Before I knew the “The Rules”, I spent whole days writing without pause. The story would flow from my head through my fingers and onto the keyboard. I was a conduit, not an author. I never thought about the process of writing. I just wrote.
One scene would go on for page after page. My characters did what they wanted. I had no clue what was coming next. I had to write to find out. After a Saturday of writing nonstop for ten hours, I would read back everything I’d written, and I loved my words with a fierce joy. So, what if nothing actually happened and the plot, what there was of it, dragged out endlessly? I didn’t care.
Then I got a publishing contract. I had to learn the Rules. Some of them made sense. Most of them didn’t.
How many times had I written “His eyes crawled around the room” and not thought anything of it? Suddenly (and there’s a forbidden word right there), I couldn’t unsee the idea of actual detached eyes crawling like babies around a room. It’s not what I’d meant, but it’s what I’d written.
“Was” became a dirty word. Change “He was listening” to “He listened”. Fine. But sentences like “I could tell he listened to me” seemed (another forbidden word) clunky and weird. It was forever until I realized that actually (forbidden word again) I wasn’t supposed to be changing “he was listening” to “he listened”, I was supposed to be stretching myself to show not tell.
“He stared at me without blinking” is a much better way to illustrate “I could tell he was listening to me”, but learning that took me so long it’s embarrassing to admit. My characters had to stop yelling and whispering their words. They said them. I had to make sure that their actions came in order and made sense.
“Stripping off her clothes, she hopped into the shower” was a trip hazard not a good sentence.
Using “there was” is lazy writing. Unclear pronouns confuse readers. Head hopping (switching POV between two characters in the same scene) is a talent only the great writers can pull off, so better to never do it. If Joe and John are in the same scene, and Joe is the POV character, Joe receives his cues to John’s emotions visually or through John’s actions. Joe cannot assume anything about John that he doesn’t observe. “John’s face flushed” is a much better sentence than “John was angry”.
As for Joe, if he gets angry, he can’t feel his face turn red with wrath because red is not a feeling. Besides, Joe can’t see his own face unless he is standing in front of a mirror. “Joe’s cheeks burned” says it better.
Characters can’t be Mary Sues or Marty Stus. They have to be flawed or they aren’t believable. Only mention eye color once or twice. Readers know the character has blue eyes and repetition is annoying to them and drags them out of the story. Use action tags. Keep the scene fresh with movement as well as dialogue. Be careful not to have characters call each other by name. Nobody in real life calls their friends by name more than once an hour on average, so dialogue with a lot of name references is artificial. Avoid phrases like “a couple of hours”. It’s two hours. Or one hour. Be precise. There’s no need for words like “up” or “down” when describing sitting or standing. They sit. They stand. They don’t sit down or stand up. People “wake” they don’t “wake up”.
Characters shrug. No need to add “their shoulders” because what other body part would they be shrugging?
I was so busy trying to avoid all these pitfalls, the joy of writing evaporated. I questioned every word. Every sentence I wrote was awful. My characters couldn’t do the things they wanted to do. Every scene had to drive the plot forward or else I had to cut it. No more spending pages setting a scene in a firelit library where five vampires lounged (on a chair or in an armchair, there’s a difference) discussing their fears. Boring. Have something happen to illustrate their fear.
All the cozy fun disappeared.
I published several books. I learned The Rules, and applied them. I spent years writing paranormal romance because they said that was the only genre that would sell. Vampires were boring. Wolf shifters were overused. Dragons or fairies were the thing, and I had to publish a book every three months. Churn out the words, don’t sink into them.
I stopped writing for a long time. The Rules stole my joy.
I missed my characters talking in my head. They stopped speaking to me because I wouldn’t let them live. I forced them to do things that advanced the plot, not their characters. I missed the joy so much. One day I sat down (see what I did there) and thought hard about the Rules. How important are they? Do I need them? Have they improved my writing?
You know what I discovered? The most important Rule isn’t “Show, don’t tell” or “Avoid clichés” or “eradicate adverbs”. It turns out the only Rule that matters to me is: Write from the heart. That is the only Rule I want to use every time. The others are guidelines. Sometimes they help, sometimes they hinder.
I’m not sorry I learned the Rules. I’m only sorry I let them rule me for so long. Craft is important, but what really counts is the joy. The Rules have given me the ability to tell my stories in more precise detail using less words. I don’t have to use thousands of words and a dozen scenes to paint the picture, I can do it in two paragraphs. I show you the characters in my head instead of merely telling you about them. So, thank you, Rules, you can fade to the back now. I’ve got it from here.