The Seven Rules of Writing

Dame Jackie

When I first decided that I was serious about writing, it was back in 2003. I’d dabbled before then, thought that it would be amazing to be a writer, but I didn’t take the craft seriously. The No. 1 rule of writing that everyone knows, whether they’re a novice or a NY Times bestseller, is if you’re a writer, you have to write. A lot. Not just when the Muse whispers to you. Not when you happen to have some free time. Writing means a commitment. It means kicking it up from “hobby” to “volunteer work.” It’s the old formula of Butt in Chair + Hands on Keyboard = Wordcount. It’s not just writing during your free time but actively making time to write. You know this. I thought I understood this in 2003 as I worked on the Great American Novel. I didn’t truly grok it, though, until 2005, after more than triple-digit rejections had come in.

So you know the next step of this dance: The No. 2 rule of writing is when the first thing doesn’t work, write Something Else. Sounds simple, right? Close the file, open a new one, get going. See the formula from above. When faced with the notion of writing Something Else, it was both liberating and terrifying. Moving on? My God, how? The GAN had been a part of my life for so long, and now I had to admit failure?

Well. Yeah.

Right around this time, writers bump up against the No. 3 rule of writing: Open Up to New Ideas. Or, as I like to call it, the “Oh My God, I Got Nothing!!!” Syndrome. This is the time when we’re convinced we’ll never get a new idea ever again. And then…a new idea pops up. Maybe it’s an old idea in pretty new wrapping paper. Maybe it’s something completely different. But along it comes, ready to play. And then it’s back to the formula from rule No. 1 again. And everyone knows what the No. 4 rule of writing is: Repeat Rules 1 – 3.

What these rules don’t tackle is how to deal with all of these rules. We writers are creatures of validation. We need to know that we don’t suck. We aren’t just writing for ourselves, or our families. We aren’t self-publishing a handful of copies to give away as gifts. We want writing to be our careers. We want to be paid for our work. We want recognition. In other words, we want our performance reviews to reflect all the work we’ve put into our projects.

Here’s the thing: a lot of times, that just doesn’t happen. Even when our work gets published, we can get lousy reviews. Ah — here’s Rule No. 5: Wear Your Big Girl Panties/Man Up. In other words, scathing reviews and painful rejections happen. Deal with it.

But you know what? There are times when the rejections and lousy reviews pile up until they seem endless. There are times when all that’s visible are those judgments — the “no’s,” the nit-picking of the writing, the “don’t bother reading this one” comments. Could you imagine getting this sort of feedback in the corporate world? Multiple times? If you’d worked your ass off to create something you felt proud of, only to be told by everyone that the work just isn’t good enough, so you’re not getting paid?

It hurts. Yeah, yeah–big girl panties/man up. It still hurts. And sometimes, shrugging off the hurt takes a long time to do. Writing can be depressing. Maybe the words just won’t come, or maybe you think everything you’ve written is horrible, or maybe the rejections are just too much to handle. There may be times when you feel like it’s not worth it. You may say to yourself, “Why bother?”

And so…Rule No. 6: Get a support system.

I have a number of people who hear everything that’s happening with me in my writing career — the Deadline Dames, my agent, my beloved crit partner, my equally beloved beta reader, my extremely beloved Loving Husband, and a few other trusted groups. I’ve called people in tears. I’ve had people talk me off the metaphorical ledge. People have helped me brainstorm out of plot twists; people have helped me make sense out of the insanity that is the publishing world. If I didn’t have all of these people to help me — and whom I help in return — both the craft and the business of writing would be much more difficult…and perhaps even overwhelming.

Writing is a solitary activity, but the writing community is filled with people who understand your frustrations and your fears. Don’t isolate yourself. Join writing groups, in person and online. Learn as much as you can about the business of writing (this may help you keep things in perspective, or it may make you run screaming) and share it with your writing group. Get that support system in place. And use it.

Finally, don’t forget Rule No. 7: Have a life beyond the keyboard. God, this one is tough for me. I’m always thinking that I should be doing more — more writing, more research, more stuff related to writing. We all know that writers write — that was Rule No. 1 for a reason. But it’s just as important — no, more so — for us to not lose sight of the other things in our lives that matter. Family. Friends. Walking in the sun. Enjoying. In other words, we have to find our bliss, because in this crazy world of writing, there are far too many times that our bliss will get trampled.

And so, in my last post of 2010, I give you this wish for 2011 and beyond: Don’t Let Anyone Step On Your Bliss.

My non-writing totally bliss-worthy goal for this winter is to go skiing with Loving Husband and the Tax Deductions. What’s yours?


  1. says

    Hi Jackie :)
    Thank you for the wonderful writing post.
    I cut & pasted it to notebook so I can read & re-read it.
    Merry Christmas!
    Love & Best Wishes to you & yours,