Make your own rules

Andromeda mentioned last month that for much of grade school she felt like a prisoner. I, on the other hand, loved grade school. It was more than the books and the library and the special programs some teachers way back then managed to cobble together even in the absence of federal mandates and guidelines. I hate to admit it, because it sounds so un-writerly and un-Alaskan, but looking back I think I also liked the rules and the structure – the same aspects of school that make it feel like jail.

Not very auspicious beginnings for someone who now (more or less) makes a living being creative. Yes, I grew up and found more excitement in ambiguity and big ideas and discovery than in rules. A good creative day of drafting fiction beats anything else I’d want to do for a living. But I still admit a sick little fondness for the rules of grammar, the way it all makes sense when you take the time to understand.

When I first started publishing, I’d say with only a touch of smugness that I enjoyed revision. Only after my editor got the boot and I skidded off with an agent who was, at the time, nearly as clueless as I did I discover that my love of revision had a lot to do with having a good editor who offered – you guessed it – guidelines, which are the next best thing to rules. She rarely suggested how to fix problems, but she pointed out all the parts that needed attention, and I got to wrestle around with ways to make them shine.

Those days are gone, not just for me but for a lot of writers, especially those breaking in. With editors and agents stretched to their limits, revision is much more a do-it-yourself proposition. If you want someone to take a serious look at your manuscript, it had better be in darned good – make that great – shape. After the initial draft, structure-lovers like me have to make their own rules for revision, setting the highest standards for every aspect of their novels, then rising to meet them.

Good readers help. As happens in Alaska, mine left the state. No matter, I thought, with a couple of New York novels under my belt. I’ve got my agent, my editor, myself. That was a decade ago. I’ve since wised up, which is why I’ve put out a call for other published writers looking for a writing group. (We could still use a couple more; email me at if you’re interested).

What about those who aren’t published yet – where do they get their readers? Beyond groups that have no pub-credit criteria, there are conferences and workshops where experienced writers, editors, and agents offer short critiques. Besides the guidance, there’s great networking to be done at these events. For us in Alaska, this often means traveling Outside. We’ve tossed around the idea of occasional 49 Writer workshops in Anchorage, maybe with a manuscript critique option, using local talent and with a small cost to make it worth the writer’s time – say $30 for a two-hour session, with a minimum of 10 participants or something to that effect. I have no idea whether we’d find enough writers to run the workshops or enough writers to attend; I’m interested in what you think.

2 thoughts on “Make your own rules”

  1. Hi Deb–

    I've participated in manuscript critiquing sessions at conferences and enjoy the opportunity to meet with new writers. I'd be willing to come down to take part in a 49 Writer event (especially if you paid my transportation).

    See you at the ASLA later this week.

  2. I like that aspect of critiquing, too – it sharpens my own writing. Now we just need an infusion of cash…

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