The Passion of the Writer

I have just come from a superbowl party after watching that AMAZING game. Apologies to all you sports haters, but I am going to use a football metaphor in today’s post. You know I love pop culture – and the superbowl is about as pop as it gets. And wasn’t that an EXCITING last few minutes? No matter who you were rooting for, that was high drama.

Whether you love sports or hate them, you can’t argue with the fact they’re packed with drama. There are multitudes of stories in every sport, in every game, behind the scenes and on the field of play. Sounds like the makings of a good post, don’t you think? But that one will have to wait for another day.

I had already planned today’s post before I watched the game; of course, during the game, I couldn’t help think of the ways it tied into my theme, which is:


I’m currently working with a writer who is naturally gifted as a novelist and storyteller. She wrote a wonderful first novel without ever really studying the craft of fiction. Now, in order to polish it enough for possible publication, she needs to buckle down and study craft. But she is finding it difficult. She sees “craft” as a bunch of arbitrary rules and as she tries to write and rewrite with those rules in mind, she feels the life being sucked out of her. The necessity to do something a “certain way” rather than the way it originally flowed out of her is robbing her of her passion.

How do you overcome that? How do you study the craft of fiction and allow it to inform and improve your writing while still maintaining your passion?

I was thinking about this question during the football game. If you watched it, you may have noticed there were an unusual number of penalties called. A penalty is when someone fails to follow the rules of the game. When they break a rule, they lose yards toward their goal. Why are there rules in the first place? Well, lots of reasons, but one reason is to preserve the integrity of the game. The beauty of the sport (any sport) comes not only from how well someone can run or kick or throw or whatever… it comes from how well they can do it within the pre-set guidelines. The rules. They can’t just run or kick however they want. They have to do it a certain way.

Similarly, the “rules” of writing are there to help us create a work of beauty (although unlike in sports, they are not hard and fast rules but simply principles). Break too many rules and a penalty is called… you lose your reader’s interest, you lose their trust, you may lose them altogether.

Those football players have nothing if not passion. I wonder, how did they learn to channel their passion so that it fits within the strict rules of the game? I’m sure many would love to run out on the field, let loose, and do whatever they want. But that’s not what wins games. They’ve had to allow their passion to be informed by a deep and lengthy study of the craft of football. They’ve suffered for it. They’ve worked at it. Somehow, they’ve made it this far without losing their passion.


And how do writers do it?

I want to hear from you, especially published authors. I’ll bet there are many newer writers who want to know the answer.

You tell me.

Rachelle Gardner is a Christian literary agent who plays fast and loose with metaphors.

Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Gardner Literary. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


  1. mand on March 5, 2009 at 6:42 AM

    >Great metaphors in this post and its comments! I’m late to this party so i hope everyone else hasn’t gone home already (and hi, Rachelle, just discovered your blog) but they have prompted some metaphors of my own.

    However beautiful the singing voice you’re born with, you need to learn breathing techniques.

    From photography to oils, the visual arts are also about communicating, and like writing, they’re about communicating feeling (the passion we’re talking about) as well as information. A picture has a frame, or at least edges. Anyone who has responded to a beautiful landscape by pointing the camera at it will know that’s the way to get an expanse of sky with a green stripe at the bottom, which communicates very little to your mum who wasn’t there at the time. But pick a detail, think about the composition and lighting – and frame it. The focusing-in gives the picture its frame, even if it’s not a traditional rectangle. For me, the learnable principles of writing, of any art, are the frame.

    In transferring that attitude to my own writing, i have found studying the craft of poetry very helpful. I’ve really learnt to remove every word, every comma, that isn’t working hard. It’s like sculpture (hey, a simile instead of a metaphor!), chipping or whittling away the rough bits to produce something really fine, instead of the rough idea that may have suggested the piece in the first place. (Say, the driftwood that struck you as looking like a dragon.) In fiction you’re doing that to the events in the plot as well as the ideas and images.

    AS Byatt said she over-described when she was starting off; she saw each scene so clearly that she put every detail in, thinking that would put it across to the reader. In fact it obscured it. Back to visual art again – with skill, drawing two or three lines can convey a face, complete with the expression on it, better than any amount of accurate detail.

    As for the honeymoon, that’s an excellent parallel, and i would liken the revision stage – or the knuckle-down-and-treat-it-as-a-job stage – to an arranged marriage. Accept that you have no choice, put the hours in, and the result will be love. (Or if it isn’t, you’ve found out you’re in the wrong marriage, which is better than kidding yourself for the rest of your life.)

