Whenever I do a workshop for writers, or I’m interviewed about my writing process, or I work with a coaching client, there are certain questions that come up again and again.
‘How should I do this?’
‘Am I allowed to do that?’
‘Are you supposed to plan your novel?’
‘How should I structure my book?’
‘Do I need a midpoint reversal/ending twist/prologue/epilogue/flashback/subplot/etc?’
I almost always say, ‘It depends. If it works, you should do it. If it doesn’t work, you shouldn’t. What do you think you should do?’
This really frustrates some writers, and I understand why. People like certainties.
People feel that there is a ‘secret’ to writing a publishable book, or a bestseller. A lot of non-writers have this belief, but writers engage in this magical thinking too. Deep down, a lot of writers want to believe that if we follow the rules, we will succeed.
Some careers might work that way, but not writing. With writing, it always depends. There are no fail-safe rules in writing. What works for one writer might not work for another. Even more confusingly, it depends even within your own work. What works when you’re writing your first novel might not work when you’re writing your third. Writers have to constantly reinvent not only new stories, but new processes, attitudes, techniques and identities.
So for many years I always said that the only rule in writing is ‘It depends.’
Because I recognised this rule applies to my own writing, I’ve tried to develop techniques that are adaptable to different books, genres and times of my life. Sometimes I’ve been a planner, and sometimes I’ve written without a clue of where I’m going next. Sometimes I do a steady 1000 words a day, and sometimes I spend all weekend writing as many words as I can. Sometimes I write a rough first draft, and sometimes I spend days revising a single scene before moving on to the next. Sometimes I write a whole book chronologically; sometimes I write it out of order.
If a technique fails, then I move on to something else, and—most importantly—I forgive myself for failing. Sometimes you have to do something wrong before you can get it right.
Writers and teachers will tell you a million techniques and rules, and I’ve discovered that all of them are useless unless they work for you.
And I’ve also discovered that none of them will work for you if you are afraid.
This year especially has led me to accept that there’s another universal writing rule, and that’s ‘Fool the fear.’ It’s hard to write when you’re scared. It’s even more difficult to write well when you’re scared, because it’s harder to take risks and challenge yourself. Most writers are afraid at some point in their career: we’re scared of failure, bad reviews, rejection, not making enough money, being selfish.
During a global pandemic, every writer in the world has another reason to be scared. Some of us haven’t been able write at all, paralysed with fear that keeps us doomscrolling or worrying instead of getting words onto the page.
The writers I know who have created good work have been able to fool the fear. They see their writing as an escape, or a world that they can control. They can put their phone in another room and sit down to create. They work from home and/or homeschool during the day and then, in the evening, find the time and energy to write. How do they do it? Somehow, they’ve found ways to fool the fear. Because of the first rule of writing—‘It depends’—those ways are different for everyone.
I’ve got a bunch of techniques for fooling the fear, but I keep coming back to Post-it notes. I use Post-it notes to plan my writing, to brainstorm my way out of trouble, and to revise my work after I’ve finished a draft. Post-it notes are disposible, manipulable, colour-coded, and allow me to be flexible with my planning because I can see the shape of my story in advance, or in retrospect. When I make a mistake, all I have to do is to adjust the Post-its to try a solution. I find they’re infinitely easier to change than words on a page. Also, they’re colourful, relatively cheap, and cheerful.
For me, Post-its embody both writing rules. They help me find out what works (‘Let’s try this solution’) and help me fool the fear (‘It’s only Post-its’). They work so well for me that I’ve put together an online course to help other writers try this technique, too. If you want to try it, there’s a 25% discount for Writing.ie writers throughout January—just enter WRITINGIE at checkout.
My two rules—‘It depends’ and ‘Fool the fear’—feel empowering to me. It’s natural to be afraid, and it’s natural when sometimes we don’t know what to do. Because these are the only two universal writing rules, I know that I can forgive myself when I get it wrong. And I can do it again, and better.
(c) Julie Cohen
About Spirited by Julie Cohen:
Faith. Courage. Love. What would you risk for freedom?
Viola has an impossible talent. Searching for meaning in her grief, she uses her photography to feel closer to her late father, taking solace from the skills he taught her – and to keep her distance from her husband. But her pictures seem to capture things invisible to the eye . . .
Henriette is a celebrated spirit medium, carrying nothing but her secrets with her as she travels the country. When she meets Viola, a powerful connection is sparked between them – but Victorian society is no place for reckless women.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, invisible threads join Viola and Henriette to another woman who lives in secrecy, hiding her dangerous act of rebellion in plain sight.
Driven by passionate, courageous female characters, SPIRITED is your next unforgettable read!
Perfect for fans of other bestselling historical novels The Binding by Bridget Collins, The Familiars by Stacey Halls, and Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield.
‘I stayed up late, gripped. An unusual, moving read. I LOVED it!’ Marian Keyes
‘Haunting, tender and true – this story cast a spell on me’ Kirsty Logan
‘Wonderfully written and evocative’ Woman & Home, BOOK OF THE MONTH
‘This haunting story about the power of love will give you the shivers’ Best
Order your copy online here.