All the Rules We Break

Author’s Note: I know I promised this blog yesterday, but it’s been hectic! But! Here it is, alive and well! It’s not edited well because I just flung it up in a rush, but I did the thing, which is great because this post is about YOU doing the thing!


For a good chunk of my writing career, I thought when people said, “Kill your darlings,” they meant that writers should kill their favorite characters. So I took that “advice” and ran with it. For awhile, I literally killed my favorite characters as a writing exercise, or a weird point of pride. Including at the end of romances, which um… did not go down well with romance readers (as it should not have, sorry, early readers at this life stage!)

I was younger then, and like a bright-eyed student thirsty for the knowledge of those older and therefore (I assumed) wiser than me, I took every bit of writing advice I could glean. When I had it, these gems, these treasures, these bits of knowledge that would surely make me Leigh Bardugo famous, I attempted to use them all.

As you might suspect (since I am not Leigh Bardugo famous), a lot of that advice has many interpretations and is quite subjective. A lot of it simply didn’t work for me. And if I’m honest, some if it made me really hate writing.

“Write what you know.” This is the oldest one in the book. Every writing student and aspiring author knows this one. “Write what you know” and “Show don’t tell” might be tattooed on the inside of my eyelids for how often they float through my mind.

I am not going to recreate what has already been done (both poorly and well) here. Google “Write what you know is wrong” and take everything you read with a grain of salt. Be especially careful about white dudes defending cultural appropriation for the sake of “art.” (Read: their Very Important™ writing). Not all of it is wrong, though. But “write what you know” can mean a lot of things. It doesn’t have to mean you can only write your memoir (although, if you have the urge to do that, do that, I need more memoirs to read!) “Write what you know” in the young adult spectrum might be more akin to, “Stay in your own lane” which I wrote about a few weeks ago. “Write what you know” could also mean that the most powerful writing you’ll do is when you’re writing about an experience that is intimately familiar to you. We all have unique experiences that only we can bring our perspective and voice to. But you also don’t have to do it all at once. “Write what you know” doesn’t have to be “Well, I’ve put every important thing on the page in this very first book and now I’m all dry and whatever will I do? I know nothing else!” Because I mean, that’s silly. We’re always experiencing and learning new things.

And now you’re probably wondering … wasn’t this post supposed to be about rule breaking? Why did you just spend 500 words defending The Rule? Well, partly it’s because when I was looking for a quote about writing what you know being flexible, I found all these articles about write what you know is wrong, and they espoused a lot of “cultural appropriation is okay for art,” and I got mad and had to come to The Rule’s defense. But it’s also partly because I wanted to make the point that all these “rules” are subjective. They can be used, and tossed aside, and bent, and broken, and rocketed into the sun strapped to a Tesla. As long as you have a book you’re proud of at the end, however long it takes you to get to that end, then you’ve done the thing!

Speaking of however long it takes, let me talk about one of the rules that isn’t that subjective and which I think is garbage (for me). Please keep in mind I mean in all of this for me. I always hesitate to give writing advice to anyone because everyone is so different. This advice is probably really helpful for some people. I have friends and professors and mentors who swear by it. But it doesn’t work for me, and I want to assure people here that if it doesn’t work for you, that is okay. You can still be a writer/author/creator without some a lot of this.

The advice goes thusly: “The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.” This quote is attributed to writer and activist Mary Heaton Vorse, but it has taken various forms across the years. Most of my writing professors used to advise taking at least one hour per day to write. To put your ass in the chair and get it done. To ground out words even if they sucked.

No shade to my professors, but as it turns out, academia makes a nice butt cushion. In my experience, 12-16 hour workdays don’t leave much time for the butt in chair exercise every day. My workdays start with household chores at 6:30 a.m. and don’t usually end until 8 p.m (on a good, 10 hours at work, workday). That doesn’t really leave much mental or physical energy for butt in chair time. I know people who get up even earlier to put their ass in a chair, and I admire that. But I have night terrors. If I go to bed at 11 p.m. and wake up at 6:30, with my nightmares, on a good night, I’ll be living on 5 hours of sleep. This is my life. Every day.

I’m not complaining, and I don’t want pity. It’s just my life, which is different than every other life. My life doesn’t have time for butt in chair exercises every day. That’s okay, though. As it turns out, I’ve been able to write 4 1/2 books in less than 4 years just writing when I can. Sneaking it in here and there when work is slow, taking days off solely to write, staying up late on days when I have the energy, putting a lot of time in on the weekends. But it’s not every day, and it isn’t consistent. Sometimes, I’ll go months without writing. I have to put food on my table and my primary job is what does that. No matter what though, I still get back to doing the thing.

And you can, too. You can do the thing. You don’t need every single “rule.” You can tell sometimes. Some stories need more telling than others. You don’t have to write every day. You can write stuff you don’t know (again, I mean like write about six-legged ponies, not cultural appropriation). You can write in tenses that aren’t active. You can throw jargon all over your damn page. You can write sentences so long even lawyers’ eyes will bug out at the sight of them. You can write how you want to write. It is your story and your voice and your art. There are really no “rules” to writing in the end. Only guidelines. Take what works for you and phooey on the rest.

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That said, what is your favorite writing “rule” (especially if it’s one you’ve come up with for yourself?)

< Always, Aimee

On Failure

I learned how to fail at this gig a long time ago.