    Tessa McDermid, you’ve said exactly what i would have. Lucky you got there first as i’d have been far more long-winded! Rather nice to find a published writer telling me to do what i do anyway… ;0)

    Erastes, ‘one should write what one wants to write, then sit down and look hard at it and see where it can be improved.’ I couldn’t agree more, though i can say a bit more: get others to look hard at it. Feedback from friends n family is usually flattering and not very informed. Feedback from writers whose opinions you value – who write high quality stuff themselves, understand what you’re trying to achieve, and will be constructive rather than negative – can’t be bettered. That must be what an editor is? (though i haven’t had one myself).

    I’d say our writing needs to communicate BOTH the literal sense of what we’re saying, the what-happened, AND the emotion that goes with it. (Which in the case of non-fiction would be lively interest, and in fiction would be the feeling appropriate to the scene – never boredom!)

    As for how i do it (which was the question, oops): I say to myself that i’ll keep the first draft and go back to it if i don’t like the revision. I won’t commit myself. That’s how i am able to kill my babies. Almost always, the revised version is so much stronger that i forget the original and don’t even feel like looking back at it. I’ve also learnt to look to the future all the time, not agonise over this or that adjective, etc. It’s partly a maturity thing.

    Reading this discussion reminds me of another passion, one i’ve only recently discovered in myself: teaching. I have a natural talent for explaining complicated things simply. If someone asks a question, i can help – but tell me to plan a lesson and i don’t know where to begin. So that’s my current writing target: earn enough for some training in how to teach. Isn’t that just the same as we’re saying about writing?

    The trouble with blogs, sites and comments about writing is that they’re frequented by writers, and writers write, and i’m a slow reader! lol

  2. Lucy on February 10, 2009 at 10:53 PM

    >So much has been said so well here….

    Perhaps the best thing I can add is this: Learn to love your craft and not just your story.

    I think, Rachelle, that if I were to advise your author, I’d suggest that she take a community college creative writing class, where she will have to create a number of pieces on which to practice the “rules.” The level of personal investment can be much lower; it’s not like taking a hard self-editorial whack at a cherished novel.

    Someone else has pointed out that this is the “honeymoon phase,” and that’s probably an apt description. If I had to guess, I would say that your client had never done much revising of any kind, and hasn’t learned yet to see a creation as a flexible work in progress. If she can come to the point where she sees how a change has worked for the better, she’ll find it easier to consider changes as they need to be made. I don’t like changes myself, but I’ve learned from experience that a work can change dramatically and still remain true to the author’s vision.

    There’s far too much in this subject for a simple blog post, but I wish you both the best!

  3. Julie Weathers on February 3, 2009 at 5:05 AM

    >Several years ago I wrote some letters to editors of horse magazines regarding a fraudulent contest regarding a race horse. The editor of one of them contacted me later and asked if I would be interested in writing race stories for them. I told her I didn’t know how to write and had no education.

    She responded I had a natural talent and if I would listen to her, she would teach me.

    The first thing she did was point out crutches I used frequently. Then we moved on to the, “you have to know the rules before you can break them,” lecture.

    A California professor used her editorials about horse racing as examples of “style” in his creative writing courses.

    I’m in the revision process of my novel now and I have to admit it’s been frustrating. One person wants this and another person wants that. What has really helped, though, is knowing some of those rules so I can keep the reader’s eye focused where I want it instead of pondering grammar or lack of it that takes them out of the story.

    I live by the motto, “Give them no reason to leave your world.”

  4. Jen and Kev on February 2, 2009 at 8:31 PM

    >Thank you for this helpful post, Rachelle, and everyone who commented.
    Someone wrote about balance. That is the key. I have been reading through the Gospels, getting to know Jesus better, and I’ve found the best writing ever! I’m amazed at the use of strong verbs and the excellent sentence structure! And you can’t say the Holy Spirit is without passion in His writing! Oops! Not supposed to start a sentence with ‘and’ am I?

  5. Cheri Gregory on February 2, 2009 at 8:28 PM

    >tessa mcdermid — we must have great minds. Thank you for writing — so eloquently — what I was thinking!

    I was going to suggest that passion drives drafting; then, practical rule-following takes over during revising. But I doubt it’s that cut and dried. Sometimes, my passion is on the tip of my pen (er, my fingertips!) Other times, I “find my passion” as I cut, add, and tweak.

    I suspect that a few writers have “the gift” — an almost magical intuition that simultaneously encompasses and supersedes passion and rules.

    Then there’s us mere mortals. For some of us, understanding WHY certain methods work better than others gives us confidence which, in turn, fuels our passion.

  6. Adam Heine on February 2, 2009 at 7:49 PM

    >I found this comment on a completely different question, but I think the analogy is applicable here:

    “I think of it like going a sports game. Say you’re watching basketball: Michael Jordan grabs the ball, runs down the court without dribbling, and sinks the world’s most amazing slam dunk. And then everybody boos. Yes, the slam dunk is more impressive than dribbling – but people expect athletes to play within ALL the rules of the game, not just the big ones. Otherwise, it’s cheating.”

