3 Imperfect Rules for Writing

I’ve been thinking a lot about perfection recently. As a creative writing teacher, I often hear statements about the writing process from my students—statements that involve one of my least favorite words: should.
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I’ve been thinking a lot about perfection recently. As a creative writing teacher, I often hear statements about the writing process from my students—statements that involve one of my least favorite words: should.

  •  “Should I start with character or plot?”
  •  “A teacher once told me I should just ignore my shiny new ideas and finish my current draft.”
  • “She said that writers should write every single day, otherwise I’m not a writer.”

Column by E. Katherine Kottaras, author of THE BEST POSSIBLE
(Nov. 2016, St. Martin's Press/Griffen Teen) and HOW TO
(2015, St. Martin’s Press/Griffin Teen). She is originally from
Chicago, and now she writes and teaches in the Los Angeles area.
She holds an M.A. in English from the University of California, Irvine, and
teaches writing and literature at Pasadena City College. She is interested
in the stories we tell, the stories we are given, and the ways we can redefine
our worlds by discovering which stories are true.
Connect with her at www.ekatwrites.com.

A simple Google search yields dozens of lists for "The Rules of Writing." (Can you hear Morgan Freeman’s dramatic voice?) While intended to be guides, these lists offer many shoulds about writing that translate into impenetrable weights on the shoulders of writers like the ones I work with, who feel that they are unable to live up to the expectations of what it means to be a writer.

Imperfect Rule #1: You should start with character OR with plot OR with an image OR with backstory OR ...

I often hear published writers say that they write character-driven stories or they write plot-driven stories, and I believe them when they say that a character’s voice just came to them or a plot appeared, as if in a dream, because I, too, have had those moments of pure inspiration. However, I cannot say that I start with the same exact aspect of story every single time I sit down to write a book because each book is different, each character new, each turn of plot a surprise. When I wrote my first book, HOW TO BE BRAVE, I knew Georgia’s voice intimately. I saw her journey, from start to end, like a film in my mind. I wrote the first chapter, and then I immediately wrote a plot outline in two days that I stuck to through my first draft. With THE BEST POSSIBLE ANSWER, I immediately wrote a plot outline that veered off in twelve different directions.

This, to me, is the best part of writing. The exploration. The not-knowing. Start wherever you are.

So, start with an image, a voice, or a ten-page detailed plot outline with clearly delineated character motivations and a fully realized denouement. The key is to start, in whatever way works for you.

Imperfect Rule #2: Don’t stop for that shiny new idea.

I understand the intention here. I meet many writers who have a million amazing ideas, and who, once they’ve started (usually during a point of frustration), get distracted by another million amazing ideas. And once they’re distracted (just like a kitten with shiny things), they’re off and writing that new story, leaving that first, impenetrable story behind. So, I get it. It’s important not to get distracted by every shiny object that comes along.

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BUT! Sometimes you have to stop. Sometimes you need to follow that new story. Sometimes you have to take a break from the impenetrable and infuriating reality that is your current manuscript and try something new. (And you should always keep a Word file for those shiny new ideas for when the evil reality that is writer’s block marches in.)

Like I said above: It’s important to start. And it’s also important to finish! I do this simply by setting word count goals and deadlines. However, sometimes, if I’m in the pit of writerly despair, I need to put the draft aside and see what else I can do.

Imperfect Rule #3: Writers write every day.

While I think that it can be a good rule for those who can write every day, it’s a terrible rule for those who can’t. If the logic of this rule is true, does that mean that those who do not write every single day are not writers? How terribly destructive to creative minds.

I do not write every single day. Simply put: I don’t have the time. In addition to writing novels, I am also a full-time teacher and a full-time mom, plus I am in charge of a million other obligations like grocery shopping, paying bills, and cleaning the cat box. (Glamorous, I know.) Honestly, though, even if I had a million dollars instead of a million obligations, plus all the time in the world, I still wouldn’t write every single day.

Why? I need to distance myself from the imagined lives on the page so that I can be in the world and find my reasons to write. I need to engage with other humans, in real time, so that I can feel joy, frustration, longing, sorrow, fear—all of it. I need time to collect and marinate and let experiences simmer and transform within my body, within my memory. Often, I need time away from my journals and computer because I know that eventually the simple work of being alive will inspire me back to the blank page.

If you do not write every single day—but you write when you are able or when you are compelled to—please hear me when I say this: You are still a writer.

Break the rules. Be imperfect. Find your way. If your process takes you to a place of introspection, curiosity, and truth, then it is perfect for you. And don’t let anyone else tell you otherwise.


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