When I was about eight, my grandparents too me to a little zoo/safari-type-thing, where you can drive through the giraffe enclosure and monkeys can climb on your car. They also had a little petting zoo area, where you could pet goats and a few other creatures that I barely remember because way over to the side, there was a wire ring with some straw on the ground. Inside was bear cub.
I didn't see a sign that said not to, so I reached down and touched the cub. He didn't seem upset or scared. He had huge brown eyes, and unbelievably dense, soft brown fur. My grandparents weren't really paying much attention, and this bear cub was just sitting there. No one stopped me when I petted him. So, being eight, I picked up the bear cub. And still no one stopped me.
He wrapped his paws around my neck, and his claws were really sharp and long like a cat's, but stronger. He pressed his nose into my neck and made little grunty sounds. He was incredibly heavy and seemed scared, so after a minute I put him back down and he returned to sniffing through his straw.
I assume that bear cub wasn't sitting there for eight-year-olds to wander in and go pick up. But I held a bear cub, and no one stopped me.
I was expecting some adult, smarter and knowing more than I did, to run up to me, take the cub away, and say, no, you can't do that. You can pet him like this, but you can't hold him. Put your hand here, stay outside the fence. If you can't reach him, wait til he comes over.
And that's probably what should have happened. Best for the cub, and best for me, should I accidentally hurt the poor little guy or inadvertently aid in an escape attempt.
I think sometimes we think of writing like a petting zoo. Stand this far back, and don't touch. If you touch, do it like this, with an adult watching. Don't feed the animals. If you do something wrong, you'll have to leave. You won't be able to come back to the petting zoo if you don't follow the rules.
Those are great rules for protecting animals. But they're really, really bad rules for writing.
When I was writing my first (and second [and third]) manuscripts and querying, it often felt like writing was this grand, wondrous thing, and the people who Worked There For Real knew just how it should go, and I had to follow the rules or I wouldn't get in. If I broke the rules, I might do this writing thing wrong and then I'd never get in.
And then once I did get in, it seemed like I could mostly just look. No touching. Watch how the big people do it. Do what they do. If they say not to, don't do it.
There are a lot of really important guidelines and principles in writing and publishing. And you can do some serious harm to your career and your writing if you're running around carelessly. And sometimes looking, observing, watching how others do it, is a great way to study.
But here's the cool thing about writing: no one knows everything about it, and it works a little differently for everyone. So figure out what the big people are doing and see what you can learn, but don't be afraid to make it yours. Pick it up. See if you can try something new. Break some of the rules.
Realize those rules are just guidelines and principles. Dig into the reason behind them, and then solve the need another way, if you want. Books and story belong to you just as much as me, and now more than ever, publishing has a lot of areas, a lot of options, and a lot of places for you to find what you love. No one can take it away from you.
Kate Brauning is the lead blogger for Pub Hub and the author of YA contemporary How We Fall (Merit Press/F&W Media). She's also an editor with Entangled
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