  7. Danica/Dream on February 2, 2009 at 6:41 PM

    >Wow, great topic!

    Years ago, one of my critique partners gave me the best writing advice ever. Learn the rules of writing. Once you know and understand the rules, you can break them at will.

    If you don’t know the reason for the rule or how it works, you won’t know how or why to appropriately break the rule.

    I agree with the comments about passion fading. It’s kind of like a marriage… sure, when you meet and get all ga-ga over someone, life is fabulous, everything’s wonderful. But what happens when you find out that the prince leaves his stinky socks everywhere? Ew! Total passion killer. And yet, somehow, you have to find a way to stay married. As a writer, you will someday open up that Word document and find stinky socks. So you have to have something else to stand on.

    We used to have a NYT bestselling author in one of our local writing groups. I would argue that she’s of about average talent. And yet, she’s had more books than she can even remember published. I know she didn’t do it relying solely on passion. I used to see her at chapter meetings, taking notes on whatever the speaker was saying. Even if we were talking about basic writing rules, she always found something new to learn.

    If you’re truly passionate about writing, I think you need to take the time and effort to put into making that relationship work. Learning the rules, improving your craft, and giving yourself a backbone for when the passion’s not there and you’re faced with a pile of stinky socks.

  8. Sharon K. Souza on February 2, 2009 at 6:36 PM

    >I enjoyed your post, Rachelle. For me, the passion of writing is like a bicycle, while the rules of the craft are like the handlebars that steer the thing. Sure, you can ride without them, but it’s so much easier to navigate the curves when you have something to help guide you.

  9. Sharon A. Lavy on February 2, 2009 at 6:00 PM

    >Pre-published, but the passion is what keeps me rewriting.

    And I have leaned to actually fear to get out my manuscript until I have had devotions.

  10. Richard Mabry on February 2, 2009 at 5:58 PM

    >I bridled at “rules,” but have learned to embrace “guidelines.” Why? Because if I color outside the lines I’m less likely to catch the attention of an agent/editor/reader. This thing called consistent point of view has become so ingrained into me that I’m disappointed to find some of my favorite authors–giants in their field–slipping and head-hopping. They can get away with it, because their writing draws me in anyway.
    As for passion, I have to agree with Brandilyn. Some days it isn’t there, but you still have to put BIC and get those words down. Maybe the passion will come in the edits, maybe halfway through a lightbulb will spring to life over your head and you’ll have to go back and reroute your characters in their journey.
    I’d define mastery of craft as learning the best way to get the story moved along without losing the reader. There’s emotion in there, as well, but I vote for craft.

  11. Rachel Hauck on February 2, 2009 at 5:55 PM

    >Great question, Rachelle! Great post, too! Sports settings create such a wonderful analogy.

    Passion is a fast flame the soon fades. Craft comes from discipline that’s a smoldering, building fire that can endure and is often fueled by passion.

    I posted on my blog about this not long ago, also using football.

    There was a young Ohio State player Maurice Clarett who had a great passion. But he was not disciplined. On the field, he was incredible. But off the field, he was a bit wild. His passions ruled him and where is he today?

    Certainly not the great ball player he could’ve been.

    Once my husband and I met up with a former youth. She surprised us with her college degree – architecture!

    She talked about her passion of architecture in the community and the art and creativity. For the longest time, she did not want to learn the “rules” of design or even the physics and math required for laying foundations and building buildings.

    She didn’t want to be stifled. Finally her professor convinced her to learn the math. Once she did, she found she had SO much more freedom and she could actually build the buildings she wanted to build – artsy and all!

    Writers who feel like the rules stifle them won’t last long. The passion for one book fades quickly and it’s really hard to stir it up for book 2 or 3 or 4 if the writer doesn’t get a hold of the rules.

    The more I use and know the rules, or better said, the tools, the more I love writing and am confident of my stories and my work.

    I start with a template to develop my characters and THEN I get excited. There’s where my passion comes into play and fuels the dry days when I have to face the structure and rules-tools of the craft.

    What your client is suffering from is “honeymoonitis.” 🙂 She’s in love with her story and the process of writing, just like when we’re in love, newly married and on our honeymoon.

    The real marriage begins when we go home and live it out day to day, choosing to love even when we don’t feel like it.

    Hollywood is driven by feelings and passion and we see how long their relationships last.

    Tell your client from me the “rules” and tools will ultimately make her a greater, longer term writer!


