Writing Rules Made to Be Broken: Never Look Back

There's a distinctly rebellious air about the Muse and the Marketplace Conference this year. This weekend at Boston's Park Plaza, #Muse18 presenters will be letting loose on the writing rules that have held our manuscripts hostage for far too long. To kick off the conversation ahead of the Muse weekend, this year's Muse series explores the writing, publishing, and workshop rules, conventions, and accepted norms that authors, agents, and editors at the Muse love to hateand why they'd love to see them broken. Some presenters will also offer their own rules or conventions that they want to see adopted in writing and publishing spaces. This installment comes from Diana Renn, author of False Idols. Diana will be leading the Muse session The People-Pleaser's Guide to Plot (full!).




Every time I draft a novel, I break the rule about keeping new pages out of sight until the draft is done.


It’s not a terrible rule. The idea is that relentlessly forward momentum leads to completion. If you stop to look back, you’ll start picking apart scenes and sentences and the whole project could unravel. By the same token, if you pause and share your work in progress with readers too soon, you will revise prematurely, or get paralyzed by criticism. The first draft is all about exploration and experimentation, not editing.


This rule is a popular one. It is the driving force behind NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month, where writers strive to complete a 50,000 word manuscript in thirty days—not much opportunity to look back with that kind of time pressure!). It has also given rise to apps like Write or Die (which can bleat annoying sounds at you or erase your work if you fail to produce your word count goals in a given amount of time), and to #amwriting word sprints with fellow scribes on Twitter.


This don’t-look-back rule appeals to me as a counterbalance to my perfectionist tendencies. I do agree that drafting and editing involve different parts of the brain. But the rule has never worked for me. It makes me feel stuck, or paralyzed by the knowledge that there is incorrect material in pages I’ve left behind—problems or lies that will fester there. My resolve to keep my pages close and not look back or share them always falters and breaks right around page thirty. That’s when I need perspective, either from myself or from a reader.


Looking back at completed pages can be motivating, in the same way that pausing to take a water break on a hike and look back at the path I’ve traveled gives me a sense of satisfaction: I did all that! Of course, pausing every few feet to look back would make for a pretty endless hike. Pacing is everything.


I pace myself similarly when I’m drafting, striving for a balance of forward momentum and backward reflection. Roughly every thirty pages, or about three chapters (my chapters tend to clock in around ten pages), I print them out and marvel at the accomplishment. I did all that! Then I read them over. I don’t dwell on sentence or word issues. I look for places to deepen character, raise stakes, or amplify conflict. I go back to previous scenes and look for what I call “geodes”—scenes that look small and fairly innocuous, much like a regular old rock in the road, but in fact contain hidden gems. I need to split those “geode scenes” open and make them serve the book more. Maybe I can plant a clue toward solving the mystery. Or take a conversation further. Or introduce a plot twist. I often can wring out an extra page or two from my geode scenes. I’m not writing longer, exactly, but going deeper. My word count rises as a result, as does my satisfaction, seeing my next page count benchmark come into view. By looking back, I can also usually spot potential plot problems that might only get worse if I didn’t stop to solve them. This method saves me a lot of revision down the road.


Pacing is also key when I’m seeking reader input. My trusty critique partner, YA author Erin Cashman, is the kind of dream critique partner who will drop everything and read. (I hope you have or find such a critique partner!) But I don’t want to wear her down and give her pages too often. I also don’t want to wait until I have the whole book done. Giving her three hundred pages all at once, with the expectation of commentary, feels, to me, like a pretty big ask. So I work on a thirty-page batch, mining for geodes, revising a little, troubleshooting on my own. Then I shoot those pages over to Erin, who reads quickly and gives me general impressions, ending with two important words: “keep going!” Her pace and process is similar. When we’re both drafting on similar schedules, we can expect to read several chapters of each other’s work about every week. This keeps us on track to getting our books done. It helps that Erin and I have been critiquing each other’s work for years, and we know exactly the balance of constructive criticism (big issues / red flags only) and encouragement that we need at this early stage.


I used to be extremely protective of my drafts, not wanting to share pages until the prose shined. But writing with a reader in mind keeps me producing pages on a regular basis. It also prevents me from lapsing into info-dump chapters or backstory. I know my critique partner’s time is precious. I don’t want to bore her. I want her to snatch up my pages when they come in and read eagerly to find out what happens next. I want to keep her engaged. This is what I want for all my future readers, so it’s useful to get into that mode of thinking at the first draft stage.


In breaking a rule, I suppose I’ve made my own rule: look back in thirty-page batches, take stock, share with a trusted reader, fix what I can, move on. I can’t imagine writing any other way now. I don’t expect this process will work for everyone, but my other rule for writing is to do what works for you! If you’re feeling stuck in a draft, and that finish line for your novel is endlessly receding, trying looking back. Trying sharing your pages. The perspective you gain may be the thing you need to propel you forward again. 



Diana Renn is the author of three YA mysteries: Tokyo HeistLatitude Zero, and Blue Voyage, all published by Viking / Penguin. Blue Voyage was honored as a 2016 "Must Read" by the Massachusetts Book Awards. Her new novel, False Idols, is a collaboratively written FBI thriller (for adults!) which will be released episodically by Serial Box in early 2018, then published as a trade paperback by Adaptive Books in April 2018. Diana also writes essays and short stories, which have appeared in Publisher's WeeklyThe Huffington PostYARN (Young Adult Review Network), The WriterBrain ChildLiterary Mama, and elsewhere. She lives in Concord, MA with her husband and son.


About the Author

As Editor of GrubWrites, GrubStreet's popular blog, Colwill serves the Grub community a daily dose of literary goodness. Book lovers can find reviews, news, recommendations, and conversations with exciting new authors to stay up to speed on all things lit. Writers, GrubWrites is your go-to spot for expert craft talk, thoughtful discussions on how writing is learned and taught, and essential publishing and publicity advice. Colwill is also a GrubStreet instructor and consultant specializing in the novel.


Colwill is Writer-in-Residence at Wellspring House, and a recipient of the work-study scholarship for the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference and the Henry Blackwell Essay Prize. Her creative work has appeared or is forthcoming in Everywhere Stories: Short Fiction from a Small Planet (Press 53, fall 2018), Solstice Literary Magazine, The Conium Review, Poetry and Audience, and other places, and her essays have featured on Dead Darlings and elsewhere. She's served on the editorial team for Post Road magazine and The Conium Review and is currently Fiction Editor at Pangyrus magazine. A scholarship awardee for GrubStreet's Novel Incubator, after graduating from the program Colwill found representation for her first novel with literary agent Robert Guinsler of Sterling Lord Literistic. She was educated at Leeds University in England, where she received her BA hons in English Language and Literature (International), with stints at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and Kansas State University’s Graduate Creative Writing Program, where she was awarded the Seaton Graduate Fellowship in Creative Writing. Most recently, Colwill completed a Master's degree in English Literature at Boston College, for which she was awarded a full scholarship. Hailing from Yorkshire, England, her life's mission is to introduce the word "sozzard" to the American vernacular. For a full list of publications, projects, and other services, including copy editing, please visit colwillbrown.com.

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by Colwill Brown