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No rules, just write!

Ignore the rules?

When I started writing, three years—oh my God, three years—ago, I didn’t know anything. I had a story I wanted to tell, and I enjoyed sitting at the computer every day banging it out.

Ignorance is bliss.

I’ve learned a lot since then. Some of it’s been really useful stuff. POV, setting, hooks, active language, effective dialogue, pacing, conflict. Critique partners, agents, editors, and contest judges have provided excellent feedback on what does and doesn’t work.

They have also—for better or worse—passed along the “rules” of romance writing. Some good, others not so much, though all generally well-meaning. And every one of these is broken—and done well—in many of the bestselling books out there.

  • The hero and heroine should meet in the first few pages.
  • Once the H/H are together, they need to stay together as much as possible for the rest of the book.
  • Keep the timespan of the story short for better pacing.
  • No prologues.
  • No head hopping in the same scene.
  • Write mainly from the heroine’s point of view.
  • Don’t let the H/H have sex too soon.

I’ve had editors and agents say things like, “The Caribbean? Oh, well, readers prefer books that are set in the U.S.” Or, “Military suspense is good as long as it’s not too involved in military day-to-day stuff.”

I need that thing Dumbledore has—a pensieve—where he can pull memories out of his head so he doesn’t have to deal with them. Something insidious happens as you learn “the rules”.

Like the child whose purple trees and orange grass slowly begin to conform as she progresses through school until she can’t conjure fantastical art anymore, a writer is in danger of losing the creative spark if she lets all those notions of what will and won’t work bog her down before she’s even started.

There’s no doubt that craft is imperative. My early manuscripts pretty much suck from lack of good craft, but the story was exactly what I wanted it to be by the time I was done.

I don’t want to self-edit before I even start typing! I already have enough unconscious filters at play already.

So, I’m not entirely sure how to get back to writing the book for myself first and everyone else second. For now, I’m trying to ask myself, “If I wrote this the way I really wanted to—as if no one else would read it—what would happen?”

Any suggestions for how to toss the “rules” and just write?

Photo credit: DO NOT ENTER SIGN © Aaron Kohr |

Throwing off sparks

Maybe it’s all the excitement/stress/ nervousness surrounding the upcoming RWA conference—in less than two weeks!—but my creative brain has been AWOL for the last few, uh, months. Revisions, yes. Coming up with new ideas? Not so much.

I was especially stymied by an idea for the follow-up to BLIND FURY. I wanted to have a log line, three chapters, and an outline ready in case an editor or agent asks, “What else do you have?” Or, “Can you do a series?”

I want to be able to say, “Well, as a matter of fact…”

The problem was that I was trying too hard to shoehorn existing characters into something and killing all of my creative energy. I finally realized that I needed a spark—an opening scene or killer conflict that comes to me as an aha moment—before I worried about who would be in the book. All of my past books have been spark first, then characters, then plot.

Once I flogged myself a few times for abandoning “the formula”, I hashed out a few ideas with a friend and realized I was still working within the constraints of a couple of characters I didn’t really like that much. Good as secondary foils, not so great for hero and heroine.

And then I came up with an opening that I liked. And a log line that needs some work, but is not bad. And then I started writing just to get a feel for the heroine, who is new to me.

Love her already.

Big sigh of relief. I haven’t fleshed it all out yet, but I’m back on track.

At least until next time I derail. 😉

Has your creative side ever taken a powder? How’d you handle it?

(Credit: Free photos from

Blank slate

Yes, I covet office supplies... Photo:

I like to brainstorm on a whiteboard. In my dreams, it’s 6’x4’, rolling, and two-sided. In reality, it’s 16”x23” and lying unmounted on the carpet.

There’s something about using a dry-erase board that taps into my creative side. I can use colors, make connections, write upside down if I want, and—probably most important—easily erase at will. It’s kinetic and unboxed. I can stand and move while capturing my thoughts.

Yes, I could do this on paper, but I think the sense of permanence (and probably the sense of waste) stifles my creativity in comparison to the whiteboard. On paper, my ideas are not so easily erased or rearranged. My efforts become messy and require more paper. (I do have a stack of scrap for this purpose.)

The computer makes up for paper’s disadvantages, but requires a more linear approach without some kind of special software or mouse for freeform expression.

For some reason, when I use paper or the computer, I feel like I’m tied to the ideas previously written, and I tend to get stuck in a thinking rut. It’s purely psychological, but why fight it?

I also like the large space afforded by a board. I can write in big, bold strokes, change colors, draw lines and symbols, and just…spread out. With a big enough board, I can make notes on several different areas of the story at a time. Character stuff over here, plot ideas over there, and GMC notes at the bottom.

I use the computer to capture my freeform notes before wiping the board clean, and once I get to the writing phase, I prefer the computer. With Scrivener, of course. 😉

But for now, in my pre-writing phase, I’m getting a headache from the smell of dry-erase markers.

Trusting my process

I’m in pre-writing mode. It takes 4-6 weeks. I know this. And yet I still get frustrated when the process doesn’t go faster. I get frustrated when I think my outline sucks and the story premise blows and that I never should have started this story in the first place.

And then I take a break, read a book, work out, walk the dog, take a nap, anything to get my mind off the story and my suckfest of an outline. And then I decide to just write some scenes.

Maybe they’ll end up as backstory. Maybe they’ll never even be part of the story or the character at all. And once I decide that’s okay, the ideas start flowing and the scenes magically write themselves. Okay, not really, but the ideas do start flowing, and scenes appear with less effort.

At this point, I may not have adjusted the outline to my satisfaction, but every scene I write will inform the final storyline. That’s the whole point of my pre-writing phase, but sometimes I forget this. I want the rough—but essentially final—outline to be done so I can start cranking out the words.

But, I have to just trust my process, because when I don’t, I end up with a dead carcass of a half-finished story that’s going nowhere. Even though a month-and-a-half sounds like a lot of time to “waste” just to get started, it saves me months of agony and rewriting down the road.

So for now, I just breathe, and fume, and doodle, and write.

And trust that someday I’ll have another story.