  12. Janet Kay Jensen on February 2, 2009 at 4:53 PM

    >I know writers who have gone with small publishers (and very little editing) and learned some of the rules after the fact – from workshops, etc. They have regrets.

    A good editor is priceless, IMO. One writer I know is amazed, now that he has a national publisher, that his editor is finding inconsistencies such as “you italicized this on page 22 but did not here. Which do you want?” or “You’ve over-used this phrase or word,” etc. These are things his earlier editors never pointed out. I know, you could say he’s lucky to have a contract with a national publisher now – but his stories are wonderful and they certainly saw the potential. But he’s learning after the fact.

    Maybe at some point an accomplished author’s craft will be so well-developed that they’ll only have to concentrate on the passion.

    With me it’s alternating spurts of both. But too often that nasty little editor on the shoulder interferes with the passion and won’t wait her turn.

    Let me see, what was the question?

  13. Nicole on February 2, 2009 at 4:14 PM

    >Aahh, but Rachelle, the calling of those penalties is arbritrary, often subjective interpretation of those rules, and often so off the mark and incorrect as to be shown in error through replays even though more than one has made the call in error.

    Yes, rules are essential in sports, in writing, in conduct. But in writing, I can relate to a passionate writer feeling stifled by the insistence to adhere to certain rules which tend to constrict innate skills. In some cases go ahead and throw the yellow flag, but in others let the writer play on.

  14. Timothy Fish on February 2, 2009 at 3:15 PM

    >Brandilyn said, “And here’s the other side of the coin. Your passion will not always be there.”

    That is true with almost everything we do. Speaking as a reader, it is obvious when a writer has lost his or her passion. It’s like the soul has been cut out of the author’s work. Sure, it is technically solid, but the life is gone. I hate to think of the number of times I have heard someone refer to an author and say, “she doesn’t write as well she used to.” As with a football team that isn’t playing as well as they once did, the author’s fans will stick around for a while, hoping the next book is better, but if the passion doesn’t return, they will lose interest.

  15. Rebecca LuElla Miller on February 2, 2009 at 3:09 PM

    >One of the commenters asked the difference between rules and craft. The football analogy might help in that regard as well. Think of “rules” as grammar and spelling. Yes, some books do have grammar and/or spelling errors, but for the most part, those will be “flagged” by an acquisitions editor or agent.

    Craft, on the other hand, is the insider stuff that the average reader isn’t aware of. In football it’s things like running precise pass routes learned over weeks of practice or executing the correct blocking scheme or reading defenses and making the correct decision accordingly. The thing about craft is, there may be a need to go away from the set play. I don’t mean calling an audible. I mean, the play starts out one way, but as things develop, the play realizes something better has opened up.

    In the game yesterday, the Arizona kick returner ran the ball back about 45 yards by starting to follow his blocking, then cutting back and going the other way. He got one great block, and the play turned into a big gain.

    His craft was knowing what he was supposed to do and choosing to do something else that he realized would work better.

    He did not choose to do something else in order to express his individuality or stubbornness or to be notice by the crowd. He did it because he believed it would further his goal to get the ball into the end zone.

    That’s the long way around to end up saying this: passion and craft should work together. Craft alone may gain a couple yards. Passion alone may end up losing yards. Together they can spring a runner for big gains.

    But Rachelle’s question: How do writers do it?

    First, I think it comes from understanding that writing, like any profession, has some intricacies that need to be learned. There are things that experienced writers have learned about telling a compelling story, so it seems necessary for us to be teachable.

    Second, I think experimenting helps. When I put suggestions into practice, the results can show what works and what doesn’t.


  16. Mindy Obenhaus on February 2, 2009 at 2:01 PM

    >Excellent insight, Brandilyn. Thank you!

  17. ~ Brandilyn Collins on February 2, 2009 at 1:56 PM

    >Passion is terrific, but frankly passion is cheap. What unpublished author isn’t passionate about his/her work? It’s the only thing that keeps you going when you’re not making a dime at writing, and all you receive are rejections. Problem is, passion without a solid understanding of the craft is likely to produce an unpublishable manuscript. I was certainly passionate as I worked for 10 years to be published in fiction. But all that time I studied the craft–hard. Finally I was contracted by a major publisher. My passion kept me writing, but solid, workable knowledge of the craft is what got me published.

    And here’s the other side of the coin. Your passion will not always be there. Trust me on this. Once you’re contracted and HAVE to create, there will be days, weeks, maybe even months when you don’t feel like it. When this happens you will rely 100% on your knowledge of the craft.

    Regarding articles on craft–you can check the archives of my blog, Forensics and Faith, for many topics on fiction writing. It’s free to you. I hope you’ll find the info helpful.


