Today is the kick-off for the weekly Tuesday 12 x 12 series, which, each week will feature a pre-published 12 x 12 participating author and/or illustrator.  I hope this series will enable you to get to know these hard-working, talented people a bit better, and that you will discover some fabulous blogs to follow along the way.

I am thrilled to welcome Stacy Jensen today for the inaugural post in this series.  Stacy was one of my first regular blog followers, and she also hosted me on her blog for my very first guest post.  She is generous with her time and talent, and you can find the myriad ways to find and contact her at the end of this post.  Without further adieu, here is Stacy.

Which way to go with your writing? Photo credit: Stacy Jensen

Write Without Rules

Do you ever get confused about what to write? I do.

I read about writing rules on blogs and in books. I hear, “Oh, you can’t do that” in critique groups.  Or, “That’s a tough topic in this market.”

As I’ve been studying the craft of writing picture books, I decided to say “No more” to this chatter when I write. I turn off the rule checklist, stare at a blank piece of paper and go for it.

Last year, I wrote my first intentional picture book manuscript for a Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators’ retreat. As I faced a deadline, I researched the basics of how to write a picture book, but realized I needed to scrap them and just write.

Here’s what I did:

I wrote in rhyme. I’m not very good at it. I should be in rhyming jail, but I did it anyway.

I drew a map of my main character’s neighborhood. I’m not an artist, but the black squiggles helped me visualize where my main character misbehaved in the story.

I studied my ABCs by creating a list of words for my story. It pushed me to not only consider the setting, but also the things, people and places my characters encounter in their world. Plus, I had to find logical items for Q, X, and Z.

I gave myself permission to be a newbie. I signed up for the retreat to learn. I submitted my manuscript to the published author in charge and my small group with no regret.

My drafts are layers in a larger project. Each draft is helping me reach my goal of submitting polished stories to an agent or publisher. I spend non-writing time studying trends, writing tips and word counts. These rules are applied to my story during the revision process.

Just like my son doesn’t like to hear “No” all the time, neither do the stories in my head. They just want to escape and explore the page for a bit before reality reels them in.

So, I’m writing my 12 x 12 in 2012 drafts like there are no rules.

How are rules part of your writing routine?  Can you live without them or do you need them?

Stacy S. Jensen worked as a newspaper reporter and editor for two decades. Today, she mothers a toddler at home, one boy in her picture book manuscripts, and a memoir manuscript. She does this with no rules in mind during the draft stage. You can find Stacy on her blog – http://stacysjensen.blogspot.com, Twitter – http://twitter.com/StacySJensen, and Facebook –  http://www.facebook.com/StacySJensen

Categories: 12 x 12 in 2012, Authors, Guest Blogging, Picture Books, Rhyming, SCBWI, Works in Progress, Writing · Tags: , , , , , , , ,

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77 Comments

  1. What great advice, and how I love how you approached your first picture book manuscript, especially your A-Z. This really speaks to me and a no-revising suck-is-ok approach to first drafts. I really don’t like my first Jan PB draft, but that’s OK. I know there is a kernel of a good story there.

    Thanks for kicking off with Stacy!

  2. Wonderful post Stacey. I tend to overthink when I write and am too aware of writing rules. I now resolve to follow your lead and next month I will just write, write, write and not think too hard. Thanks!

  3. This is great, Stacy! I think it’s important to know the rules, so you can trash them if you want. I’m sure there are a lot of deluded people out there (me, when I was 23, for instance) who think they can just sit down and write something brilliant and that’ll be that. I’m at the stage now where I’m trying to see which rules apply to my writing, and which ones maybe don’t.

  4. Fantastic Post! I too read, research, double check….without giving myself a chance to learn in the most valuable way (the way teaching is done best) and that is by experience and making mistakes (although is is NEVER a mistake but rather a learning opportunity!) this is the exact reason I too am doing 12 x12 challenge… thank you Stacy for this timely reminder!!

