There are tons of rules out there for new writers to follow. Many veteran authors and great writers are bursting with useful advice for curious up-and-comers. Some even try
to theorycraft entire schools of writing into existence, with varying degrees of success. Some of these pieces of advice become enshrined in the writer’s vernacular, getting
passed around from writer to author to neophyte to curious reader like folk lore. These are usually the simple rules that hold true, and a novice breaks at their own peril.
I am wary of rules, especially large systems of rigid conventions that come from deep theorycraft. I have encountered them many times in my working life, as a game designer,
tech writer, and even running games with my friends. These grand systems can become cumbersome and stifling to new blood, and many of the people involved mistake mastering
the system with mastering the actual craft that this system overlays. They cause people to agonize endlessly over place names, and key sentences, passive voice, and so on. It
is best to think of rules as guidelines, advice from the masters, and to avoid complex, constraining sets of rules that try to lock down every aspect of a craft.
Simple rules on the other hand often have great value to novices. There are handful of these, often framed in different ways depending on who is giving the advice, but they
generally hold true. Because of a certain persistent character flaw of mine, I tend view these with equal suspicion and make the mistake of ignoring them. I’m going to give
examples of a few rules from Bloodlust: A Gladiator’s Tale. In my defence, Bloodlust has a really unusual structure, jumping from place to place and following the main
character’s career on a match-by-match basis. Here are some of the rules I broke, why I broke them, and what I might to differently.
1. Skip the boring parts. As I mentioned Bloodlust follows every match in Gavin’s career, with a single match in every chapter. Time contracts and expands based on how far
apart the matches are. The Chapters vary greatly in size based on what else needs to be dropped around that match to drive the narrative. The second book, Bloodlust: Will to
Power (working title, and yes the reference is purposeful), follows the same structure, with some additional chapters (interludes) for key events. I skip the boring parts of
his life, for the most part, but I do not skip the least exciting of his matches. I break this rule because I like the structure, and because Gavin is not happy with his
life. If I skipped ahead and just included the exciting parts, he would seem whiny. I have to show how the life of a Gladiator grinds him, and I prefer to do it in a way that
precludes him just sitting around thinking or talking about it. I want to show it. What Gavin does is exciting to us, but fairly mundane to him, and I think going through
every match helps identify with his ennui. It also adds to the sports metaphor: true fans often try to catch every game of a team’s season, and players go to all of them.
(Show, don’t tell is another of those little writer’s rules so I suppose I’m breaking one to satisfy the others.). I’m not entirely sure how I would do this differently,
although perhaps writing it in in first person would have been better, allowed us to get in his head a little more.
2. A Memorable first line. Having a great first line is pretty universal advice. I wonder how many great works are left gathering dust because they have a dull first line or
how many books are never finished because of the writer agonizing over line number one until the whole thing breaks. My first line for Bloodlust isn’t brilliant, and the part that follows
is written in a slightly different style than the rest of the book. It could be stronger; I might get a few more impulse sales if it was. Still it sets the scene, and works
well enough. The first line acts as a strong hook for the reader, and many writers credit their success to polishing their skills with dynamite intro lines. I went with the
slower opening for Bloodlust because I was happy with it and got a very strong positive reaction from a few readers. I do get criticisms for it, but they mostly seem to be
from people outside the target audience. I would definitely refine it a little more in retrospect, but I can see myself slowly grinding the project to dust under the weight
of getting that memorable first line. It may be that I needed to move on quickly while initially writing the book and should have come back to polish it later. I could have
done better here, but I won’t lose any sleep over it at this point.
3. The Cover. My cover always elicits a strong reaction. People love it or hate it. Some detractors have compared it to pokemon, which amuses the crap out of me (Pokemon does
all right). The rule for covers is that you want to look like your book could be from a “New York publishing house”. I did not want to go with a painterly cover because
pictures of the characters often prejudice the readers. To be honest I also did not want to weather the inevitable attacks from people who look at sexy Gladiator gettup and
accuse me of pandering. Also I did not have 2.5k to spend on a good fantasy artist. But honestly even if I had the money, I would have gone with a similar cover. First off
the cover conveys some important ideas and elicits a strong reaction. The type of people who run away from my cover likely wont enjoy the book, I think. I think setting the
bar for self pubs as having covers as painterly as a book from a big publisher is as foolish as thinking an indy game should have graphics that rival Black Ops. In most other
industries proudly independent means something, indy rock labels and games don’t try to hide their origins, they flaunt them — why should self-published writers be any
different? its not like the readers are actually going to be fooled (or if they even care), especially in my case. Bloodlust is about fantasy gladiators, something that book
publishers have always avoided (Gladiator books should be historical fiction!). I am proud of the fact that I put this thing together with the help of some talented friends.
I think it stands up well. I want to show off the fact that it is indy. This is something I definitely would not change. In fact, I may start adding proudly independent since
2012 to the title in my books… This point deserves a bigger post actually.
Rules are useful guidelines. Breaking them likely hinders me in some ways, but I have good reasons for doing so. I would probably polish that first line a little more, but
I’d stick to my guns on most of the other rules I broke. In the end applying too many rules to creative endeavors just stifles them.