writing, Writing advice, Writing and Editing

Eight Non-rules For Writing

Recently, I was browsing a website called Lithub (which I highly recommend to anyone fascinated by any and all things writing and literature related) and came across an article by Elizabeth Percer entitled “The First Rule of Novel Writing is Don’t Write a Novel.” I was intrigued. The gist of her article was that all these different lists of rules for writers miss one very important aspect of being a productive (and good) writer: that writing is an art form more than an industry. Writers are artists and need to work like artists, not accountants, or machinists.

In response to this realization, Ms. Percer came up with a list of nine non-rules for writing. I thought they were so refreshing and original, I decided I simply had to share the best of them with you (along with my own interpretation on occasion). I think you will find them as valuable as I have.

So, the seven non-rules of writing.

Don’t Write a Novel

Ms. Percer states that every time she sits down to write a novel, she gets next to nothing done. In fact, she feels she often loses some critical ground. Her point that often the pressure of trying to meet a preconceived goal can make it harder to create. Call it performance anxiety. Call it the contrariness of the subconscious mind.

For an example, the famed composer John Philip Sousa really, really, wanted to write lovesick ballads (which were kind of the pop music of his time) and he kept working at it. The thing was, the songs he produced weren’t very good ballads. But when his wife changed the time signature and tempo, they became very good marches. He was a talented composer of marches that kept trying to make them ballads.

In the same way, we writers shouldn’t sit down with a preconceived notion of writing a novel, a poem, or a multi-volume history of a fictional family. We should sit down with the idea of a particular story, or emotion, or even just a simple image and simple write the story. The story (or image, or emotion) will reveal which form it should take as it’s written.

Don’t worry about the form. Just write and the form will take care of itself.

Writing Doesn’t Always Look Like Writing

Ms. Percer states that about 80 percent of her writing looks nothing like writing. Personally, I’d put it closer to 90 percent. Writing looks like daydreaming, or reading, or gardening, or driving, or sitting in the back yard watching the birds at the bird feeder. It’s about trusting yourself and your creative spirit, not that nasty hyper-critical inner voice that tells you you aren’t working hard enough. It takes both the hard-driving professional, pounding out pages on the keyboard and the playful, curious child to make creativity work.

Books Do Not Respond to Timelines, Spreadsheets, or Graphs

Timelines, spreadsheets and graphs are very efficient tools the modern world has invented to help manage time and increase our efficiency. However, it is in the nature of art to become stubbornly distant when it is asked to punch a time clock. Sometimes, these time management tools can do more to get in the way than they help production.

Ms. Percer states that because she’d a writer and not a physicist, she doesn’t believe “writing always follows the laws of space and time.” Much more writing can be accomplished in short time periods enhanced by patience, thoughtfulness, and peace, than gets done in months of “writing time” defined by expectation, disappointment, self-loathing and a diet of coffee and Snickers bars.

Accept What Comes

This goes back to the first point. If you have your heart set on writing a bodice-ripper historical romance, but all you can really come up with is a brilliant haiku about garden peas, by all means relish writing the poem about garden peas. Maybe the world needs a book of haiku centered on garden vegetables. You may be just the perfect person to create that book.

Just like John Philip Sousa, don’t reject the very good work that occurs to you, just because you had other ideas. Sometimes the story needs to be told and doesn’t care what you want.


Writers like us want to create brand new works and if we’re going to do that we need to accept that the way we work is not going to look a whole lot like the way your accountant cousin works. It’s a different kind of work. This makes a certain amount of logical sense. However, in practice this can be threatening because creativity thrives with the very behaviors that many others label as lazy, self-indulgent, or some other label that might be appropriate if we were cogs in the corporate machine like everyone else.

Creative work demands that occasionally we stop and allow the well to be refilled, the slate to be wiped clean. We need down time. The key is that only you, the artist, knows when and how much down time you might need. We all need to learn to trust ourselves and have confidence in our judgement and to know when we need down time and when we’re just avoiding the work. The ability to discern the difference involves trial and error, but will always come back to trusting our instincts.

