I’m making split pea soup today. (Bear with me, it has relevance, I promise!)
The thing is, split pea soup has a recipe. You can find it (well, several different versions, depending on which brand of peas you buy) on the back of the bag of dried peas, or online, or in a cookbook. You read the recipe, you do what it says, and you get soup at the end of it all.
I’m a terror in the kitchen. As my husband puts it, no recipe survives contact with my kitchen, because I am just too tempted to change things. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking baking or dinner or whatever… I modify.
You might say I don’t like rules.
But here’s the thing: the world is FULL of rules. Tons of rules. How to talk, how to write, how to dress. And there are rules that are important, like laws that keep people from being hurt. But there are rules which are well… let’s just say a recipe is a rule that’s waiting to be broken.
The thing is, there are rules about writing, too. Recipes, per se. These rules are things like first person stories don’t sell and never use adverbs and sentence fragments are bad and a whole host of other things. And these rules exist for a reason, and supposedly if you put all the rules in a neat little pot, boil things up, let simmer for a while, you should be able to cook up a perfectly reasonable salable book.
On the other hand, if you let these rules hang over your head, you might be missing out on that story which is absolutely, amazingly, utterly brilliant because you are afraid to let go and just be creative.
When it comes to writing (and cooking), IMO, rules are made to be broken.
Today, when I started my pea soup, I was like… okay, I have peas, onions, garlic, and maybe some chopped carrot. All perfectly traditional. Then I was chatting with my husband, and he pointed out that we have some turnips, and I responded with oh HEY we also have some watermelon radish (the most beautiful huge radish on the face of the earth, I swear). You can go read about it, if you’d like. I’ll wait. So I decided that a little bit of bite might be nice, and I tossed some cubes of that in too.
This is not traditional split pea soup. If it were bean soup, I’d probably toss in a bit of cumin for some smoky flavor, too. Obviously the rules have flown out the window, but in the end, I’m hoping for something that’s different and unique and most importantly, YUMMY.
Let’s get back to writing, because I know you’re here for that, not me nattering on about food (which I will do, a lot, because for all that I have no time to cook, I actually love to do so).
I spent a year where I stepped away from writing original work. I kept submitting (and succeeded at that! Woohoo!), but I wrote for me instead of for publication. And that helped me realize the most important thing: In the end, I always need to write for myself. If I sit there and worry about what can be published, what editors want, what people want to read… I don’t write a word, or what I do write is boring and dull and treads over tropes people have already written better than me (and done so a hundred times or more).
I forgot my own tag line, that I write books that I want to read.
In order to break out of the stagnation, I had to go back to the basics and remember that. I have to forget about rules. Yes, they are there for a reason, and that’s because if you do any of them wrong, it sticks out like a sore thumb and folks don’t like it. That means, learn how to do things right. And the only way to do that, is practice.
I wrote several pieces in second person POV in the last year. What’s second POV? It’s where the entire story is addressed to “you” instead of as I or he. Weird, huh? But also strangely effective for certain styles of story. I learned a ton playing with it, and I really do hope to get to use it in original work sometime soon, because I know now why to use it. It’s not a tool to just throw around all the time, but used right, it gets a totally different point across.
I played this year. Experimented. Took risks, like throwing radishes into my soup, and hopefully they worked out in the end.
The important thing is, without the risk, I was never going to get to the reward. Without the freedom of creativity, I couldn’t grow, or learn.
Today I’m making a pot of rainbow split pea soup, and I look at it and realize that it’s the perfect example of everything I’ve learned this year. Sometimes you just have to heave stuff in a pot and let it simmer and see what happens.
Don’t be afraid to try things in your writing, even if someone tells you no. Research why the rule exists, and find examples of how people flaunt it. Find examples of things like second POV, non-linear timelines, uses of multiple types of POV in one novel… find everything and look at how things work, and build your toolbox.
Step outside the comfort zone of rules, and write brilliant things. And most importantly, keep doing it. Yes, sometimes you’ll have a story that’s a flop (ask my husband about the asparagus casserole… it lives in infamy, even today, as my worst ever kitchen experiment). But you’ll learn from it, and you’ll know better ways for next time.
Take risks and excel. Because I know you can do it.
Happy writing (and cooking)!