Who Needs Rules?

Over and over again this topic seems to pop up in my list of things to write about on this blog. It is almost like I am avoiding writing about other things, or that I am struggling for ideas on what to write. (Both are true.) No matter how many times that I hash out this topic, I never actually get anywhere on it. Endlessly I talk or write about it, but yet nothing is solved — I still ain’t outlining… among other things.

Of course there is a problem there: I am a true pantser. Writing by the seat of my pants is how I write. No plans, few (if any) notes, and a whole lotta guess work. In some cases, it really isn’t bad. I can keep track of a lot. Believing that has bitten me in the ass before, although it generally is true. Much of any story I write has the beats planned out in my head (yeah, right). Then how is that different from outlining?

It’s different in spirit. When I sit down to write, those plans generally evaporate. Whatever I was thinking about goes away and I begin hitting my fingers against the keys of the computer. The thing is, in truth, those “plans” are really vague ideas of where I want to take a story — like having an ending in mind. Nothing more than that. At best, if I am lucky, I can steer the ship towards that ending. All too often though, it hits an iceberg on the way and I am left scrambling to save the story, often through revisions.

And that isn’t bad. Writing a total piece of shit isn’t wrong. In fact, there are many writers I’ve heard who plow through a first draft with little regard for its condition. They figure it’ll be patched up in the revisions. It’s not wrong or right; it just is.

Conversely, there are many authors who insist on trying to write as cleanly as possible in the first draft to minimize the need for revisions. (Not to say that there isn’t any editing or revising, only that they are limiting it to the best of their ability.)

When I am honest with myself, I don’t know what I want to do. I’d like to be able to write cleanly on the first shot. I’d like to be able to plan out my whole book and then simply blaze through writing it, knowing each step I take. (I’d like to be able to afford an editor…) I’d like a lot of things. Truth is though, I have to figure out really where I stand first, then pick that direction I want to head and go for it. There’s no rules to follow except for one: write.

Every time I try to solve this problem for myself, it ends with me berating myself because I cannot seem to follow [insert author name here]’s rules to build the perfect novel. Even though there are thousands of iterations of these so called “rules” to follow and every one is different and every writer I hear does state that caveat of “results may vary — this is what works for me”, I somehow believe that I need to follow these rules to get success. Which rules I need to follow isn’t a question that gets asked in all this. Just the rules. You know: the rules. Often it is a matter of which were discovered most recently… but still.

What is said from these lips often in many other iterations of life is to do something, and if that something ends up being not right, then shift directions. Change it. The point of it is to do anything other than nothing. Writing, however, it becomes different. Fear, anxiety, whatever — any reason needed to make sure that something good doesn’t happen — occurs and besides writing itself as an activity, nothing gets done. Often even the writing isn’t grand. It isn’t (as Chuck Palahniuk says it should be) dangerous.

Now Chuck’s advice there is the only one that I truly know I need to follow. But that is in approach of story telling. It means that the writing must speak the truth — be it ugly, hard, difficult — oh, especially if it is all those things. Even that sometimes is a challenge. But at least it is one rule I don’t feel needs argued with from me.

On the other hand, it is everything else. It’s the technical stuff I have the largest problem with. Outlines, editing, structure, etc are all the things that seem to perplex this pantser. And there’s a bigger problem with even trying. Am I just lazy? That is a possibility, then again, I wouldn’t be pushing to write if I was. And often in my avoiding writing, it’s by doing some other necessary tasks — pure task avoidance, but not laziness.

What is being avoided? Outlines. Revisions. Editing. Beta-reads. Everything except the writing. I’m avoiding even trying.

The other day it occurred to me that I don’t need to follow rules though. Sure, this was known, but at the same time, it wasn’t. It was like some feature that was ignored because there were other things, more shiny things, to gaze upon. Anyway, I can outline without outlining, as a form of note-taking, with maybe taking the time at the end of the day to jot down where the beats should go for the next day. Nothing major, maybe a word even — a note with the intention of kicking off the next day. It doesn’t have to be any format. Nothing specific. It doesn’t have to follow any rules. The only thing it needs to be is useful.

It gave me some hope. Then again, it’s not really hope. It’s glorified note-taking with a hint of planning (like waving an ingredient over a plate and saying it’s in the meal).

Really this brings me to the real issue I have with all of this. It was mentioned above. I need to actually do whatever thing it is. Not debate it. Not think about it. Not talk or write or do whatever thing that isn’t it. Do it. Do the thing. Without action, it really is simply me ranting about nothing for over 1,000 words. And that is less than useful.

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