    ~ Brandilyn

  18. tessa mcdermid on February 2, 2009 at 1:02 PM


    First, I love your blog. A friend sent me the link a couple weeks ago and I’ve been hooked ever since 🙂

    As a writer and teacher, I found that learning the rules of writing (grammar, spelling, POV, etc.) helped free my writing. Like the mention of Karate Kid, then the movements were natural and I could focus on the story.

    Going with the sports talk, my son plays baseball and soccer and after years of learning the rules and main game, he was able to develop into the athlete that he is now. As described by a couple people (not just proud mama), he was poetry in motion when he was going after a ball in the goal box. He didn’t have to think about anything but getting the ball – the rest was second nature.

    What I’ve found in my writing (and, yes, I am published) is that I write with all the passion for my story first, flicking that internal editor off my shoulder whenever he intrudes. I don’t worry about spelling, grammar, etc. I just write, making comments to myself in parentheses for later if I’m stuck.

    Once that first version is finished, I go back and delve into the revising part. That’s when I have fun, looking for ways to tighten the story. I taught English to elementary students for years, sponsored a writers club, and now teach Continuing Ed writing courses. What I give as my reason for them to learn writing rules is the purpose for any writing: “To communicate with readers.” If your writing isn’t clear, I’d tell them, you’ve wasted the time of both the reader and yourself.

    For that reason/purpose, I check to make sure the writing makes sense for the reader. Is POV clear in the scene? Did I forget to bring in enough description for location and characters? Does the dialogue sound true? Will my readers want to turn the page to see what happens next?

    Cute phrases that I love may have to go. I do keep them in a file, just in case I want to use them again and because I can’t bear to part with them completely. I appreciate that no one has to read my writing until I think it’s ready to go. I also believe that more than enough words are in me for whatever I need to say – I can delete, revise, and the story will only get stronger.

    And like Camy, I want a clean, professional manuscript to go on the editor’s desk. I’ve heard editors talk about how important that first impression is and how they’ll read through a clean copy more often than not because they can be few and far between. I paid part of my way through college typing reports and school papers for friends. I was a perfectionist for them and the greatest compliment was having their professors say that their assignments were the cleanest ones they received.

    I moved growing up and had to learn grammar on my own (kept missing the appropriate class)by reading great books by authors in a variety of fields and studying texts like Strunk and White’s “Elements of Style” – it’s short, sweet, and still great. A favorite I’ve found now is “Self-Editing for Fiction Writers” by Renni Browne. More are out there; those two sit by my computer.

    Longer than I intended but can you see I have a passion for writing (and teaching)!?!? Oh, and someone asked about fiction vs. nonfiction. I write both and use many of the same techniques. The difference between the style and content of an article and a story would be where the idea of “craft” comes into play.

  19. T. Anne on February 2, 2009 at 12:18 PM

    >What wonderful comments so far!

    Passion. It’s the fuel for the fire. I happened to believe writers are born. Then, honing in on the craft comes from education. A BIG part of that education is reading in your own genre. Don’t get me wrong, classes, workshops, and books are great tools. I do believe the greatest learning tool is the novel itself.

    Rachelle, a love for football too? Does your awesome- ness ever end?

  20. Jack Roberts, Annabelle's scribe on February 2, 2009 at 12:05 PM

    >Passion set in order?

    I’m not published yet but I certainly can identify with the question.
    Short answer; Focus on what this story/ characters mean to you. Focus on why you want to finish and get it into the world. Keep that focus within, through music that reminds you of your story and fuels the passion, through good memories you have from creating it, through words and advise from those who liked it.

    I took a year off and really listened to the rules. I edited it thanks to the help of beta readers and critique groups and now I’m finally back to submitting. During that year I screamed at the heavens and complained a time or two.
    “That too? But I needed it to be that way.”

    There were times I lost focus and couldn’t hear the passion. Each of those times I did just as I said. I reread messages where I described my passion. I listened to “theme” music for my novel and just dove into the edits, applying rules and “killing babies”.
    It it perfect? Nope. Never will be. But I believe it’s ready.

  21. David on February 2, 2009 at 12:01 PM

    >I am a sportswriter, and I have observed that athletes possess one thing that fuels their passion: purpose.

    Sometimes it is an individual purpose. For most elite athletes in team sports, it is a purpose greater than themselves. Think team goals and championships.

    The impact of purpose in sports is the same as in writing. Or anything else, for that matter.

  22. Jill on February 2, 2009 at 11:53 AM

    >I can relate with those who have said that learning the rules actually stifled their creativity for a while. But to borrow from your football analogy, a team may come across someone who has the extraordinary ability to kick a football great distances. But the ability to send a ball soaring is not the only skill a placekicker needs. He also needs to be able to aim the ball in certain directions and hit certain targets. While he struggles to learn those skills, he may actually feel like he’s losing the talent of kicking the ball long distances. But if he keeps working at mastering the skills he needs (the rules, if you will) he will have eventually added to his ability to kick the ball a great distance. More skills, more talent, more opportunities.

