I don’t know if I can do this — fiction without rules

When I first set out to write fiction, I just wrote a story.

I didn’t think about it; just found a story in my head, typed it up, sent it off. It won second prize in a competition. I thought that was nice, and wondered if another story might do well — it did, first prize. A third placed third. £800 all in, and a 100% acceptance rate.

Bloody hell, I thought, this is easy.

I wrote a book. I submitted it by email to the first agent I found who would accept email submissions, and made a mistake in the first line. Numpty.

It was rejected, obviously — very nicely, but rejected. I corrected the mistake, did my research (WAYB), and submitted a hard copy to the agent I really wanted — they accepted it.

So far so good.

Then my book didn’t sell, I barely won any more short fiction prizes, and I stopped writing.

What happened?

OK, the book did the rounds and would possibly have been published if my edits hadn’t been terminally interrupted by a pregnancy and some fairly mind-bending health issues. But I don’t think this was the reason that my short story hit rate dropped through a hole in the ground. It was my writing.

While my 100% hit rate was lovely, I figured I couldn’t know it all, so I went online looking for advice. What I found was a maelstrom — some fabulous advice from worthy authors and inspired readers, some deeply cynical, banal bollocks by commercial writers hoping for a fast buck, and a vast amount of chat. Vast.

Looking back now, e.g. at articles like this (ugh, and this), you have to laugh. Who reads this stuff? New writers, that’s who. And it doesn’t help.

I worked my way through most of it, and got nowhere but miserable. Then I worked my way through it all again, doing the opposite, and ended up hating the whole process.

I stopped writing, let the stories build up in my head until the creative constipation gave me a headache, and then let rip in a steaming rant that I submitted, unedited, to Bridport. It was shortlisted.

Thing is about fiction, I reckon, you can obey the rules (third person, past tense — and beware the word “then”!) or break them (a mixture of first, second and third person, present tense, in a microfiction, hah! — FIRST PERSON). But there’s no joy in the rules, and no success via the rules.

It’s taken me ages to realise what I knew at the beginning: it’s all about the story. Assuming you check your spelling and grammar prior to submission, if you have a good story, it will do well. If you don’t, it won’t.

It’s a new year, and a new start, so in a desperate bid to create more minutes in the day, I’ve ditched the pen name, the ‘experimental fiction’, and all the rules that, by now, I either know or I don’t.

I don’t know if I ‘can’ do this fiction thing, but I’m going to try.


  1. Great post, Tracy, and nice to meet you (again). Always a joy to read an honest, analytic but not self pitying account of another writer’s journey. Of course you can “do this thing”. I don’t think I want to ditch all the rules myself but I agree with you that the rules that I might need may not be anybody else’s: I have to find my own rules. Definitely chuck experimental fiction and focus on the narrative. The world still needs good stories!

    • tu says:

      Hiya, thanks Marcus, you’ve described it better than I; it’s a matter of making one’s own rules and producing good stories.

  2. alisonwells says:

    I love this post. Too much thinking and worrying, (which is one of my least attractive qualities) always ties me up and wrecks stuff. The best and most successful stories have been the ones that just came out quickly and I just knew that they were good. I’ve been hoping to find a way to sneak up on this unfettered joy of just producing. ( I want to know how it happens but thinking about it won’t tell me anything!) Following the instinct sounds just great. I’ve just finished reading the Snow Child and the author describes how it felt to discover ‘her’ story. That’s what we need to do, watch and wait and don’t force things.

    • tu says:

      Oh, it’s a lovely feeling when a story pours out in one shot, and resonates. I haven’t done that for ages but have been on a self-imposed ban for a while, making myself step back as busy with other matters. I have a slot now, though, where I could possibly start to write again. And I have some fairly interesting material. So, maybe it will come again.
      I’ve heard good things about SNOW CHILD but not read it — what did you think of it?

  3. ‘Yes, yes and thrice yes’ to all of this.
    The worst single thing I ever did was NaNoWriMo which screwed up my writing and my confidence. Not because it is bad but because I can’t write ‘rubbish’ just for the sake of a wordcount and come away feeling any sense of achievement.
    I had a lot of ski coaching from seriously good ski coaches and I’d forgotten that actually they all said very little, just the right thing at the right time.
    I’ve now gone back to how I started which is writing something ‘properly’ i.e. writing and first edit in same session. I wrote a 1000 word flash last week and I’m happy with it. It’ll be tweaked before other people see it but I came away feeling positive that I’ll find a home for that story somewhere.

    • tu says:

      Hi Pete, yeah, NaNo’s a ride, isn’t it? The first time I did it, I wrote my 50k words but it’s a real mix of decent story (early days), and post-exhaustion word mulch. I reckon it’ll fuel a blog post about subconscious (semi-conscious) writing styles one of these days when/if I dare dig it out again. The second time I did it, I used it as a spur with every intention of stopping before 50k as I was writing a story for my kids which will never be that long. It’s a good start, I’m pleased with it, but it wasn’t really “NaNo” writing — I just wrote during a November. Details here.
      I’ve had a lot of fun trawling the writing sites online but there’s a fundamental truth for me right now — with the exception of blogging which is inherently sociable, I’m a lone writer. I don’t write in groups, I don’t want beta-readers, I don’t like advice and I don’t care about the rules. I’m kind of curious as to where this will take me ha ha [I hear the squelch of SLUSH!]

    • I have also done NaNoWriMo (in 2009) against some people’s advice and I’m glad I did because I learned something — not too much but then it was only one month invested (I could never even look at my resulting 50 K though I butchered some of it for reasonably good flash fiction later on).

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