There are a lot of rules that go into writing, and a lot of advice books out there. Mind your grammar, to start with, and remember the punctuation goes inside the quotation marks. Use complete sentences, always finish everything you start, hit this plot beat by this manuscript percentage … if you’re not sure about something, Google it and I’m sure someone, somewhere, has a rule. How do you keep them all straight?
I … don’t. At least, not while I’m writing.
If there’s any single piece of advice I’ve adhered to, even before I read it, it’s Stephen King’s “Read a lot and write a lot.” I just found this CD I’d burned in January 2007 with fanfiction and original fiction dating back to 2000, and there were over 70 individual documents on it. A lot of them were various starts instead of complete plot arcs, but there were still a good number of “complete books.” (Hey, I was 15 in 2000. I wasn’t writing 80k, but I was completing plot arcs in things longer than short stories.)
Mostly because of the “read a lot” part, my grammar and punctuation is good, even back then. When you’re exposed to it on a regular basis – especially when it’s a regular, fun basis – you see how it’s done, so it’s easy to imitate. I don’t remember anyone explaining how to write dialogue because, by the time someone probably did, I would’ve just tuned it out. (My parents let me read anything and everything I wanted from a very young age, with one exception: they said Pet Sematary was too scary for a second-grader, even though it had a kitty on the cover.)
Now, is my grammar perfect? Nope. Have I taught multiple college-level grammar courses at this point? Yep? And still …? Nope. But here’s the thing: it doesn’t have to be. People hardly ever speak with perfect grammar. Plus, if you really need it to be polished and shined for a specific, that’s what revision is for.
And this isn’t just about my fiction. When I’m writing my nonfiction, I might try to shift the voice in my head to Full Academic, but … I don’t bog myself down by worrying about it too much on the first pass. The main goal of writing is, for me, to get the darn words on the page, however they’ll come. Jump around, sketch some notes there, plop something in the middle and figure out how to connect it later … whatever. Just get the ideas down.
The “rules” are for revisions.
The first draft of something for me is play. We’ll turn to Shannon Hale here:
I’m writing a first draft and reminding myself that I’m simply shoveling sand into a box so that later I can build castles.Shannon Hale
And, for the record, my approach to that first draft is “shovel allllllll the sand!” Things can always be deleted later – plot beats, random characters, that one cool point I really want to make but probably doesn’t fit … shovel it all in. Get it all down. The hardest step is putting something on the page, so don’t worry about all the things that’ll just make me freeze and leave it blank. Shovel that sand.
Now, like all writing advice, this doesn’t work for everyone. I have friends who, somehow, meticulously plot out books – or even series – before they start shoveling sand. My revision process is a lot more intense than theirs because I’m still organizing my sand and they’ve already got it placed in neat little blocks with turrets and gables and other architectural flourishes from the start. Some of them started out working that way, and others started more like me and got bogged down in the revisions, so they backed up and changed their approach.
I think the number one rule about writing advice is that not all writing advice will work for you.
My biggest struggle is drafting, not revising or editing, so I’ve formed my approach to make that hardest part the easiest it can be for me. When I sit down to write, I throw the rules out the window. Just get the words on the page – form the sense of it so it can be massaged and perfectly shaped later on. Some days are easier and I can pay more attention to the rules, but others … they get thrown out the window.
The first draft is playing. I’m just shoveling sand. Then, once I’m done shoveling, I’ll switch tools and start shaping, matching tenses, paying attention to singular and plural, messing with punctuation, and knowing that, no matter how much I try, by the time my mom reads my proofs, there’ll still be plenty for her to catch. (I get emails like “On page 6, I know you meant x instead of y” and “On page 10, that’s a gerund, so you really need to …”)
So the short answer to whether I consciously think about rules and advice while writing is no, and the longer answer is “Because I come back to that later.” Plus I’m not the only one who considers it. Editors, proofreaders, peer reviewers … lots of people have the chance to catch the rules I’ve missed. It never has to be just you, trying to remember all the rules.
What about you? Do you think of specific grammar or writing rules when you’re tackling your first draft? Are there specific things you know you need to focus on?