  5. What a lovely and timely post, Stacy! I was getting my knickers in a twist over all these “no rhyming” rules, the result being a January draft written in prose that I just don’t love. I’m glad I stretched myself into prose and will continue to do so, but on my own terms next time. I love all the ways you explored your first story. Many lessons learned today. Thank you! 🙂

  6. I am one who tries to go by the rules. One that I don’t go by all the time, though, is the no rhyming rule. I love writing picture books in rhyme and I know children love to read them. Some of my best drafts are rhyming and when I write rhyming PBs that is when I do go by the rules, because good rhymes are hard to write and they must be good or they will be tossed aside quickly by the publisher reading them. Good luck with your manuscripts Stacy and the 12×12 in 12 Challenge!

  7. You’re spot on…as one creates, fuhgettabout the rules. Yes, asa professional, be aware of your competition and the industry needs, but your writing must spring from you. If one of mine comes out in rhyme, I let it. Then polish the heck out of it or toss. My most important rule is write everyday.

  8. I like your NO REGRETS approach.

  9. Great post Stacy! For picture books I just think rule of threes then go for it. As for rhyme specifically I would concentrate on how it sounds said out loud and how good the story is before you need to worry about the meter. http://www.rhymezone.com is my best friend.
    Great analogy about saying no to your kids. It’s liberating to write what you need to write without worrying too much about the rules.

  10. Thanks for having me Julie. I’m loving all the comments.

  11. Megan K. Bickel

    Very good advice, Stacy! I find I get writers block if I keep trying to remember rules while getting my story on paper for the first time. Great job!

  12. Hats off to you, Stacy for going first for all the 12X12ers! I wondered what people would write about and you’ve done a great job.
    All those rules can get in the way–especially during the first draft.
    I love this line: “Just like my son doesn’t like to hear “No” all the time, neither do the stories in my head.” I’m going to keep this in mind and say “Yes!” to my February first draft.
    Thanks!

  13. “I gave myself permission to be a newbie.” Yes! How else can we learn if we don’t let go of the fear of not knowing enough and accept being new to whatever we’re attempting? Great post!

  14. I like your post! I, too, have given myself permission to be a “newbie” as I quickly learn my way around the world of writing.

  15. Great post! I think “just do it” is the most important “rule” of all.
    Stacy – I love the zebra photo! Thanks for your wise observations….

  16. You rock!!!!!!!! Stacy, we all love you, woman!

    I was a rule watcher too. I figured if I broke the rules while writing I would never learn to write within the rule confines. But I had to let it go. The only rules I stick with while writing my first drafts is the rule of three and word count rules. Everything else is out the window. Even in my subsequent drafts, I don’t pay attention to the rules. Just the words. Okay. I realized I used that word rule, SEVEN times in this short comment. Maybe I should go back to bed for awhile. Egad! Smooches to you Stacy and to you Julie. 🙂

  17. Thank you! What a wonderful post!

  18. Thanks for giving us permission to break the rules and become better writers along the way. Good luck in your journey, Stacy!

  19. I so appreciated this post, Stacy! Giving ourselves permission to write what is in us to write is so important. I think the most important rule I follow when writing a first draft is to let the child within me say what she wants to say, without the adult part of me getting in the way.

    After reading the great comments here, I feel as though I need to learn what the “rule of three” is. The only rule of three I know about refers to poison ivy — “Leaves of three, let it be.”

    Love the zebra photo!

  20. I love what you said about the retreat, Stacy, and your process as well.

    I think you have to know the rules–and there are some that you really do NOT want to break. Unless you wake up every day saying, “WHEEE! I get to revise this whole manuscript!”