  23. RefreshMom on February 2, 2009 at 11:47 AM

    >I tend to be the rule-following sort, so it might have been easier for me than some. Like Camy, I didn’t want to appear the newbie I was, so I read and re-read the rules before I ever attempted submission for anything. It worked though, and my first attempt was picked up at my first major writer’s conference and published by Thomas Nelson.

    And that brings me to my suggestion for those who find the books draining rather than energizing; learn the craft from the pros at a good writer’s conference. Yes, meeting editors and agents is a major reason for making the effort, but there’s a lot of valuable info in the classes that can move you along the path to mastery much quicker than plowing through a stack of books and trying to apply what you’ve learned. And the energy, synergy and camaradarie at a conference only enhances the passion for it all.

  24. Anonymous on February 2, 2009 at 10:34 AM

    >Would someone please explain the difference between “writing rules” and “craft.”

    And, would someone explain the difference between “non-fiction” and “fiction” and why the writing is vastly different, as I’ve been told.

    One the first question. Rules I understand. “Craft” seems to be a word more difficult to define.

    To me rules mean specific actual techniques, including spelling, professional appearance, etc.

    Craft, however, seems to define more the art of how you writer, how you capture emotios, and that elusive X-factor that turns your character into a real “fictional” person.

    Any thoughts out there.


    Rachelle your column is delightful, and I don’t mind the word sweet, it is an indication of your character and how you view your loved ones.

    Just interested in the thoughts.

  25. Julie Rowe on February 2, 2009 at 10:22 AM

    >They’re not rules so much as guidelines. And they’re there because readers demand them.

    A reader will put a book down if they can’t keep up with POV hopping, or if they can’t get a sense of the conflict or emotion. They’ll put the book down if they don’t like the characters or if there’s three chapters of backstory before the REAL story starts happening.

    A writer must first learn to write for their reader before they write for themselves.

  26. Philangelus on February 2, 2009 at 10:14 AM

    >A writer needs to know the rules for the same reason even a really fast horse needs a bit and a bridle. Good craft doesn’t squash passion: it channels it and makes it more effective.

  27. Rachelle on February 2, 2009 at 10:07 AM

    >Pam Halter:
    “Are the writing rules pushed more in CBA?” No. Everyone wants good writing. That one example at the Highlights conference is an anomaly as far as I can tell. Perhaps it’s the use of the word “rules” which isn’t exactly accurate. The craft of writing is something everyone should be pursuing and perfecting.

    Adam Heine:
    You’re right, I wasn’t specific. I was referring to the entire spectrum of principles that apply to learning, honing and perfecting the craft of writing.

  28. Kim Kasch on February 2, 2009 at 9:58 AM

    >Interesting…I wrote about breaking the rules on ”Kim Kasch’s Blogspot”post for today.

    I went back and edited my post to include this post, so people could see another perspective.

    I wasn’t talking grammar though. And Stephanie Meyer, in New Moon, broke the rules by having many blank pages – very descriptive.

  29. Mindy Obenhaus on February 2, 2009 at 9:58 AM

    >I think that if you are truly passionate about something you WANT to learn the rules, because you want what you’re doing to shine and be the best it can be. Yes the rules can be daunting, but if you want to reach your goal you’re willing to invest the time and effort.
    So often times I hear novice writers balk at some of the rules because they saw so-and-so do that in such-and-such book. When they say that, I go back to something someone told me as a novice. “Sometimes you can break the rules. But first you have to know what the rules are.”
    You gotta hone that craft.

  30. Adam Heine on February 2, 2009 at 9:41 AM

    >Looking at the comments, I feel like we all have different ideas of what rules are being referred to.

    When I read Rachelle’s post, I imagined the “rules” were things like “Avoid passive voice” and “Show don’t tell.” Things that are almost always the right thing to do, but that can be broken in the right places, by someone who knows what they’re doing.

    I’d ask Rachelle to specify, but if I’m right then there are more principles to the craft than there is space to post!

  31. Mary DeMuth on February 2, 2009 at 9:40 AM

    >I go back to Picasso, who trained as a portrait artist and perfected the form before he deviated. That’s how I view the rules. Submit yourself under them. Practice until you master. Only then does deviated flow into art. It’s not reversed.

  32. Pam Halter on February 2, 2009 at 9:32 AM

    >I think the job for us is to find a balance between the story and the rules. Camy encouraged me because she mentioned learning the rules well enough to determine which ones she could break now and then. Knowing which rules to break and when helps develope our voice, in a way.

