Stephanie) that she changes POV a lot. Since she is very successful, it made me feel better.

    Jean - You are right! We don't need to disregard the rules but we can pick and choose among them. I guess in a round-a-bout way that was what I was trying to say. You nailed it perfectly.

  10. Oh and Jean, I was disappointed about the posts being taken down. I though maybe there was something racy that had to be deleted! Drat! I live vicariously.

  11. LMAO! Sorry, Jean! I was reading my blackberry messages in the bank car line and I would've spewed coke all over everything if I'd had one at the time. Too funny!

    Cheryl, sorry I had a moment with Jean there. ;) You've written a fabulous post! But here's what I have to say:

    Everyone tells you to stick to the code. And, rules, like a pirate code, are more like guidelines. You can storm a castle, plunder a ship, lay waste to a warehouse, eat a whole case of donuts in one sitting if you want to. Just adhere to the guidelines and like Cap'n Jack does, invent the rest. That's using your imagination. And the world is better for it, don't you think?

    Stephanie, maybe authors continue to use the same formula because that is the brand they are trying to sell. Publishers are all about branding. And when something is successful with readers, they insist on more of it. Perhaps that is not always the authors fault and frankly, if someone thinks my pirate books are great and they want more, I'll write them till the cows come home. :)

    Lynn, I agree with you. As long as the story is compelling, who cares? Editors and agents will always want a compelling story. Sometimes a book is written before its time. But eventually, it wil fit right in as long as the story registers with readers.

    Jean, interesting about the agent/editor session with stories starting with a name. Hmmm... Must check this out in books, plus my own. LOL!

    I, too, love to tell all, and read all, to a point. I've had to learn a lot about not using too much backstory but I think that is a pitfall of most new writers. Because we, authors, know what's happened to make a person a certain way, we want to share. But it's much more interesting when little bits are shared throughout the book. Keeps us turning pages. And your's and Stephanie's book are page turners. :)

    Lastly, Cheryl I want to say that I think writers can do anything they want to, as long as they do it well enough that it peaks the reader's/editor's/agent's interest, elicits a desire for more and keeps the love story the central focus of a romance, suspense the focus of mystery and so forth. Give yourself the freedom to create, girl! You've got a fabulous voice! And the world needs to hear it!

  12. Thanks Kathy! I hope my voice will hold up - getting old! LOL Seriously, what you are saying is exactly what I need to do. I need to relax and simply write. Whether I realize it or not, the Rules are there in the background - something I learned from writing the short story. I didn't break the rules when I was writing it, but I did adhere to them, mostly.

  13. I think we know the rules, subconsciously, just because we've read so many books. Avid readers pick up on things like that without knowing it. Now, add the fact that we've all studied writing skills, when we read, we are more apt to pick up on certain rules and understand what's working and what isn't. Trust your instincts always. They will never let you down. ;)

  14. I just had a thought. Nostradamus predicted moments in history hundreds of years ago. Many people think that his predictions have hit on target over and over again, and indeed, his writings are intricately detailed in a Medieval man's visionary way. If I sit and listen to his predictions for very long, I'm filled with fear. What will the future bring my children? Will the world end when the Mayan calendar runs out? And so forth?

    We can do the same with studying writing processes, writing rules, and breaking down the proper way to write a book. As in predictions of the future that can create a frenzy of fear, worrying about process/rules can stymie a writer's muse (I'm using 'muse' here to symbolize voice, creative juices, voices in our heads, etc...) and suck the writer into a vacuumous black hole. Writer's block isn't caused by a lazy muse. Writer's block is caused by fear. As Jean said, putting the butt into the chair often enough will rejuevenate a writer's mojo.

    I propose placing a blank page in front of a writer will do the trick every time. For a writer surely will not be able to resist filling the page with what spills out of his/her subconscious mind.

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