    But there are tons of rules that aren’t really rules at all…just strong suggestions. And I feel pretty strongly about my own suggestions. 😉

  21. Thanks so much for sharing with us Stacy!

    When I write that first draft, I do my best to not think about the rules. Sometimes I even leave out punctuation, and commas, etc. Then I go back and make sense of it. Sometimes it takes listening music while I write, to block out the rules…to get me to relax and forget structure or the thought to put a period or comma or whatever. BUT sometimes I am nagged by a word or two that just won’t fit into the story the way I’d like it to and I have to walk away from the draft and remember not to stress over it, which is rather difficult to do sometimes.

    The one rule I do follow though is that I research what I am writing about before I begin. Sometimes I do log lines or queries, or I study my characters first before letting loose and writing that first draft. That’s just my style. I’d like to think that whatever comes my way, I can handle it. I have to remember it is a process and nothing is ever perfect about a process. It takes trial and error to improve.

    • Angela, I like the research before. It’s another layer of the draft. Fiction writers interview their characters and create profiles. I believe that’s a valid approach for picture books too. Amen to “It takes trial and error to improve.”

  22. Rules have never been my strong suit 🙂 Thanks for a liberating post.

  23. Stacy – Great post to kick off the Tuesday 12 x 12 series. I love your attitude of “no more” when it comes to rules when you write. If we get caught up in them we probably wouldn’t get anything down on paper.

    Unfortunately, the rules slap me in the face at some point when I decide to take a piece to the next level — word count, structure, meter and rhythm, etc. Eventually, I think the rules that are taught in classes, on blogs, suggested in writing critique groups are a ‘must’ to getting a piece published.

    • Great comment Eric! Like Julie Falatko said above, you have to know what the rules are before you can break them. If you have a 7,000 word picture book, it doesn’t matter what angle you are working… You no longer have a picture book. That said, there are different reasons why a picture book might be 100-1,200 words. A book written for 3 year-olds should not be 1,200 words. (Seriously, anyone who’s tried to sit and read a story with the younger crowd should know this.) On the other hand, 1,200 words might be just right for a non-fiction biography aimed at seven-year-olds . It’s all in the audience.

    • I totally agree rules “are a ‘must’ to getting a piece published.” I hope no one takes that away from this post. For me, the first draft can’t be restricted to 500 words, etc. I just need to write. When I begin revising, then I apply the rules.

      • I understood you were writing about drafting. I rarely write first drafts under 500 words (unless they are in verse). I was just elaborating on Eric’s theme. You rock Stacy! Loved your post.

  24. Thank you Stacy. I’m looking forward to a little stress free writing today.

  25. Great thoughts, Stacy. Learning not to censor myself (I studied all the “rules of writing” first) used to be very, very hard for me. Now, as you suggest, I write first, and during revision have a better sense of which rules can, should, and will be broken (or fixed to conform). Thanks for the post, and Jule – thanks for hosting Stacy, such a wonderful blogger!

  26. Thanks to Stacy and Julie for encouraging all us pre-published picture book aspirants!

  27. So much fun finding you here, Stacy! I love what you said about giving yourself permission to be a newbie. Seems like a helpful practice, regardless of where we are in the journey.

    Thanks for another fantastic post, Julie. Loving this series!

  28. Wonderful post. Stacy I really like your no rules approach to writing. Those rules are very distracting at times. I think I’m also going to start drawing out my mc’s neighborhood – I haven’t heard that one before.

  29. Love it! Way to go, Stacy. I totally understand how you feel. Hopefully a publisher (or five!) will see things the same way we do. Fabulous!

    Julie, this is such an honorable idea! Thank you for doing this for all of us Pre-Published writers!

  30. Jarm Del Boccio

    Thanks for your insights, Stacy! I find myself writing stories that are not found on the “best seller” list, but speak to my heart, and hopefully to others. I’m glad someone else is willing to forgo the industry’s “push to publish” and just listen to her inner voice!

  31. Julie Rowan-Zoch

    Intuition is a valuable thing – thanks for this post! In Steven King’s book: On Writing, he mentions writing his first draft ‘with the door closed’, then later revising ‘with the door open’. Rules and skills are important – but to fly we need to write with abandon. Consider Picasso. He learned his craft and acquired the
    skills needed to compose pictures, but it took breaking the rules to create the joy we feel in them!