    One note: my writing partner attended a Highlights conference last summer. When she mentioned the writing “rules” they looked at her like she was crazy. The only rule, they said, is to tell a great story in your own unique voice.

    I’m wondering, are the writing rules pushed more in CBA?

  33. Anonymous on February 2, 2009 at 9:23 AM

    >Where do you recommend learning the rules of the craft? There’s tons of junk online, so it’s hard to know what is reliable and respected. Do you recommend a particular writing book? Or would you suggest taking a class at a local community college?


  34. Vicki Bell on February 2, 2009 at 9:20 AM

    >My goal is to write with the same passion that Jenifer Hudson sang “The Star Spangled Banner.” The only rule she used was to keep the words the same. The style, creativity, range and gut-level reaching for the stars came from a deeper place within her. I’m still reeling.

    The passion has to come first. Starting out as a contract writer has made me realise how conscious I have always been of fitting into a set of guidelines. Now that I’m writing my own message, I have to work at letting go some predetermined parameters. Studying opportunities such as ‘omniscient viewpoint’ is actually freeing.

  35. Krista Phillips on February 2, 2009 at 9:00 AM

    >I’m unpublished as well, but your example hit home!

    I wrote my first book after reading maybe two books on how to write, and they were pretty short books. I’ve always loved to write, and decided if I was gonna done it, I had to just jump in with both feet and get it done. I emerged 3 months later with a completed 100k word manuscript that needed TONS of help.

    For me, it helped to have the experience of FINISHING a book before I really went back and learned the rules. As I learned something, I’d go back to my manuscript and see where I’d flubbed up, rewrite, and the outcome was amazing. The rules really did work! My book WAS getting better. I’m finally to the point that I feel confident enough about the book that one of my goals this year is to start seriously shopping it around to agents/editors.

    And now, as I start book 2 and 3, the change in my writing is amazing. Granted, I still do a lot of editing, I think everyone does, but knowing my guidelines and processing my passion for the story within those guidelines is a relief. It’s the thought that maybe, just maybe, it will only take months to edit vs a year and a half this time!!

  36. Timothy Fish on February 2, 2009 at 8:53 AM

    >I think part of it has to do with where our passion lies. The OT prophets often referred to their message as “the burden.” As writers, we can be burdened or passionate about many things. We could be passionate about becoming published or about producing flowery prose or about the story we tell.

    Not to say that some people aren’t over zealous in applying “the rules,” but when the story is our burden, the rules begin to look more like tools that aid us in taking the images resident in our minds and laying them out on paper. We can put the soul of any story on a single sheet of paper, but to show people the vivid images that fill out minds we expand it to many pages. Where we see people and places and action, our audience sees only words. Our struggle is to choose words with the power to create similar images in the thoughts of our readers. While the rules can only do so much, they help us with our impossible task. Applying the rules sure beats lying on our sides for weeks eating dung and playing with toy soldiers, as Ezekiel did.

  37. Gwen Stewart on February 2, 2009 at 4:38 AM

    >Unpubbed here. I await more advice from pubbed authors like Camy Tang’s excellent response above.

    When I first starting editing my work with craft rules in mind, I was afraid the rules whitewashed my novels. In the end I was sure my work could have been written by computer program–it seemed void of any voice or passion, let alone mine.

    But later, after allowing the work to simmer, I realized that application of craft makes the voice more palatable. I think writers’ distinct voices can be difficult to “stomach” for 400 pages if not made clean (or “crispy”, I love that). The application of craft doesn’t eradicate my voice or passion, it just makes the writing a little smoother for the reader. (At least this is my hope. And we all know on many days hope is tenuous for a writer–especially an unpublished one. *sigh*)

    My two cents–take it to the bank and you have a half-penny of olden days. 🙂

  38. Erastes on February 2, 2009 at 4:36 AM

    >I wrote my first short stories and my first novel without having any clue that there were rules. Grammar isn’t taught here after about the age of 14 and what little I’d learned (very little) I’d completely forgotten. Consequently, although published, I find the pov jumps and rather purple prose a bit much in the first novel.

    However as I started to learn that there were rules, I found myself getting hamstrung. I was so worried about keeping the rules and not being mocked that I really got blocked. Sadly there are no classes in this area to help–there’s the very famous “creative writing M.A.” started by Malcolm Bradbury at my local University ( but that’s hugely expensive – about £4,000 for two terms/semesters) so that was out of my reach. In the end I attended a night class which – while it didn’t teach me anything about grammar, did help me get unblocked by simple writing exercises and frankly persuaded me that rules were made to be broken.

