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Robert's Rules of Writing #46: Go for Broke

[Rule quoted from Robert's Rules of Writing: 101 Unconventional Lessons Every Writer Needs to Know by Robert Masello (Writer's Digest Books, 2005). See my original post for the rules of this discussion.]

Why save your best material for later?

That's the gist of Masello's rule #46. In his essay, he tells the story of a writing student filled with colorful anecdotes and brilliant story ideas. But the assignments she submitted never seemed quite as rich as her potential implied. So finally Masello asked her why she didn't use any of that material.

Her answer: She was saving that material for her novel.

Masello thought that was a mistake on her part. He posits that her attitude came from worrying that if she used up her best material now, there wouldn't be anything good to replace it later. He also feels that saving material for later use ends up sapping the material of its vitality, and so it becomes stale.

I pondered rule #46 for a while, and you know, I have to say that while I agree with the three-word rule as stated above, I disagree with the idea of not saving good material for later. I have plenty of material I'm saving for later, and in fact much of it I'm saving for a novel. So why don't I use it right away?

For two simple reasons. First, I have a lot of other projects I want or need to work on, some of them shorter projects with deadlines that require my more immediate attention. And second, some of those great ideas require research.

To give an example without being too specific, there's an idea I've had for may years now that would make a good alternate history novel. It's on a piece of history that fascinates me, and I'd love to play with it and see where it goes. But it requires me to do a lot more research than I've done up until this point, especially if I want to do it right. While I know this material is great stuff, I am not about to delve into this particular project casually.

Now, it's likely that this isn't quite what Masello meant; I'm pretty sure some of his other rules deal with doing the right amount of research and letting an idea ripen until it's ready. But the way I see it, there are many different ways to "go for broke" when writing, and the logical method is to make whatever I'm working on now as good as I can possibly make it.

Sometimes the material's own inherent limitations make this difficult, but it's still the goal I aim for. As Robert Browning once said, "a man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?"


I understand that some writers ask that question about their media tie-in plots. If they have a plot they really like, they'd sometimes rather use it for an original work.
A completely random howdy. Are you at wiscon this weekend?
Hello! Nope, not at Wiscon (or any con) this weekend.

December 2016

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