  32. Those zebras look like they are running the Palio in Sienna! We all want to learn more about that photo, Stacy.

    Great kick-off post for this series. I’m a bit glad that first I write to find my ‘voice’ and then revise and refine after contemplating the rules.

  33. Great post Stacy! I try to forget the rules for the first draft. As you so eloquently made clear, rules can be a huge creativity blocker. However, I do consider the rules when I’m editting and submitting. I would never submit a rhyming piece to a house that explicitly states, “No rhyme.” I would however, submit rhyming to a house that publishes these kinds of stories (and many do). I’m enjoying your blog. Thanks for your idea stoking posts!

  34. Stacy, I LOVE your advice! It’s true. Everywhere we look there are rules on how to write, but if we follow the rules in the early stages I think we lose the chance at creating our best work. Rules can help later in the clean-up stages. But first you have to write with wild abandon. =)

  35. Thanks, Julie. I love how you look at your drafts as a process and submit them to learn. It sounds logical, but so often I expect my work to be perfect. I cringe at the thought of submitting a work to find out it still needs work. Thank you for helping me to remember the journey.

  36. Great post, Stacy! I love the idea that you have no fear. Fear holds you back. For me, I have a story idea in my head, come up with a character(s), name her/him/them and then I sit down and write the story. I drive my dh and anyone else crazy by quizzing them on whether the story idea is working. And if they agree the idea is good to go, I rewrite it about a 100 times (sigh), changing words, eliminating words, checking rhythm, etc. I’m a very visual person so I have the story pictures in my head but wish I could draw them. Picture books are so hard to write. Waiting to hear back on some I’ve submitted. We’ll see…It’s not easy, is it? Good luck with yours!!

  37. Thanks Julie for having Stacy. Stacy it was refreshing to hear you say “no more rules.” I think it can become paralyzing at times. My first drafts are really rough, but atleast I get it down. Liked that you did what you wrote what you wanted and took your draft to a SCBWI retreat. I guess my major guideline is that I have to like what I’m writing. I can worry more about the rules in the polishing stages. Stacy your were the perfect choice for today’s kick-off.

  38. Getting hit over the head with so many rules can give us writer’s block. I like that you forget those rules and write for enjoyment on yourcearly drafts.

  39. Hi Julie & Stacy!
    I have to have rules–the big one is no internet until I write my words. When I don’t follow that one, well very little gets accomplished 🙂

  40. Great write up Stacy! My rule is to walk away. I write out a rough draft and then force myself to give it a few days. I do my best to not check it again in that length of time. If I have details I think of to add in the meantime, I keep them in my writing journal. 😛

  41. What fantastic comments! Thanks again to Stacy for being brave enough to launch this series and to do such a phenomenal job.

    I went through a three-stage process on writing rules. When I started, I didn’t know any of them, wrote my little heart out and then found out (in embarrassing ways) that I had done everything wrong.

    Then I became a slave to rules. Never writing anything without keeping them in my mind and trying to meet them as I went along.

    Now I write first, and revise according to (some) rules later. I think if you know the rules, you can also determine when and where it is okay to break them.

    But I agree that aside from allowing myself to write a 3000-word first draft, rules don’t come into play until I have the story down and I’m ready to revise.

  42. Informative post for a newbie! Thanks for sharing this, Julie and Stacy.

  43. Thanks for kicking things off for us, Stacy. Great material for a new bumper sticker: “Just say, ‘Why not?'”

  44. Great post Stacy! I agree sometimes the rules to get in the way.

  45. Thanks Stacy…as a new writer “learning the rules” I’ve had a suspicion that not every rule applies to every story. I had begun to feel anxious about how to make the idea fit all the rules, and that had made me feel paralyzed…not a word or phrase would come. The 12 x 12 in ’12 challenge attracted me because of Julie’s clear emphasis on ‘draft.’ Your post verbalized the idea well.

