I recently joined a writing group here in Cedar City, and one of the cool things they do is give an assignment every session. The focus of the last discussion and the assignment was for each member of the group to come up with their own list of the ten most important rules for writing. (Wait…you mean I get to get my snark on AND write? Irresistible!) So, in the spirit of getting back to my usual humorous standards while imparting some knowledge, here’s my personal top ten rules for writing!
Note: Editors, agents, and more seasoned authors may disagree with any or all of what’s written here. When in doubt, follow their lead instead of mine. This disclaimer has been made possible by a grant from the numbers 1, 3, and the letter BWA-HAHAHAHA!
Rule Number One: Be original!
There are 9,817 ways to fuck up a manuscript. Most people stick to THREE. If you’re going to make an egregious writing mistake, do your editor and your readers a favor and at least make it memorable!
Rule Number Two: Aspiring, my ass!
I LOATHE the words “aspire,” “aspiring,” and “aspired” as they apply to writing. If you write, you’re a writer. I don’t CARE what you write, I don’t even really care if it’s good. The simple act of writing makes you a writer. If you want to do it on a professional basis, that’s a somewhat different matter, but I still say “aspiring” does NOT belong in the lexicon of any writer with ambitions for publication. It’s self-denigrating and a waste of time, so don’t indulge in it.
Rule Number Three: If it looks good, leave it be.
Many authors (and agents) espouse the idea of editing and rewriting multiple times. I’m in the distinct minority here, but I stand by the assertion that if you handle a manuscript too much, you’ll kill it. Write it as you wrote it, address things that jump out at you as wrong, and otherwise let the editors do what they do. That’s their job, after all. My personal rule is that my stories get ONE run through and ONE beta rewrite. After that, it’s off to the publisher. Given my backlist, I’d say it works, but your mileage may vary.
Rule Number Four: Do you.
I’ve known a lot of writers who wanted to be the next (favorite author here). This is not only unfair to yourself, but to the author you’re trying to emulate. While imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, it’s all too easy to stumble across the line into plagiarism, intentionally or otherwise. If you want to write in a similar style to your favorite author, and have the chops to pull it off, great. But ultimately, it’s not THEIR name on your book and it’s not THEIR voice that’s going to convey to the reader, but yours. Don’t try to be someone else; do you.
Rule Number Five: Impossible Simultaneous Actions
This is a common mistake. A character’s bits and pieces *ahem* can only be in so many places and doing so many things at one time. If your MC is drawing a gun, reaching for his wallet, running at full speed, and going for a stick of chewing gum all at the same time, then unless they have an octocameral brain and four arms, this probably isn’t going to work out. He may pop the chewing gum into his mouth, then reach for his wallet, and THEN realize he needs to draw his gun and break into a sprint. This makes a lot more sense and lets the action flow more smoothly and logically. Even veteran writers can fall prey to this trap, so be careful.
Rule Number Six: Keep it real.
Even in a fantasy story, there has to be a cause and a consequence for every action. Two people walking up and peeling each others’ clothes off for no apparent reason may be sexy, but it’s not realistic. There has to be an underlying reason for people to do what they do. The cause could be something as simple as an exchanged look of mutual attraction or as complex as the storm of emotions accompanying a knock-down, drag-out lover’s quarrel. Make sure what your characters are doing is in line with what’s going on in the background.
Rule Number Seven: Give it a rest.
Neil Gaiman once famously quipped, “House burned down. Cat exploded. Wrote 1,500 easy words, so all in all, it was a good day.” A lot of writers figure if they get down a solid one to two thousand words a day, they’re doing well, and so they are. Depending on formatting, you’re talking about three to eight pages of writing in a sitting, especially if you go back and edit as you write. The key to writing well is to know your limits and work within them. On a good day, I can lay down eight to ten thousand words, but that kind of effort usually takes me at least a day, usually more, to recover from. If you’re writing, you’re not moving around too much, and that takes a toll on your fingers, wrists, arms, shoulders, neck, and back. Once you’ve hit your target for the day, you should STOP. (Unless you’re really on a roll and every word you type hangs fire on the page; in this case, by all means pray continue.)
Rule Number Eight: Get away.
I don’t know of many writers who can resist the allure of a blank page, especially when their brains are bursting with ideas for how to fill it. It’s very easy to let writing become the sole focus of your life and forget about frivolities such as hygiene, nourishment, and rest, never mind relaxation and play. When you’re done for the day, BE done. Don’t keep running back to your computer to make “just one more note” or fix that stubborn scene that didn’t gel quite right. If you must, get the hell out of the house and go putter in the garden, take a walk, or visit your neighbors. Burnout is caused by pushing beyond reasonable limits until one day, your body and your mind both look at you when you sit down to write and say “You’re out of your fucking MIND!” This causes what most people refer to as “writer’s block” (see below). Know when to walk away and be a person for a while.
Rule Number Nine: Research, research, research!
These days, finding information is simpler than ever before. One query string typed into a search engine can tell you just about everything you ever wanted to know about everything from the physiological effects of nerve gasses such as Sarin, VX, and mustard to the hot fashion trends for the coming season. Reading is wonderful, and being able to get information readily right at your fingertips is indispensable, but for some things, there’s just no substitute for experience. While I don’t recommend going out and decapitating the clerk who was rude to you in the grocery store two days ago just to get the action precisely right in a story, there are gentler and more pleasant things you can investigate, given a willing partner (or two, or three, or…). Why not make a point of setting aside a day for research? You’ll not only make your relationship stronger, but you’ll be able to get out of the house, do something new, and finally get that temperamental love scene under control, because you’ll KNOW the feelings and actions involved are accurate.
Rule Number Ten: The more it scares you, the more you need to write it!
I can’t count how many times I’ve had someone tell me “Oh, I can’t write _____,” only to turn around and do it brilliantly! If you’re not comfortable writing MM erotica, a ballerina on a pogo stick (apologies to Dean Koontz for appropriating this example), spiders from Mars (thanks, David Bowie!), or a new take on the Headless Horseman, then that’s all the more reason you SHOULD sit down and write it. Pushing your personal boundaries and preconceived limits is the best thing a writer can do, because even if it doesn’t work out in text, at least you know you tried something new. Who knows? It might even trigger an idea for another story!
Bonus Rule: Writing is NEVER wasted!
I’ve deleted probably two full-length novels’ worth of writing in the last two years, just because it didn’t seem to work with the project I had going on at the time. From personal experience, I can tell you that you should NEVER delete anything you write! Just because you can’t use it HERE doesn’t mean it won’t fit perfectly into a story over THERE. Save your writing, even if you think it’s shit now. At worst, it’ll give you a yardstick for just how far you’ve come with your craft!
Until next time,