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 hate—and 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
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
Looking back at completed pages can be motivating, in the same
I pace myself similarly when I’m drafting, striving for a balance of
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
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
Diana Renn is the author of three YA mysteries: Tokyo Heist, Latitude 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 Weekly, The Huffington Post, YARN (Young Adult Review Network), The Writer, Brain Child, Literary Mama, and elsewhere. She lives in Concord, MA with her husband and son.
Colwill is an instructor and manuscript consultant at GrubStreet, an associate editor at Bat City Review, and an MFA candidate at the University of Texas at Austin. After graduating a scholarship awardee of GrubStreet’s Novel Incubator program, Colwill found representation for her first novel, Before We Tear Our Selves Apart, with Robert Guinsler of Sterling Lord Literistic, which is currently on submission to publishing houses. She is the recipient of the Wellspring House Emerging Writer Fellowship, the Henry Blackwell Essay Prize, and a Crawley-Garwood Research Grant, and has received fellowships and support from Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, The University of Texas at Austin, Boston College, Kansas State University, the Anderson Center for Disciplinary Studies, and GrubStreet. She was a finalist for the 2019 Tennessee Williams Fiction Prize, the 2019 Reynolds Price Award, the 2019 Far Horizons Fiction Award, the 2019 Disquiet International Literary Prize, and the 2019 Lit Fest Emerging Writer Fellowship. Colwill’s fiction is forthcoming in Granta and is anthologized in Everywhere Stories: Short Fiction from a Small Planet (Press 53). She has served on the editorial team for Post Road magazine, The Conium Review, Solstice Literary Magazine, and Pangyrus magazine. Colwill is a founding member of the Back Porch Collective, a Boston-based group of writers. With members connected to Cuba, India, Albania, Atlanta, Bosnia, Miami, Jamaica, and the UK, they bonded over a common passion for global narratives and literature’s potential to create empathy and understanding across all geographical, political, and cultural borders. Hailing from Yorkshire, in the north of England, Colwill is determined to introduce the word “sozzard” to the American vernacular. For a full list of publications, projects, and services, please visit colwillbrown.com.See other articles by Colwill Brown