  46. Thanks for sharing! I often have to tell myself to just write and worry about the rules later! I love this “My drafts are layers in a larger project. Each draft is helping me reach my goal of submitting polished stories to an agent or publisher.” – Stacey, you have a wonderful attitude!

  47. Yes, sometimes rules are made to be broken, especially when it comes to first drafts. Too many rules can squash the imagination! I find that writing freely definitely helps, but following the rules later on helps pull it all together. Great post!

  48. Thanks, Stacy, for your post! I love the idea of writing with NO RULES! That’s especially good advice for writing our first drafts. We may never know what will come out of it until we let our hair down and just WRITE! We may find a diamond in the rough in one of our drafts that we may never find if we stuck to the rules.

  49. Thankyou Julie for having Stacy open up the Tuesday Posts. Im inclined to think of the rules to start with when writing my first draft and have to tell myself to let go. Like Angela I do at times like to research before I start, depending on what the story is about…..
    Great post. Looking forward to more.

  50. Rules! When I think of rules I think of restriction, but rules can also be guidelines which is more how I try to see them now. I like guidelines better. I have to get my ideas down first, then see how the guidelines fit with what I have written. If I’m way off then in revision time that can be corrected. (Do I sound as if I know what I’m talking about?) 🙂

    Thanks for this Stacy, and Julie.

  51. Thanks so much for the post Stacy. Some really great food for thought there and it’s also great for a beginner like myself to read all the responses to your post as I learn even more. Thanks everyone!

    Tricia Simmons

  52. Great post! I like how you say “go for it”! 🙂

  53. Stacy…wonderful way to kick this thing off! I feel like I got some really needed needed words of wisdom. I am such a “rule follower” that I have a hard time following one really important rule of the first draft….”just throw up on the page!” I want to “clean up” what I “throw up” so badly that I get “hung up”—
    So, although I want to follow the rules before submission time, I am going to work at “giving up” the rules as I work on “throwing up” my first draft.

    Thanks to both of you!

  54. Kathleen Cornell Berman

    Thank you Julie, for posting about something we all think about when we get ready to write. I like Lynn’s idea. Guidelines has a better connotation than rules. Just like when I cook, I read the recipe, but I don’t follow it completely. I like to improvise and do my thing. I use the recipe as a guideline, as I use all the information I have learned about writing a picture book.

  55. I love your rule of “no rules”. Thanks for this look into your ms writing, Stacy. 🙂

  56. Great interview! Thanks, Stacy, for sharing how “no rules” works for you. Best wishes in hitting publication!

  57. Great post, Stacy, full of very valuable insights! Personally, I have to get stories out first. Then I can follow rules. If I try to follow the rule first I can’t write. So I like your rule of no rules and your go for it attitude!!! 🙂

  58. I like having rules, but only so I can break them. It’s the 9th already and I still haven’t started my February ms.

  59. Being the moderator and participant in a large critique group of pro writers, it’s hard to just “cut loose” and throw out the rules that have been drummed into my head through hundreds of critiques. For me it’s easier to keep them in mind as I write, but I don’t dwell on them. That way, I can get the story written, without making myself crazy!

  60. Julie…thank you for providing an awesome guest poster who gave us some very important tips from her heart!

    Stacy…I commend you for putting yourself out there at the writing retreat…we need to be open…but at the same time, we need to be true to ourselves. You are so dedicated to your craft…and a generous soul as well!

    Kathleen…I don’t know you yet…but I LOVE your analogy of the recipe…that’s exactly how I cook! I like to have the recipe close by…but I always make modifications as needed. Writing is a lot like that, I think…it’s important to know the basic rules…but I believe the modifications are what breathe life into our work. 🙂

  61. Stacy, great post and guidelines for rule following, or not! Love it.

  62. Stacy, thanks for such a liberating and inspiring post!

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