A work colleague was reading The Artists’ Way by Julia Cameron. I commented that I had never made it past week three. This was fairly typical for my self help reading. I started out with a bang, but didn’t stick with it, usually bailing after three weeks or so.
“Oh, I always read the whole thing first, and then cobble together my own plan,” J said.
My gut was “that’s cheating.” But then I thought, cheating who? So I read the whole book, cover to cover. I realized that I had missed the meat of Ms. Cameron’s message. And that even if I couldn’t keep up with my morning pages, I still deserved to move forward.
Now, there are some plans that should be followed. Like training for an athletic event. But other plans, or rules? I’ve decided my new rule of thumb is to take what I want, and toss the rest. Especially with my writing.
I have taken classes, and bought books, and joined on line discussion groups, and attended seminars. And each time, I approach it like the holy grail, the place/time I will finally find my true path for success. The book will be edited the “right” way. It will be the right length. I will follow all the genre rules. My characters will be perfect. My settings will be spectacular.
Though I describe my mystery manuscript as cozy/traditional, it has been described as literary, so I exorcised the elaborate back story. I changed my beginning when I was told that starting at a funeral wasn’t done. I added a romantic suspense element to my book, because that would help it sell. And I changed it over and over again, following the rules, until it was a vanilla mess of nothing. Boring. It was just fine, but not great. And while I don’t expect great, I’d like to be better than fine.
So I’m going to make my own rules. If Hallie Ephron and Donald Maass offer different advice, why not take both, and them morph it into what works? Can Hallie’s ruthless editing advice and Donald’s make your characters meaner advice work together while I am editing? Answer, yes and no. It requires a rewrite, not an edit. But I keep their advice handy. Along with Dorothy Sayers, Annie Lamont, Bill Tapply, Ray and Remick, and Stephen King. But I’m not going to let them drive the bus.
My new rules?
- Seek advice. And then ignore it if it doesn’t work for you.
- Write the story you want to write. Write it well. Then edit it. And edit it again.
- Give it to readers, and ask for feedback. But be careful about taking it to heart, or ignoring it outright. If more than two readers tell you the same thing, listen.
- Take your ego out of the equation. It is about the work.
- And make sure you enjoy the process. Because the process is all there is. If the rules take the joy way, ignore them.
Any other rebels out there? Or was I the only person who tried to follow all the rules, all the time?
J.A. Hennrikus is the Executive Director of StageSource. She is a mystery writer who has had stories published in Level Best Books anthologies. She is a huge social media fan, and tweets under @JulieHennrikus. She wrestles with allusions of athleticism, is an avid theater goer and a member of Red Sox nation. Her website is jahennrikus.com