When I was eighteen, the University of North Carolina sent me a letter encouraging me to apply for its coveted Thomas Wolfe Scholarship. They’d seen my accomplishments in some writing competition or other and thought I’d be an ideal candidate. The application process was (in my opinion) more rigorous than applying for admission to the University. It required a fifty page prose packet and additional letters of recommendation. I agonized over my submission. UNC was my dream school. It was the only university I applied to; it was the only-thing-I-ever-wanted. Worse, I’d convinced myself that because they specifically asked me to apply, this scholarship was all but in the bag.

It wasn’t.

The rejection letter came in an envelope with the University’s famous Old Well logo on the front. I ripped it open, sure of my imminent success (in those days, I was still a big fish in a little pond, and I was always successful). As my eyes scanned the paper, my heart fell into my stomach. My chest tightened. My hands trembled. They didn’t want me.

I was inconsolable. I screamed and raged like a toddler. I threw fists and spat hurtful words. My father and I got into a terrible argument. I didn’t want to go to college. I didn’t want to do anything. I wanted to curl up and die, and I was sure I would, the rejection hurt that badly. I was a terrible writer. He didn’t understand. Look, there was a letter here to prove how awful I was at this thing-I-wanted-more-than-anything. I was nothing. My dream was dead. I would never write another word.

Little did I know, but that would be the first of many kicks Carolina would deliver to me over my three years as a student in their creative writing program.

If life has taught me anything, it’s that when you get kicked, you get back up, with a snarl and bleeding fingers if you have to. But you keep fighting.

Writing this, I’m torn between a chuckle and a wince. It sounds melodramatic, and truly, it was, but it hurt too. It tore at my foundation, shredded my already fragile self-worth. For someone who has been through as much trauma as I have, you’d think I’d have been tougher. But I wasn’t. Not about this. I lost a lot of innocence too young, but this was the one thing I’d managed to keep pure. This was the one Truth I thought I knew. I was the best writer. It was the only thing I was sure about. When it turned out to be just another lie, it felt like the last of what I thought I was had been stripped away.

One of my ex boyfriends used to call me his “tiger.” He said I was a fighter. He was too. It was the thing that held us together. We were both good at getting back up. Call it stubbornness or stupidity or maybe both. Whatever it is, it’s ingrained deep.

That day was no exception. I got up. I kept writing. I was accepted to Carolina. And when I got in, I realized you weren’t allowed to enter the writing program until your sophomore year. One of my roommates managed to find a way into the screenwriting track early, however–second semester freshman year. That felt like a kick, too. But it hurt less than the one before. And I got up and entered the fiction track my sophomore year.

The first day of class, my professor told the room full of eager students that if anyone would be happy doing something other than writing, they should do that, and there was the door. Four people walked out of that class. I didn’t. This was still my dream, and if I wasn’t the best, I would break myself and rebuild until I was. Fighter’s instincts.

My first piece was a fantasy short. My professor liked it but advised me that writing fantasy wouldn’t help me move forward in the program (when I was at Carolina, you had to apply for a spot at every level of the program, and the spots were limited). Another kick. I gritted my teeth and adapted. I started to write literary fiction. This was still my dream.

I applied for the second level of the program and was accepted. I met the Wolfe Scholar. She was both kind and talented, and somehow, that felt like another kick. I got up. Because this was still my dream.

Every critique I received from my peers and my professors felt like a kick, too. We were clumsy and competitive. We knew there were limited spots available, and we coveted them. We fought for them. Me more than some, maybe more than most. I was eager to fight, to prove myself tough enough. Every time I was kicked, I got back up, heart bleeding. I pushed through it, honing my armor as I honed my craft. And I failed and fell and stumbled and sometimes succeeded. And every kick hurt less and less, until getting up became easier and easier.

I made mistakes (most notably getting into a political argument with Stuart Dybek at a bar. For the record, I had no idea what I was talking about). Sometimes, my competitive edge got the best of me, and I fought those who only wanted friendship. Sometimes, I was more tiger than human, and my teeth were sharp. It’s a knife’s edge that’s hard for me to walk. Sometimes, I don’t know when to stop fighting.

Still, through that program, I learned perhaps the most important lesson you can teach an aspiring writer–how to fail.

So last night, when I arrived at a library where I was supposed to be giving a writing workshop to teens on how to craft a story, and no one showed up, I was pleased to find the armor I’d crafted years ago was still in place.

Don’t get me wrong. It still hurts. Armor only serves you until you take it off, and years of therapy have taught me that I do have to take it off eventually. But at least in public, I was able to maintain my composure, and the armor blunted the worst of the blow, so when I did later remove it, I was able to keep some semblance of control.

Failing is part of this life. It’s probably the reason that professor in my first writing class offered the door. She was trying to present a kindness to those who saw a different way. We all fail. In big ways and small. We are rejected from writing programs and literary agencies. Our writing is torn up by editors and reviewers. Our books flop. Our series are cancelled. We face walls of silence and empty rooms.

But we don’t talk about it much. And when we do, it’s after we’re already safe. It’s when we’ve already attained a measure of success. We don’t discuss the empty rooms when we’re facing one, but only when we’re standing before a packed house. We remember our failure fondly, with a different eye. We talk about our happily ever afters, and our hero’s journey arcs, and that’s okay, but it’s not the only Truth.

Someday, I hope to tell that triumphant story, but right now, I can only tell the story I know, and that is the one of an uncertain ending and an empty room. It’s a story about learning to fail, about getting kicked, and feeling lost and helpless and worst of all–silenced. But it’s a story of triumph too, even if it doesn’t have a happily ever after tied to the end.

Because in this story, I still get up.

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