Writing Words With the Tips of My Toes
Say hello to today’s guest blogger, Quincy Allen! You can find him here.
Don’t take this advice.
That’s the take-away you’ll have by the time you finish this blog. But you’ll have to read the whole thing to understand why you shouldn’t take this advice. It’s a sort of Catch-22, one that already has a smile on my face. Oh, and if you haven’t seen the movie or read the book Catch-22, stop what you’re doing right now and go absorb that data.
But I digress.
There isn’t a writer—aspiring or otherwise—who hasn’t been informed over and over again by sage experts about the dos and don’ts of writing. We’ve all heard them: “Avoid adverbs” (so sayeth the King); “Keep it under 100,000 words,” (so sayeth the publishers); “Never use a prologue,” (so sayeth the agents); “Third person omniscient is dead,” (so sayeth the critics).
In fact, in this business you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting another “expert” who will be happy to tell you how to write, how to market, how to network, etcetera, etcetera. It’s a veritable litany of iron-clad rules doled out from the successful and not-so-successful lunatics who have chosen the publishing industry as their stomping grounds—including myself. You know who I’m talking about. It’s those writers and editors and agents and publishers who bandy about the phrase “Thou shalt” or “Thou shalt not” something, and do so with the certainty of Moses laying down the Ten Commandments.
Here’s a little secret: we’re all lying to you.
Most of us don’t know we’re lying, of course, but in the final analysis, we are. I’ve been watching this industry pretty closely for almost four years now, and if there is one absolute rule you can rely upon from the ocean of them that exists, it’s that there are no absolutes. They simply don’t exist.
So when you hear someone say, “Here’s how the writing world works,” or “You need to do it this way,” or “You should never ever…” as if such sage wisdom is being handed down from on high by the Prince of Darkness himself, you need to raise an eyebrow, offer a subtle but quirky grin, and go find the exception. It’s out there, I guarantee it.
Then you need to understand the rule and why the exception worked. No mean feat, that.
Having said all that, you also need to factor in a few things, particularly if you’re an aspiring writer rather than an established one. Those very same people offering such sage wisdom are mostly likely gate keepers for new writers. It doesn’t make them necessarily “right,” although it doesn’t make them necessarily wrong, either. It just means they’re in the way. You either need to give a gate keeper exactly what he or she wants, or you need to find a way around.
Welcome to the real world.
Established writers, on the other hand, get to break the rules—and many of them do. Regularly. Prologues, adverbs, 140k-word-counts, third person omniscience, etc…. There truly is no deodorant like success, and readers spoon it up like smothered burritos after a Friday night bender. (You’d have to have gone to college with me to get that reference). Basically, if you’re an established author, you’ve become an “expert,” and one providing revenue for agents, editors and publishers. It’s all a matter of which way the money flows, and at this point you have crossed a threshold, becoming a gate keeper in your own right.
The third group is the newest and, by far, my favorite. New and established writers alike are breaking rules and, by virtue of the eBook phenomenon, becoming successful at it. If ever there was an end run around the gate keepers, it is the almighty internet. But when you go at it alone on the Internet, you better know what you’re doing.
It’s all about awareness.
You can absolutely break the rules handed down from the establishment and be successful. That establishment no longer has iron-clad control of the marketplace, and so the rules they handed down for a century don’t apply nearly as much as they once did. Make no mistake, they’re truly pissed off about that. Did you see “Return of the King” when the One Ring goes into the lava? That image of Sauron’s great eye spinning and smoking and screaming as it tumbles to the earth and explodes. That’s pretty much the old-school publishing industry right now. But you better know what the rules are.
This is a golden age for writers, and the Internet has offered us an end-run around the gate-keepers. It’s a hard path, but it’s also a viable one… if you know what you’re doing.
So, why is it that with all these rules being shouted at us, we can clearly see that they aren’t rules at all? The reason is a simple one: there are nearly seven billion definitions of what a good book is on the surface of this rock we call home, one for every sentient being that has access to the Internet. Granted, there’s a fair amount of overlap and concentrations of similar definitions. What you have to decide is how big a segment of that populace you want to cater to… and then write the books that are inside you. It’s both a business and a creative decision, and only you can make it.
Ultimately, all of this depends on where you want to come in on the food chain of the publishing industry. How far do you want to step outside the guidelines? How far up the ladder do you want to go? How much are you willing to gamble on your own success rather than the success of some publishing “institution?” You need to understand all of this if you’re going to break the rules.
The bottom line is that there is a different path for each and every successful writer, and the notion of “rules” simply doesn’t apply… save one: Write a good book. And keep in mind that the definition for a “good book” has grown exponentially in the past few years because of the eBook revolution. More writers are satisfying more reading appetites because the “Big Six” (now the Big Five because one went extinct—there’s a message there, by the way) don’t control everything anymore.
So, people will tell you “Thou shalt…” and they’ll tell you “Thou shalt not…” just like I have in these past paragraphs. Take note of all of this “sage wisdom” with considerably more than a single grain of salt. But also don’t forget it.
If everyone’s path is different, then everyone has a different set of rules. You need to go out there and learn as many of everyone else’s rules as you can, and then experience or invent those rules that work specifically for you.
Look around. Research. Know what your options are both in your writing and in the business of your writing. Be informed. And when you have a clear path, take it.
I guarantee you’ll make mistakes. And for every mistake you make, you’ll be a little wiser, a little better at your craft, and a little closer to being able to hand down sage wisdom that aspiring writers should take with more than a grain of salt.
Just like the rest of us.