Hung Up on Rules?

Guest post
by Jacqueline Hopkins-Walton

Do you get hung up on rules about writing? Rules that everyone in the writing industry is telling you that you must follow in order to get a book written and even published?

Lin Robinson wrote five blog posts about breaking the rules (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3Part 4, and Part 5). I pondered if his list is why I am struggling with my writing lately…or for the past fifteen years.

Now if you did a google search on rules of good fiction writing, you get a long list of rules. From seven rules to ten rules to sixteen rules; from rules on short fiction writing to writing fiction to writing historical fiction, novel, poetry, and creative writing, and I have a feeling the list goes on and on and on. I didn’t click on Google’s next page of lists, I don’t have time to read about more rules since the ones I hear about now or have known about years ago are keeping me from writing and completing the next book.

I did click on the first one that came up here and there is a part two here. There are a lot of writers in those two posts that have their own list of rules about writing. Some are quite funny, some are quite ridiculous and some I rather like.

Here are some that I think are not a bad idea:

Hilary Mantel’s #3 ~ ‘Write a book you’d like to read. If you wouldn’t read it, why would anybody else? Don’t write for a perceived audience or market. It may well have vanished by the time your book’s ready.’

Andrew Motion’s #2 ~ ‘Think with your senses as well as your brain.’

Al Kennedy’s #1 ~ ‘Have humility. Older/more experienced/more convincing writers may offer rules and varieties of advice. Consider what they say. However, don’t automatically give them charge of your brain, or anything else – they might be bitter, twisted, burned-out, manipulative, or just not very like you.’

There are some that are very short, sweet and to the point like Helen Smith’s, Richard Ford’s and Ian Rankin’s. There’s even a list by the ever popular Neil Gaiman.

You could get distracted following the rules of some, like Michael Moorcock’s #7 ~ ‘For a good melodrama study the famous “Lester Dent master plot formula” which you can find online. It was written to show how to write a short story for the pulps, but can be adapted successfully for most stories of any length or genre.’

I love (and my most favorite) Margaret Atwood’s #6 ~ ‘Hold the reader’s attention. (This is likely to work better if you can hold your own.) But you don’t know who the reader is, so it’s like shooting fish with a slingshot in the dark. What fascinates A will bore the pants off B.’

But the most perfect ones I think I will listen to are:

Phillips Pullman’s ~ ‘My main rule is to say no to things like this, which tempt me away from my proper work.’ And it was his only rule.

And Helen Simpson’s ~ ‘The nearest I have to a rule is a Post-it on the wall in front of my desk saying “Faire et se taire” (Flaubert), which I translate for myself as “Shut up and get on with it.”

What are your favorite rules that you may or may not listen to? Do you listen to them or are you getting hung up rules like I am?

Well it is onward and upward for me. I’m going to try to forget the rules and write what I want to write, how I want to write it. It’s time to concentrate on my mystery series I’m setting in SE Alaska where I had been living. I created a secret board some time back about these particular books, the characters, etc. on Pinterest and just today released it to the world to see. I also created a facebook page for the two main characters where I hope to introduce them to everyone as I write the series.


Jacqueline Hopkins-Walton is the author of Wilderness Heart, selected as a recommended read on USA Today’s Happy Ever Blog. Learn more at her Amazon author page.


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26 thoughts on “Hung Up on Rules?”

  1. I like your list of ‘rules,’ although I don’t really think of them as rules so much as ‘feelings.’ When I write, I just let what’s in my mind flow onto the page. I can always go back during rewrite and correct any egregious errors. When I write with all the grammar rules in my mind, though, I usually want to gag at what comes out.

    1. Good point Charles. I gag at what comes out, too. Thank goodness there isn’t a teacher from school standing over our shoulder telling us how to diagram our sentences as we write or I think no one would publish a thing. I do wish though that I had paid attention in school on how to really do that, lol.

      Thanks for commenting.

    1. That is a good one, Yvonne. Kind goes in hand with part of Margaret Atwood’s where she says ‘Hold the reader’s attention. (This is likely to work better if you can hold your own.)

      Thanks for stopping by.

  2. Nice post! I too think the lists of rules for writing have been a tad overdone. Better, I think, to just get on with the writing. Although I do like that one about writing with your feelings as well as with your brain.

  3. I agree totally with Hilary Mantel’s #3 ~ ‘Write a book you’d like to read.’ This is the basis of all my work; first, last and middle. Even if I don’t sell any of them, I’ve got all my own books to read over and over–and I do!

    1. Thanks Jim, I probably need to listen to that one. But here’s another one: Stop reading about all the rules before they stop you from writing. At this rate, I’ll have post it notes all over my computer. 🙂

  4. I only have one rule for my writing: Write a book that is appealing. I put every effort into writing well, but in the end, if my story doesn’t appeal to people, it’s all for naught.

    1. You are wright there and I too hope I can put in a really good effort into something everyone will want to read. Thank you for stopping by.

      I apologize for my delayed response.

  5. Excellent post, Jacque, thank you! My favorite rule came from Alice Orr, a literary agent/romance author/all-around dynamo of a woman I met at a writing conference. She even gave out slips of paper printed with her rule: DO IT ANYWAY! I still keep it next to my desk.

  6. Since writing fiction is evolving (thanks to the movies and television storytelling formats) some rules have to be broken. But then, I think that’s always true for creative people. Overall, it’s probably best to follow the advice of Jiminy Cricket and let your conscience be your guide. Thanks for the inspiring post.

  7. Thanks for your post Jacqueline.
    Mine are; write what I would like to read, and learn from the experience. Write a good story, and write the next, better than the last.

  8. Terrific post, Jacqueline! I agree with all of the above, especially the DO IT ANYWAY. Being a writer takes courage…good luck on your new series 🙂

    1. Thank you DV. I am going to try the do it anyway approach I think. And most definitely it takes courage. Much success to you DV.

      Thanks for stopping by and for sharing. 🙂

  9. So glad to hear that someone else has gotten tangled on the rules, and has decided to move past them.The rules helped me initially but became a hindrance later on. I found I was changing my writing, then changing it back, according to the latest “rules” I read. It was getting me nowhere.

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