    I’d say that one should write what one wants to write, then sit down and look hard at it and see where it can be improved. I’m lucky that I have a grammar geek as a beta-reader but she won’t interfere unless she thinks I’ve made a mistake rather than am bending the language to suit my needs.

    Read read read – your genre particularly, but read ALL genres,as voraciously as you can. And write, write everyday.

    My editors have helped me too. I’ve learned SO MUCH from them, and thanks to them I hope that future books will need less hard work from them.

    how do you get to Carnegie Hall?” old joke.. Practice, practice, practice…

  39. Camy Tang on February 2, 2009 at 3:22 AM

    >When I first started learning how to write, as I was writing my second manuscript (The Corinthian Rules, which years later was rewritten as Only Uni, book 2 in my Sushi series–Remember that monster, Rachelle? 🙂 I was reading every writing book, online writing article, and online workshop archive I could find.

    (I love free online articles!)

    Anyway, I was doing this research into the craft of writing not just because I was new at it, but also because I was serious about it.

    I knew I was going to get a manuscript (maybe not The Corinthian Rules, but at least one manuscript) onto an editor’s desk, and I wanted that manuscript to look professional.

    I wanted the manuscript to have my voice and my flair, but I also wanted to make sure it was polished, professional, and crispy.

    (Haha, I’ve been using that word a lot lately)

    So I studied the craft so that I’d have guidelines and boundaries. So I’d know how far I could go with my voice. So I’d know which “rules” I could break, which rules I could push, and which rules I couldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole.

    I think it worked. One of my first critique partners was author Sharon Hinck (we were both unpublished at the time, although Sharon was ahead of me in terms of craft and market knowledge). Sharon mentioned that my writing was very clean.

    Now, she also pointed out a bazillion problems I had, but she did mention that the manuscript at least looked professional.

    That’s what I wanted. I didn’t want to stand out like a newbie writer–I wanted to look professional. Like I knew what I was doing.

    (The fact I really didn’t know what I was doing is immaterial.)

    I think that’s what those writing “rules” do for writers. They help them to be professional.

    I think that if a writer is serious, if they’re seriously pursuing publication, they should make the effort to learn how to write so that other people (like agents and editors) will take them seriously.


  40. sarah on February 2, 2009 at 3:22 AM

    >I personally believe having a natural gift for writing is more important than knowing the rules. I’ve read plenty of manuscripts that are technically correct but have very little quality because the soul of the story is missing, due to the author’s lack of natural talent. And I know many successful authors who either don’t understand the rules (Stephenie Meyer for example – such dreadful grammar in her books!) or break them for the sake of style or meaning (CJ Cherryh).

    Which isn’t to say I don’t think rules are important. A genius for storytelling *and* mastery of the craft give you double the chance of being accepted for publication. I believe the best way to learn those rules is to read and analyze a lot of high quality literature, then practice in your own work what you have noticed. It is of course a slower route, but the quicker way of reading “how-to-write” books or taking grammar lessons will not make anyone a better writer, because unless the knowledge becomes integral, rather than just learned, it won’t be reflected well in writing.

  41. Adam Heine on February 2, 2009 at 3:20 AM

    >To rephrase Nixy’s point, you have to master the basics before you can improvise on them.

    It’s like Karate Kid. It sucked for Daniel to wax the car and paint the fence, but he was training his body in the basics. Afterwards, he found that he could perform those moves without thinking. Mastering the basics – a painful, tedious process – is what allowed him to advance to the next level.

    Natural talent can make you a talented amateur, but nobody becomes a master except through hard work.

  42. Nixy Valentine on February 2, 2009 at 2:39 AM

    >I think the easiest way to cope with writing rules is to take the time to understand WHY a particular rule is there. For example, just saying “Use 3rd person” seems arbitrary, but saying “Allow your reader some space and yet preserve the suspense…” makes sense (at least to me) while “This is the way it’s done” is just annoying.

    In every class or workshop I’ve ever done there’s been a newbie writer who thinks the rules don’t apply to them because they have something special to say. When it was my turn to feel that way, many years ago, I was told: “You have to know and understand the rules before you can effectively break them.”

  43. Anne L.B. on February 2, 2009 at 2:23 AM

    >My mother was a child prodigy on the piano, who plucked out songs as she learned to walk and grabbed onto the keys. She later struggled with piano lessons, because of the restrictions they imposed.

    But she was improved by them. I’m thinking that natural gift can only be improved by formal lessons. Perhaps the gift will be stifled during the lessons. But it seems to me that the discipline of learning the lessons can only improve the skill with which the gift is later used, and the resulting passion will be even greater.

    I tuned into the game at 1:11 remaining to see if it was over yet and watched the end. WOW!