Advice Section The Rules of Writing

Derived from a discussion on Usenet's rec.arts.sf.written

Beginning writers often want to know what the hard and fast rules are, the rules they simply must follow. Sometimes writing teachers and books of advice even provide them with rules, which they then get obsessive about.

Don't.

There are no hard-and-fast rules in writing. There are guidelines and suggestions.

If you call them guidelines and suggestions, beginners will often decide to ignore them -- "they're just suggestions."

If you call them rules, beginners will obsess foolishly about them. "I can't do that; it's against the rules!"

It's a no-win situation for advisors, and feeds my conviction that many beginning writers are simply determined to worry about all the wrong things in order to avoid looking at the true situation and acknowledging how simple, and how difficult, writing professionally is.

One person I dealt with said he'd been told never to start a story with a cliché because it would give an editor an excuse to reject the story. This is based on a faulty premise. Editors aren't looking for excuses to reject stories; they don't need excuses, because at least 90% of what's submitted is utter crap. They're looking for reasons to buy stories.

Think about it from the point of view of the editor. He's not a teacher, showing you the best way to do something. He's not a bureaucrat, mindlessly following rules. He's a merchant trying to put together the best product he can for his customers. His major concern is pleasing his readers, so they will continue to pay for it. He's looking at what you offer him to see whether it's something he wants to offer his customers.

Therefore, he looks at each submission as if he were a customer -- that is, as if he were a reader looking for entertainment. He picks up the story, starts reading -- and if at any time he finds himself thinking, "This is boring; I don't want to read any more," then he puts the story down and rejects it and goes on to the next. Because if it bores him, he can assume it will bore his readers.

Substitute "stupid" or "pointless" or anything else for "boring," if you don't think that's the right word, and the result is the same. For me, stupidity and pointlessness and all the other possible flaws are subsets of being boring, but maybe that's not how other people use the word.

If the editor gets all the way through the story without rejecting it, which he usually won't, then it becomes a matter of deciding whether it's a good story and suitable for his market, which is a whole 'nother issue and not what I'm addressing here, because it has nothing to do with clichés or bad grammar or eccentric prose or any of the other things that people make Rules about and which new writers get confused by -- if the editor read the whole story through, then you're past concerns with prose and style and into deeper matters.

When someone tells you that if you start your story with a cliché the editor will reject it, he's generally telling you the truth. It's not because the editor has an arbitrary rule against clichés; it's because a clichéd opening will cause the editor to think, "This is boring, and I don't want to read any more."

If you write an opening which is, by some technical definition, a cliché, but which does not evoke this response in the editor, then there is no conceivable reason to change it. clichés are not bad because they're clichés. Clichés are bad because they make editors reject stories.

Keep cause and effect the right way around here. clichés are bad because they bore editors. If they don't bore editors, then they're not bad, and there's no reason to avoid them.

I should note that this brings us to the single largest advantage established writers actually have over beginners. Newbies often think that the Big Names have an advantage in short fiction because putting their names on the cover will sell more magazines; editors will tell you that this is bull, that only a very few names on the cover (Stephen King, Robert Heinlein, maybe Harlan Ellison) will actually help sales perceptibly. Editors may err on the side of caution and favor Big Names somewhat just in case -- but that's BIG names.

Look at the cover of a recent issue of Analog (April '99). No offense to G. David Nordley, but does anyone out there think his name is really going to help sales? Daniel Hatch? Michael F. Flynn? (Well, Flynn, maybe, because there are people out there who adored Fallen Angels.) These are good writers, but I really don't think they make any difference to sales.

So what is the advantage an established writer has? That the editor will give him the benefit of the doubt when reading a weak opening.

For a beginner, the editor will think, "I've read this opening a thousand times; toss it."

For an established writer (like me), the editor will think, "I've read this opening a thousand times, but this is Lawrence -- he's probably got some twist in mind, so I'll read a little further."

This is what we mean by saying that once you're a known quantity, you can break the rules -- once you've shown that you can write a good story, editors (and readers) will give you more slack thereafter. But you still need to write a good story!

And that's the one real true unbreakable rule: Don't Bore the Reader. Everything else is just hints and suggestions on how best to achieve this.

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All contents and referenced pages are copyright by Lawrence Watt Evans except as noted.
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