Sometimes the best thing for our writing is binge-watching a couple of seasons of Game of Thrones. Sometimes, a little voice is telling you that the small town murder mystery you’ve been working on should concentrate a little less on the evidence of the crime and a lot more on the town’s internal politics and Game of Thrones is exactly the example you need. Sometimes, you just need to walk.

Get To Know the Demons on Your Block

Every writer’s block is different. However, most have a few things in common. Maybe you’re blocked because your standards are too high. Maybe your expectations are so extreme that your creative self doesn’t want to show up. Maybe we’re taking ourselves and our work too seriously. Maybe your creative self is fighting to get yourself to do something different. Maybe it’s telling us to forget about writing a best seller and just write the story we want to read.

Don’t Neglect The Rest of Your Life

At its core, great writing comes from an unrestrained approach to the things that make life worth living. If you are neglecting those things, guess what happens? You’ll have nothing to say. So you’ll eat too much Doritos, stay up too late watching reruns of ‘70’s sitcoms and wake up hating yourself in the morning.

In short, what Ms. Percer is saying is that we should stop working so much at writing and, instead, just write. It doesn’t have to be such a chore.

Writing advice, Writing and Editing

Writer’s Toolkit: the Placeholder

Often in the writing life, we’ll be cruising along in our story until we come to a place where the dialogue (or description or whatever) just doesn’t ring true at first draft. Suddenly the entire flow of your story comes to a halt and you’re faced with a dilemma: fix the flawed dialogue, but lose all the momentum of your story; or leave the flawed portion and continue with the story, hoping you’ll be able to fix it in re-write, (providing you can remember what, where, and how you originally wanted it).

How many fantastic ideas have been lost over the years because of this? I know I have lost many, mostly because I have a horrible time coming up with names. It doesn’t matter what kind of name I need: a character, a town, a business, even a rock band once. All have caused my creative flow to screech to a halt.

It was a problem.

The solution to this dilemma is so simple I find it amazing I hadn’t thought of it earlier. Just insert a placeholder into the spot in question and move on. A placeholder is something (a symbol of some sort, easy to remember later or to find in a search) marking the place for further attention, along with a brief sketch of what you want in the final product.

I first used placeholders (consciously) in my most recent novel for character names. As I’ve said before, I have an awful time coming up with good names and the story will often languish for days while I try to decide what to call my main character’s best friend. This time, I smartened up. I just typed XX or AA where the name should be and moved on.

It was a wonderfully liberating development. Now I could just move on as fast as the story would come to me without worrying about it. After all, this was just a first draft and the most important goal here was to get the basic story down on paper. The time for anguishing over a character name is during re-write, not while you’re constructing a first draft.

However, the placeholder is not just a tool for managing our character names. It can be used wherever an imperfect part of the story threatens the story as a whole. Dialogue, description, even plot problems can be marked for further work and then left for later while you continue with the momentum of your first draft intact.

I also used placeholders (unconsciously it turns out) in the dialogue of the new novel. One of my beta readers pointed this out after reading an early draft. Her exact words were “everybody sure is nodding a lot.” Really? I hadn’t noticed. As it turns out, I had someone nodding six hundred thirty-five times in one hundred thousand words, about one nod every hundred and fifty words.

A tad excessive.

So I examined the usage more closely and discovered I wasn’t so much saying that the characters were actually nodding as that they weren’t responding immediately to whatever the other character had said. It was about the rhythm and pace of the conversation. The word “nod,” as I was using it, was place holding for some other form of activity. During the next re-write I fixed that, replacing “nodded” with what I really wanted to show them doing.

In both cases, I used an easily-found symbol (XX, “nodded”) to mark a passage for more detailed work in revision. In ongoing projects, I am continuing to do something similar. I am still using the XX to mark character names I don’t know yet. The “nodding” thing I’m not sure of yet, but that is always a possibility.

In my opinion, the momentum of a story is too important to jeopardize over some detail you can always fill in later. Face it, we’re going to re-write the whole thing anyway. So use a placeholder and keep the flow going.